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TITLERainn Wilson on His Baha'i Faith and Why His Success is Connected to His Spirituality
AUTHOR 1Rainn Wilson
AUTHOR 2Tom Power
DATE_THIS2023-05-17
NOTES Transcript prepared by Doug Couper from video online at youtube.com/watch?v=SYkXbjgJ-oQ.
TAGSAlan Coupe; Canada; Rainn Wilson; Spirituality; Television
 
CONTENT

1. Transcript (see video below)

Rainn Wilson on his Baha'i faith and why his success is connected to his spirituality
youtube.com/watch?v=SYkXbjgJ-oQ
uploaded by Q with Tom Power
2023 May 17
19:49 minutes
Video description: For nine seasons, Rainn Wilson played the eccentric beet-farming paper salesman Dwight Schrute on "The Office." As beloved as that character was, Wilson chalks up much of his success to his spirituality. He talks with Tom Power about the intersection between his acting and his faith, and his new book Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution.
"Q with Tom Power is a daily conversation with the artists, writers, actors and musicians who define this cultural moment in time. The conversation is informal, wide-ranging, playful, and allows the artist to explore their art and the contexts that have shaped them through their career."
Transcribers comment: Many repetitive 'filler' words / phrases are deleted in the transcript. Explanatory / grammatical inserts are in parentheses. If the reader feels any concept was compromised in the process, please contact us with details.
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(Rain Wilson) - Everyone knows Canada has a sterling sense of humour. Some of the greatest comedy in world history has come out of your rinky-dink little nation.

(Tom Power) - Oh my God. Do I have to come down there and defend?

(RW) - HoHoHo. Fisticuffs my lad.

(TP) - Do I have to come down there, wherever you are, in that walled-off room and take you out, cause I'll do it? I'll do it.

(RW) - I'm sure you will - hockey stick, or no.

(TP) - Oh my God. This feels like I'm going to be brought up in front of a tribunal ... Congratulations on the book. I loved reading it and I guess to start things off, faith can be a very private thing for people. Why did you want to talk about yours openly?

(RW) - I certainly do talk about my faith openly - which I'm a member of the Baha'i faith and I bring that up (but) this is not a Baha'i book or for Baha'is, or about Baha'i, but I speak about that because I speak about my faith - because it's a big reality of me. I'm also a SeaHawks fan and I speak about being a Seahawks fan. I'm also a fan of tennis and chess and I talk about tennis and chess - and RadioHead. I love RadioHead and like to talk about RadioHead. So many people don't talk about faith for a good reason because it can be off-pitting (sic) to some and uh it's a little bit scary, or (you're) afraid you're being judged, but the more important (thing) than faith (is) I wanted to talk about spirituality. I wanted to talk about deep, big, meaningful, gooey spiritual questions.

(TP) - Let's talk about your own path there. You, you write in the book my entire childhood was filled with two things - art and spirituality. Talk to me about how those things collided for you as a kid.

(RW) - Yeah, so I grew up a member of the Baha'i Faith and my dad was an artist or an aspiring artist or a wannabe artist. He painted on canvases all the time. He would blast opera music and sing at the top of his lungs. He wrote books of poetry that no one ever read. He wrote science fiction novels that very few people only read. There's only one of his books called Tentacles of Dawn that still exists in paperback. (It) came out in like 1976 or something like that ....

(TP) - Cool

RW) - Yeah, so because we were Baha'is and Baha'is are accepting of all of the world's faiths, we had people stopping by our doors and knocking, and we would bring in the born-again Christians to talk about the Bible and we would have Buddhist monks over, Sikhs and Sufis - people of all different religious faiths, and we would, you know, talk to them about God or the Bible or whatever they wanted to talk (about). Our bookshelves were filled with religious tomes so these kinds of deep, wonderful, profound and sometimes overwhelming faith-based ideas really made the go around in our household.

