Nick Offerman: Beyond the Swanson

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Scene: A woman enters a government office, intent on filing a complaint about a local park. The charge is absurd—there was a sign advising citizens not to drink the water coming from a sprinkler, so the woman made tea with it and now claims to have an infection. The man she addresses sits at a bizarre circular desk, with no way to escape the bagel hole in the middle. He’s bearish and gruff, with a thick, dark mustache, and he hates the fact that the city manager has forced him into this modernist furniture contraption. There’s only one way for him to escape, and that’s to make use of the swivel chair. While the woman prattles on, he slowly rotates away, fixed grimace and all. She follows around the outside, seeking his eyes, but he just keeps swiveling wordlessly, a man in the midst of bureaucratic misery.

Issue82CoverV2 copy.jpg The vignette comes from the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation, and I will risk pretension by calling it “Kafkaesque,” if Kafka could make you laugh embarrassingly loud on your couch. Put simply, the scene embodies the spiritual rot of a hated public service job in the funniest way possible.

Or, hell, let’s keep it even simpler: It’s my favorite Ron Swanson moment. It cuts to the heart of one of the greatest characters on television, a man’s man who happens to be serving out a life sentence in the job of his nightmares. Swanson is the director of the parks and recreation department in a small Indiana town of Pawnee, and his inherent comedy stems from a frank distaste for government and a desire to see public works run by corporate interests. “Chuck E. Cheese could run the parks,” he says in one episode. “Everything operated by tokens. Drop in a token, go on the swing set. Drop in another token, take a walk. Drop in a token, look at a duck.”

The character’s cynical resonance, and the strength of the show’s writing, has inspired acts of loving zealotry among the show’s large online following. There are at least a dozen video tributes on YouTube, fan art that ranges from hilarious to disturbing (the best might be a cartoonish painting of a stern Swanson accompanied by one his better quotes: “Fish meat is practically a vegetable.”), and even a Tumblr called “Cats That Look Like Ron Swanson.” He’s become a stand-in for the angry middle-aged white man, but the true genius is that the portrayal involves humor and, amazingly, heart.

Which brings us to the actor. Nick Offerman’s commitment is so total—from the rare moments of child-like joy to the shadows of pain that play across his face, hinting at the spiritual aches that create a man like Ron Swanson—that it’s easy to forget there’s a real person behind the character. As with many great actors, you get the sense that he’s channeling something, rather than performing. So when given the chance to chat with Offerman, in advance of his new film Somebody Up There Likes Me, my goal is to find where actor and character meet, and where they diverge.

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Before I can get to my list of questions, though, Offerman confesses his love for radio legend Garrison Keillor, whose voice still stirs up a swell of nostalgia and reduces him to tears. The admission isn’t totally out of the blue; he’s driving back to his hotel in Washington, D.C., where he’s on tour for his one-man show American Ham, and I’d asked him about the format. In his words, it’s “a slice of where I come from and where I’ve been, but also a lot of philosophy and advice from my purview of the world.” He says he’s just like Keillor, except “foul-mouthed and less educated.”

The life experience that informs American Ham began with Offerman’s bucolic upbringing in a small central Illinois town called Minooka. His father was a history teacher and his mother was a labor-and-delivery nurse, and his extended family came from farming stock.

“I have one of the finest families of Americans a lad could hope to emulate, and it was very idyllic,” says Offerman, now 42. “It was all baseball and fishing and working on my family’s farm and chasing girls.”

(It’s probably worth noting that Offerman’s real-life vocal delivery is slow and calculated, much like Swanson’s, and though phrases like “a lad could hope to emulate” obviously contain a tinge of deadpan irony, his meaning is, as far as my radar could detect, totally sincere.)

I ask him the obvious follow-up: Does the implied simplicity in Swanson’s character come from this down-home upbringing, or is he just a very good actor? It’s a question that will take a long time to answer, but Offerman is willing to help. He knows that he comes across steely and unflappable, and he draws a connection between these traits and the hardships his family faced as farmers in an unpredictable and often inhospitable climate.

“Coming from the farm area, in any given year you can watch your entire year’s profits be swept away by flood or wither in a drought,” he says, “and so you have to either maintain a sense of humor or prepare for a mass suicide. And so, we chose incredibly dry humor.”

If acting wasn’t in Offerman’s blood, it was always in his brain. There’s a great moment in an interview on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast when he describes watching a home movie from early childhood. While his family looked on, the camera caught young Offerman spinning in circles and pointing at himself in a naked attempt to draw everyone’s attention. He wanted nothing but the exclusive spotlight.

As a teenager, Offerman loved performing in school productions (a play in the fall, a musical in the spring), and had a general penchant for “making an ass of himself.” But when he confided in the school guidance counselor and others that he might want to pursue a career as an actor of some kind, they responded that he should maybe look into law. Agricultural law, to be specific. The idea of actually going into the arts was far-fetched in Minooka. Even Offerman, despite his desire, considered the prospect of making an actual living beyond the realm of possibility.

Then, as a junior, he took his senior girlfriend to an audition at the University of Illinois’ dance department. He was sitting outside in the hall waiting for her to finish when he met two theater students.

