As Fox’s new drama series BACKSTROM gains momentum, viewers are getting to see that its principal character of Everett Backstrom (Rainn Wilson) is not quite the prick(ly) as advertised, and there is a good reason he distrusts criminals on sight and bristles to even the slightest human connection with his fellow precinct detectives. Backstrom has suffered great physical abuse in his own life and has the irritating habit of voicing truths that were perhaps best left unsaid. But what really gets under his skin are those who get away with crimes or think that they are above the law. He knows the depth of depravity that lurks under the skin of people and he just wants to ensure that if it rises to the surface that it gets the punishment it deserves.
In a recent press call, star Rainn Wilson candidly talked about the return of the one women who truly gets Backstrom, his ex-fiance (portrayed by Sarah Chalke), and the incredible cast chemistry that infuses the shows many colorful and engaging characters. After all, a TV show is only as strong as its characters and BACKSTROM has delivered a rich array of characters for the audience to fall in love with.
It was surprising how affectionate Amy (Sarah Chalke) still feels for Backstrom. Do you think he is as surprised by that, or did they end things amicably?
RAINN: There’s definitely a tension, there. There’s an energy between the two of them. There’s a lot of love. I mean, they almost got married. They’re still very attracted to each other, even though Backstrom is a grotesque lump of a man at this point in his life. I think that that was something we wanted to play with, to learn more about Backstrom’s past and she’s a door into his past because they were from 10 years ago, but also to show what he had lost back in those days — that he had blown this potentially great relationship that could have actually brought him some modicum of happiness. And to play with the tension of the possibility of a future between him and Amy.
Looking at her ability to kind of see through him, do you think that’s what makes the relationship work or ultimately fail or both?
RAINN: I think she sees the him inside of him. She sees the real Backstrom. She knows the good hearted, warm, funny, smart, kind Backstrom that is underneath all the scar tissue that everyone else sees of Backstrom; the hateful, cynical, guarded, offensive Backstrom.
I was just curious about the chemistry between all the different characters. They seem to have such a familial feeling amongst all of them, which is unusual for what seems to be characters in a unit that have just been recently working together. How did you guys work to create that chemistry?
RAINN: Well, I think that it’s relatively new. When the show starts, I think what was cut out of the pilot early on was the fact that they had been working together for 6 weeks or a couple of months. So they didn’t know each other and they have a working relationship. The chemistry, obviously, is created by the actors, but chemistry is also, really, created by the writer. Shows where people lack chemistry, usually the chemistry is lacking in the writing, that there’s not a sense of dynamism between the characters. Both on THE OFFICE and in BACKSTROM, both Hart [Hanson] and Greg Daniels focused a lot of time and energy on how do characters relate to one another. In shows that are a little bit more standard, like standard procedurals or standard comedies, there are goofy characters, but a different chemistry is created when you match any two people together. It’s like flavors in a recipe. So you get a very different feel with Backstrom and Almond (Dennis Haysbert) than you do with Backstrom and Gravely (Genevieve Angelson) or Backstrom and Neidermayer (Kris Polaha). Whenever you put people together in different combinations, you want a different taste sensation.
Along the same lines, does Backstrom have a secret handshake with each of these characters? Like he has a secret relationship with each one.
RAINN: Yes, but he’s very political; he knows how to play people against each other. He might need to call on favors – he’s got some leverage on Moto (Page Kennedy) – and he knows how to play on people’s weaknesses. So yes, he might have a secret handshake, but he also kind of knows what he’s got on everybody at all times.
If you could play any other character on the show besides yours, which one would you chose and why?
RAINN: That’s a funny question. What would I do? I guess I’d have to go with the other white guy, Neidermayer (Kris Polaha). I like to consider myself a philosophical guy. I was a philosophy major before I was an acting major and I created Soul Pancake to dig into life’s big questions. I love his passion for forensics and his attempt to be almost like Backstrom, to kind of see the transcendence through his forensics.
Backstrom also has a very unique relationship with his roommate, Valentine (Thomas Dekker). It seems like they, themselves, have a personal history that’s not been fully mined in the show yet. How much more are we going to see of that?