(TP) - Despite that um very spiritual childhood you've talked about how when you were a young actor starting at NYU, you sort of moved away from spirituality, you moved away from faith a little bit. Am I right about that?

(RW) - Yeah, I (did) like so many do. I had no room in my life for God. I thought that was just a ridiculous concept. I swiftly turned to being an atheist. I didn't want morality in my life. I didn't want the religion of my parents in my life. I didn't - I just had no time or interest in any of that. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to do comedy. I wanted to tell stories in the theatre, and I wanted to live a Bohemian life in New York City. And I did (that) for many years and it was great. It was wonderful until it wasn't as wonderful anymore, and I started to get extremely unhappy, and I dealt with kind of a mental health crisis of my own in the 90s when I was in my 20s living in New York City. I was overwhelmed, anxious (and) depressed, dealing with addiction, loneliness (and) disconnection.

About the 47th time I woke up at 3am staring at the ceiling going what does it all mean (and wondering if) maybe I've thrown the spiritual baby out with the religious bathwater, and maybe, just maybe, I have been premature in ejecting anything and everything to do with religion and spirituality. And that started me on a quest. I'll quote the great author Julia Cameron who said "I come to spirituality not out of virtue but out of necessity."

(TP) - I want to dig into some of the spiritual tools in just a moment but there's there's one sort of thing I might need you to help me understand a little bit there and that is If you grow up with parents who are artists and are able to have a spiritual life and be artists - you made the decision to be an artist, why did you feel like that would be incongruent?

(RW) - Mostly it had to do with morality. In (the) Baha'i faith, as in so many faiths, there are strictures around sex and drugs and alcoholic behaviour, and I wanted to participate in sex and drugs and alcohol and behaviours that weren't congruent with Baha'i teachings, and I also wanted to do things for myself. I wanted to be selfish. I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I didn't want to think about other people. I didn't want to think about trying to make the world a better place and be of service and pray and meditate. I just didn't want a part of all that. I just wanted to have maximum fun and be (a) maximum actor, artist guy. (TP) - How do you exist in show business (when) the entertainment industry is one, we're told, (that) prioritizes all of those things: social capital, popularity, money - perhaps, you know, almost more than any other industry? How have you found reconciling the world that you live in with the spiritual tools you've practised?

(RW) - You're absolutely right. It can be incredibly challenging. I remember one time when I was a starving actor, I was offered a role in a television show playing a character that was (a) profligate sexual deviant and drug user and drunk. And the source of the comedy is that the guy was always hung over and always had some new girl over and and that was very funny ha ha, and I turned it down because I didn't want to be that - I didn't want to be associated with that and I'm not trying to be prudish and I'm not trying to be like puritanical. It's like I just wouldn't feel good about myself essentially promoting that kind of way of being in the world, and having that way of being (identified with me. Perhaps) if I was playing that character in a movie for a limited period of time - but you're talking about signing a five, six, seven year contract for a television show. So that was a very difficult decision, but I had to turn it down and you're right, Hollywood is rife with hypocrisy for any spiritual person. The Office was on the air for one reason only and that was to sell stuff during commercial breaks, so I was part of this giant capitalist enterprise of NBC Universal just trying to make gobs of money and guess what they did - they made gobs of money. But I will say the greater service is that we made people laugh and I tell you it has been such a balm to my heart to hear from people over the years how much The Office has meant to them. It cheered their hearts (as) they were going through a hard time, they were dealing with anxiety or depression, their parents were getting a divorce, (or) someone in the family was sick. And The Office brought them solace and brought them joy. So you do what you can within the system that you work (in).

