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Rainn Wilson dives into comedy, activism and “The Office” nostalgia at ZotTalks

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The ASUCI Speakers Commission hosted actor, comedian and writer Rainn Wilson for the second and final ZotTalks event of the year at the Pacific Ballroom in the Student Center on May 21. 

Wilson, well-known for his role as Dwight Schrute from the hit NBC comedy sitcom “The Office,” shared his experiences working in entertainment and activism spaces as he answered questions from a student moderator and the audience. 

Wilson revealed he is still gifted beet salads at restaurants, a reference to his character as the owner of Schrute Farms. In addition to the aspect of his character as the owner of the bed-and-breakfast beet farm, Wilson told the audience that he tried to give Dwight many “dimensions,” such as being a bully, a suckup and a loyal best friend. 

“It’s a different kind of comedy to have a group of people who just don’t [care], but then to have someone who absurdly cares without any kind of self-reflection, about just ludicrous stuff, then you get behind that: you care about [Dwight],” Wilson said. 

This is one reason he believes the character is so beloved by fans — Dwight “cares passionately” and “the stakes are so high for him, all the time,” Wilson said. Wilson added that he learned about the importance of understanding care in comedy at theater school.  

“If you have a clown character, and he’s supposed to move [something] from one side of the stage to the other, and he really wants to do it but he can’t do it, but the stakes have to be really high inside,” Wilson said. “That’s funny… You learn how to care.” 

Wilson credited “The Office” showrunner Greg Daniels for preserving “real human moments” throughout the sitcom.

“[The show was] 90% comedy, but you got to keep that 10% for the moments that really land, where you see vulnerability and you see people trying and you see real human emotion,” Wilson said. “I think it’s that 10% that keeps people coming back and tuned into the show.” 

When asked about his fond memories of his time on “The Office,” Wilson explained that during filming, everything fit together “so perfectly,” and the cast knew that the show was “peak television.” 

“When we were doing ‘The Office,’ every once in a while, we would say, ‘It’s just never going to get better than this,’” Wilson said. “We didn’t think, ‘Oh, we’ll end ‘The Office’ and we’ll go do another show and it’s gonna be better or funnier.’” 

Photo provided by Mark Anthony Ramirez / Student Government Student Media (SGSM)

Wilson shared his beginnings in acting and revealed he was first introduced to the industry at a young age. After transferring high schools from Seattle to Chicago, he found himself in a drama class and recalled feeling “nervous” asking his teacher, “Do you think that maybe one day I can be an actor?” 

According to Wilson, that question eventually led him to his “first love”: theater. The actor told the audience he never made over $20,000 a year during his first ten years of acting in New York City, but that only “motivated” him. 

“When you’re making that kind of money, people are doing theater because they love it,” he said. “They love it and they have to do it. There’s something really wonderful about being around people who are doing something for the love of it.” 

While he may be most known for his work on “The Office,” Wilson is active in advocacy spaces and vocal on his social media platforms. 

In 2014, Wilson became a co-founder of Lidè, an educational non-profit in Haiti aimed at providing community resources and arts and literacy programs for young girls. Wilson is also known for raising awareness about climate change;  he made headlines in 2022 for changing his name to “Rainnfall Heat Wave Rising Sea Levels Wilson” in a post on X ahead of the annual United Nations climate change conference. In 2023, he co-founded a climate communications non-profit organization, Climate Basecamp, with the mission to make discussion about climate accessible and mainstream.

“The time of ‘well, I just want to have a nice life and take care of my family, and I won’t bother anyone else,’ those days are over. We have to do more than that,” Wilson said. “How do we live in service to others and take what we’ve learned to just continually, gradually, in an unfolding manner, make the world a better and better place?” 

Wilson added that his mentor, director and actor Andre Gregory, told him that he “can’t be cynical” and that Wilson must “keep hope alive” to work towards change. 

“I have a tendency, and I think sometimes we all do, to get a little bit overwhelmed, cynical, bitter, pessimistic,” Wilson said to the audience. “[We tend to think] ‘Oh, this world is so bad it’s never going to change.’ But if we’re in that mode, well, then it isn’t going to change.” 

The event, one of the first ASUCI-hosted events following the cancellation of the Summerlands concert scheduled for May 17, was highly anticipated, according to attendees. 

Third-year student Sam, who requested to omit his last name, told New University that he has watched “The Office” three times as he has a “lot of good memories” tied to the show. He was hoping to get his Rainn Wilson card signed at the event. 

“I think this is one of the coolest things I’ve done that’s been free through the school. Better than any concert we’ve gone to,” he said. 

Emilie Takahashi is a Campus News Staff Writer. She can be reached at takahae1@uci.edu

Edited by Beatrice Lee and Jaheem Conley.