RAINN: You are going to see a lot more of Valentine. You’re going to get to know him a lot better; you’re going to see a lot more of him and Backstrom. Believe me, that relationship between the two of them, that is very mysterious and is a very interesting bond, is going to be really delved into. It really is one of the most fascinating relationships in the show. It’s the one, certainly, with the most emotion and the most heart and gooey fun stuff to explore. Thomas Dekker is blowing it away in the role. He just does such a great job, and he’s featured more and more as the season goes along.
Putting Backstrom back under the microscope, it was advertised that he was going to be a total dick. Then I watched the first three episodes they provided for us and I went, “Wow, he’s actually a little bit more lovable than I expected.” Have you kind of softened him or make him more humorous and inviting to the audience?
RAINN: You know, you’ve got to have a balance between relatable and likeable, in certain respects, and the exploration of the character who has so many defenses, who’s been so wounded that he’s created all of these defenses against the world. So you’ve got to have a balance of those. I don’t think of it in terms of what’s unlikable versus what’s likable – I just play what’s on the page and find what’s driving him. He definitely wants to push people away; he’s cynical. He’s addicted to pretty much everything, and addiction does that; addiction pushes people away and causes chaos wherever you go. I wanted to be true to that. But I also know he does care. His heart is on his sleeve. People compare him to House (Hugh Laurie) a lot, but House you never really knew what he was feeling. Backstrom, you know what he’s feeling all the time. You can read him straight up. If he’s miserable or heartbroken or passionate about something or vindictive or vengeful, you read his emotions. He wears them on his sleeve. He’s like a big bleeding wound.
One of the things that I really love about the show is I love the relationship between Backstrom and Nicole, Genevieve’s character. I always love when shows – I think that a lot of good romances start when two characters hate each other or dislike each other from the get-go. Do you think that there’s any possibility for romance down the line?
RAINN: No. That was one thing we talked about when we recast the role. Mamie Gummer played the role in the original pilot, and that was one of the recast roles. Mamie was a wonderful actress, but the role, as conceived originally, was a very melancholy, dark, brooding, lesbian character. So as we did the pilot and we realized how dark Backstrom was and his energy, we realized that we needed a completely different energy in the role. We just needed someone fresh faced, by the book, enthusiastic, whip smart, with a lot of energy. That’s when we found Genevieve Angelson, who provided all of those things. But one of the things, early on – because she’s obviously so young – we just thought it’d be a little creepy for Backstrom and Gravely to get together. We also just wanted – Hart and I kind of talked about it – let’s just not have that be one of these— I mean, the will they/won’t they energy is really fun on television shows, and it’s fun to tease that along in THE X-FILES and other shows where they tease it along for years and fans love it. On BONES, he did that. He didn’t want to do the same thing on BONES that he did with BACKSTROM, and I thought we’d look for a love interest in other places. That would give her an opportunity – there are some episodes coming up where Gravely gets to date and have a love life outside of the unit. So you get to see some of that coming up.
Who do you think would win in a battle of wits: Dwight Schrute or Everett Backstrom?
RAINN: Well, Backstrom truly is brilliant. He truly has a brilliant mind. Dwight doesn’t have much wit or brilliance. He has determination and hard work and a bizarre passion; but Everett Backstrom, 100%.
It’s been nice to see the support of the Portland Police Department, on Twitter, at least, for the show. I just want to ask has that been nice or kind of intimidating? Have you worked with any of them or any other special crime experts?
RAINN: The only thing, I wanted to have a beard early on and I wrote the Portland Police Department and I said, “Do any of your detectives have beards” and they said, “No.” I thought, “drat, so I’ll just have my regular stubble.” It’s been great. We follow their Twitter and their news feed and Google alerts and have been learning a lot about the world of Portland through them, through the Portland Police Department. It’s been interesting reading about the real life cases there in Portland and we’ve learned a ton in that way. I’m hoping that if we get a second season and have a little more time to prepare, because I finished THE OFFICE and I rushed off and shot the pilot, that I could actually go visit the Portland Police Department, visit the detectives, maybe do a ride along, and get the lay of the land and learn some things procedurally about the inner workings of the department.