(TP) - I'll tell you I said this to your former castmate John Krasinski not that long ago - I'm one of them. When my dad died, I experienced about as close as up to that point I had ever experienced depression - like I remember having this experience after my father died and I come from a we'll say like a spiritual household and I remember having this feeling of like 'Oh this must be what depression is like'. There was a deep hole of sadness that I couldn't get out of, and I remember going upstairs to my grandmother's. She wasn't there (in) my grandmother's apartment and hooking up my Xbox to my grandmother's old 70s TV - you know those ones (in) the cabinets (and) somehow hooking it up and and playing The Office DVDs over and over and over again to get through that - to get through the (I wasn't planning on telling you that but now that you mention it) the darkest moment of my life.

(RW) - Oh nice, nice. So you talked at the beginning about the intersection between art and faith. One of the things art can do is bring joy and inspiration to people's hearts, so you have this beautiful creative act where there's an empty page or an empty stage or an empty screen, and then you fill it with something beautiful and lasting and an act of storytelling that uplifts people and enlivens them and gives back to them. I know that the world - think about the world without art; think about the world without music, without stories, without films or theatre or poetry. What an emptier place it would be.

(TP) - It's a beautiful thing, plus I feel like there was a spiritual (you're gonna laugh at this) component to Dwight - like he was obviously of a faith - like he seemed to be Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch (or) something like that. It was (like) there were priests involved (so) it didn't feel like he was entirely bereft of a spiritual life.

(RW) - Well, he had a traditional religious life. I don't know how spiritual Dwight was. I think of Dwight as kind of a 19th century man. He would have fit right in like the 1860s or something like that. He was very much about hierarchies; very much about family, about tradition, about his plot of land and the right way to do things. I'm not sure Dwight was terribly spiritually evolved - not the kind of evolution that I'm urging people toward.

(TP) - You know if it wasn't you, I'd argue about it, but I'm not going to argue with you about it but I feel like on Six Feet Under, which was the HBO show about a family that runs a funeral home, I mean what was it like for you as a person who was interested in spirituality at that point to talk, I mean to act out, some pretty big spiritual concepts on that show?

(RW) - Yeah that was a profound show that (had) a deep exploration of the human condition. Every episode started with a death and, you know you talked about the passing of your father - you know one of the key points of my book is the passing of my father, and I think that Six Feet Under beautifully captured (and) encapsulated this idea that in death we learn about life - and I know that this was profound for me. The passing of my father kind of framed for me the importance of life itself and probed me, and prodded me, and poked me and cajoled me ever deeper into exploring what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience.

(TP) - Well, I admire you for having the conversation because as I said at the beginning, as anyone who has sort of a public-facing job as you do, you're sort of putting yourself at risk whenever you start to have these conversations - like I heard a story about you that you pitched Netflix a show about God or something like that?

(RW) - I was pitching a show - in fact, this was how the book was inspired. It was (because) I wanted to do a television show about God called The Notorious G.O.D. And I went around. I had a great sizzle reel and pitch deck. (Transcriber's note: A sizzle reel is a tape or similar media with a few short monologues or scenes edited together to illustrate an actor's capability, and a pitch deck is a graphic presentation about a proposed show that includes information about the creative team, characters, plots, target audience, etc. Both are designed to influence producers).

We had episode ideas, We wanted to look at God like AI, and (ask) what's a modern conception of God? How do we re-imagine God in the modern world? How do different cultures look at God as opposed (to) getting away from this patriarchal-old-man-with-a-beard type of nonsense. And we pitched it around. People were very receptive and, at the end of the day, it was rejected across the board. And I'll never forget - at Netflix they said I'm sorry this topic is too controversial. So you can have television shows with half-naked models throwing garbage at each other, and getting drunk. That's fine, but having conversations about God and the meaning of life and what's beyond is too controversial. This is how upside down our culture is right now.

(TP) - I think I saw that you had a sort of a series of tweets around The Last of Us, right? There was a preacher character on there, and you sort of said 'Well I know that given the way our society is right now, there's no way this character is going to be a good character'.

(RW) - I loved the show The Last of Us and there was an episode where there was a preacher preaching to his post-apocalyptic congregation from the Bible and, in a second, I was just like "Oh, he's evil" and sure enough not only was he evil, he was like the evilest person (ever). In a plethora of evil he was a cannibalistic pedophile . It doesn't get more evil than this guy, and and I thought - first of all, I thought well that's just lazy writing, and then I thought well 'Wait a second - why is Hollywood always doing this'? So I tweeted out (that) Hollywood has this anti-Christian bias. And, of course, I was vetted on the right-wing news sites for this observation, and made a hero on Fox News - when a month previous all these right-wing news sites were tearing me down (for) my actions and my views on climate change - so how swiftly the tables turn.

And so many Christian friends texted me, and wrote me, and said 'Thank you for that. Thank you so much for saying something'. I know a lot of Christians - they're nice people; they're good people; they're trying to make the world better; they're having potlucks (and) they are trying to be loving family members. They're not fire-and- brimstone people trying to damn everyone that doesn't agree with them in exactly the same way. Why aren't there shows with just normal loving Christians sometimes - not all the time but occasionally.

(TP) - I guess I would understand a little bit if that was an easy character to write - if we as a society started to look at some of these people who find themselves in positions of power like that, and looked at them with a bit of a skeptical eye

(RW) - Some of the worst crimes imaginable in human history have been done by the church - no question - and the revelations around the Catholic church over the last couple of decades and the child abuse scandals is horrific. Some of the best people I've ever met have also been of the church and of the cloth, so this is a dichotomy. You know there are good people and bad people, there are good systems and bad systems and corrupt systems; but our job as storytellers is to try and illumine the human condition, and I think it's also a shame that so much around religion has been polarized and dichotomized (I don't even know if that's a word) because of the left and right schism that exists in the United States. I don't know how deep it is in Canada, but in the United States this Blue State / Red State divide seems to be pitting the secular versus the Christian, and the one side views the other side as evil and wanting the destruction of the country itself - and religion kind of gets caught up in the middle of that.

(TP) - I was gonna end this interview by asking about how spirituality might help you in the life of an artist which is notoriously hard, but I think you've sort of acknowledged that, and you sort of talked to me a little bit about that - but talk to me about a tool, either in your book or just in your own life, that in a time of great bleakness that we live in right now - a time when 'the world is a dumpster fire' is such a widely accepted, almost cliched, meme at this point - what helps you when your head hits the pillow at night?

(RW) - What helps me when my head hits the pillow, is a deep understanding that one of my sacred jobs is to bring joy and squash cynicism. I remember I got to study with the great acting teacher Andre Gregory for a spell in New York City in the 90s, and he was the subject of the movie My Dinner with Andre. And he would sit down with his students and have tea. I had tea with him and he said, so how are you doing Rainn? I was like well I'm feeling cynical. I'm feeling pessimistic. The world's going to crap and I don't know blah blah blah. This was, by the way, the late 90s and the world was doing pretty great, you know - now that we look back. And he grabbed my arm and he said don't. Don't do it; don't be cynical; don't be pessimistic. If you're cynical, they win. If you're hopeless, the forces of Darkness win. They want you to be cynical. Don't you see - they want you to be pessimistic because then you won't do anything. The more cynical you are, the more pessimistic you are - the less active you will be to changing the world, and that's why I put in my book (that) one of the seven pillars of a spiritual revolution is to foster joy and squash cynicism, and I think joy can be harnessed for good. I think it's a superpower, it's a service to others and you don't have to be an actor, you don't have to be a sitcom star to bring joy to people. You can be an accountant or a school teacher or a bus driver. It really doesn't matter. If everyone worked every day to bring joy and squash cynicism - even just 10 percent - the world would already be a better place, and action can be much more fertile and snowball, and a collective action toward making the world a better place can be inspired.

(TP) - Rainn Wilson, thanks so much for your time today (and) congratulations on the book.

(RW) - Thank you for having me.

2. Video

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