About Backstrom’s relationship with Amy (Sarah Chalke), does Backstrom fear being loved and not being able to successfully reciprocate it or being unloved more? Which does he fear more?
RAINN: You know, they do a dance. She’s in several episodes, she’s in four or five episodes this season, and there’s a strange dance that they do back and forth. There’s definitely interest between the two of them, there is an on again, off again kind of feel, but I can’t really tell you more than that. Romance is definitely rekindled, and some very interesting stuff goes down. I’m sorry to be so TV actorish.
Why Portland, of all the places it could have been set? And what was it, mostly, that attracted you to this role?
RAINN: The reason Portland is because BACKSTROM is based on a series of Swedish books. We wanted to kind of have a place that had that same, we call it like Portland noir, it has a Scandinavian feel where it’s mossy and cloudy and dark and there’s trees and water – it just has the little feel of Scandinavia in it. We also wanted a city big enough that had some real crime to deal with, but also a quirkiness. It’s a dramedy that we’re making, and we wanted it to have a quirky vibe about the show, and Portland has that, obviously, from Portlandia. We can get to do some different kinds of crimes in the city of Portland. It’s got a more eccentric nature. We have an episode later on that’s with an indie rock band, and there’s a lot of other cities – you can’t really do an indie rock band murder thing in Kansas City, let’s say. I don’t even know if there are indie rock bands in Kansas City. So, it gives you a lot. What attracted me to the role was its complexity. I had been playing Dwight for years, and as great as they wrote the part for me and as many colors as they found for him, there are only a certain number of levels that Dwight works on. It’s like he wants to run the office, he wants to sell a lot of paper, he wants to torment Jim, be liked by Michael, and wed Angela. That was it. That’s the color palette that you’re dealing with for 200 episodes. For BACKSTROM, it’s so much more. There’s family torment, there’s fighting crime, there’s using his kind of Sherlockian brilliance, there are potential love stories, there’s his tormented relationship with addiction – there are all these incredible things to play as an actor. When it was offered to me, I just couldn’t pass that up. It was just too great of an opportunity. Parts like that are rare. They’re just very rare.
Is there was something you felt like you’d learned from inhabiting the soul of Backstrom?
RAINN: That’s a very good question. What have I learned? I learned that I gain weight super easy in my old age. I learned what hard work it is to really do the research that you need to on the background of a character to really flesh it out and bring it to life. I didn’t ever want to be generally grumpy or generally cantankerous or surly. I knew that if I was generally just grumpy, cantankerous, and surly, people would just get bored with that. This is a tormented person and it comes out. His emotions spew out sideways, like vents out of the side of a volcano. But you’ve got to build that inner lava before you can – I’m going to go, totally, with this volcano metaphor right now – in order to really explore those.
Have any of the stories that you guys are working on for the show really kind of giving you chills? It seems like the show embraces some real dark storylines. Like when you look at these stories and go, “Wow, are we actually showing this on television?”
RAINN: I’d say not the chills, no. I would say that as I read some of the episodes that really dug into this family story, especially the stuff with his dad, and it got really dark. I was like wow, are we going to be able to be this funny and this dark at the same time? Because I’m very, very interested in that. There’s this Russian playwright, Anton Chekov, who I did a lot of work with when I was in college and as a young actor. I love Chekov’s work because they’re both really tragic and really, absurdly funny at the same time. They really reach for both; both live in the world of Chekov, and it’s very reflective of the human experience. That’s where I do get the chills. It’s like wow, we get to be that silly sometimes and also that dark and true.
It is the chilling darkness that is reveal in the souls of the perpetrators and the unusual textures of the characters working to protect the innocent and the victims of such crimes that makes BACKSTROM, as a TV show, such a delight to watch. To get to know all of the intriguing characters of BACKSTROM better, be sure to tune in for all new episodes of BACKSTROM, Thursday nights at 9:00 p.m. on Fox.