“We struck up a conversation that probably started with, ‘Why are you loitering in our hallway with all that dirt on your boots?’” Offerman recalls. “And what I discovered, from them, was that you could go to Chicago and be paid to be in plays. And I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’”

The idea was revolutionary, and even thinking about it seemed to open up new worlds. So, with some trepidation, he took the idea to his parents. They were baffled and possibly frightened, but they supported him. A year later, he was back on campus as a high school senior, auditioning for the U of I’s theater department. A year after that, he left home to pursue a dream.

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“I was definitely a rube when I arrived,” says Offerman of his freshman year. “It was like bright lights, big city. I was thoroughly intimidated by a place that had a CTA system. I was terrified for years of the buses, because I just couldn’t trust the bus. I would get on and say, ‘So, you’re just going to keep going down Lincoln and I can just tell you where I need to get off? Promise?’”

He quickly realized he was behind in his cultural training—a typical moment came at age 19, when he discovered a really good band called “The Beatles”—but his lack of sophistication also gave him a folksy masculinity that some of his peers lacked, and Offerman was quick to realize this appeal. He began to see it as a strength rather than a weakness, and he would later carry this idea all the way Los Angeles, a place where being a “real man” with calloused hands—the kind who could fix your roof—was a novelty that came with a distinct advantage.

But the insecurities of being a country boy hampered him at first. “I was unaware that that my own personality with all its facets could be something to put on stage,” he says. “I couldn’t wrap my head around the notion that all of my roles should have a foundation in my own personality, and instead I thought that I had to be incredibly different from myself. So I was basically acting way too hard.”

Ironically, it was Offerman’s background that ended up saving him. Because he’d developed a pandering and presentational quality on stage, nobody in the theater department would cast him in the big school productions, so he was forced to form a coalition with friends and rent out a free black-box theater on campus called The Armory. Offerman was invaluable to the group, but not for his acting; instead, he had the tools and the ability to build the sets.

“In the theater, you need great talent,” he says, “but then you also need a couple of muscled dipshits to carry the palanquin on stage so that Natalie Portman can ride it and deliver a beautiful soliloquy. So I fit neatly into that folder.”

After graduation, members of The Armory group moved to Chicago and formed the Defiant Theatre. Offerman became the technical director, and his acting gradually began to improve. But it took a revelation; he tells me about the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi, an idea that beauty comes from imperfection. He realized that he didn’t have to be perfect or virtuosic in his acting, only real, and that through this natural humanity his performances would be compelling.

The Defiant Theatre operated largely the way the name suggests. They incorporated Kabuki techniques into a punk aesthetic that involved humor, stage combat and constant irreverence. He compared the vibe was to a Tex Avery cartoon, referencing the MGM animator who created Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. In addition, the Defiant actors had a mission to expose their genitals to the world at large, and one of the joys of our conversation came when Offerman describes his brave parents sitting through “many a staged fisting.”

“That was our whole bag,” he says. “We were mostly balls. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. I was living on like nine grand a year, in squalor, and feeling like a king every day of the year. We had an astonishing career for a bunch of broke jerks from the middle of the country.”

The Defiant Theatre became one of the most highly regarded companies of the mid-’90s, and Offerman’s stock grew. As his acting improved in the vibrant Chicago scene, Offerman landed his first leading part, and earned his living building sets and choreographing stage fights for larger theaters like the Goodman and Steppenwolf.

The next transformational moment in Offerman’s life came when he landed a series of smaller film roles in Chicago. The run culminated with Going All the Way, a movie that starred Ben Affleck and Rachel Weisz while they were still relative unknowns. Everyone encouraged Offerman to move to Los Angeles (“you make funny faces,” is how he described the praise), and the effects of his poverty—a molar tooth with a hole so big he could fit a peppercorn inside, for instance—got him thinking about SAG insurance. The evidence stacked up, and in early 1997, at age 26, he made the move west.

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And that’s when things slowed down.

A look at Offerman’s IMDB page from the early L.A. days reveals a couple one-episode appearances on shows like ER, City of Angels, Profiler and The West Wing—not small potatoes, when you think about it—but the big score was elusive. It’s a trajectory common to actors who make the jump to L.A., but Offerman was uncommon in one critical regard—he stuck it out.

“I think the farmer mentality was a great saving grace,” he says. “I knew better than to buy a lottery ticket and expect it to hit, but I also knew that what I was doing was trying to maintain myself in a place where I could continue to buy lottery tickets.”

In the meantime, he did his best to ensure that the rest of his life would be happy. He set up a woodworking shop—a lifelong hobby—from which he derived satisfaction and additional income. In 2000, he met Megan Mullally, who was making it big as Karen on NBC’s “Will & Grace,” when the two performed together at the Evidence Room Theater. They began dating—he thought she was funny, she liked the way he treated her dog—and were married in 2003. Much has been written and discussed about their relationship, and all of it reaches the same conclusion: They seem to have a loving and supportive bond that is extraordinarily healthy by celebrity standards.

Slowly, Offerman’s career gathered steam. He took solace from the two or three yearly cosmic signs that he was on a path, no matter how meandering, that would finally lead to deep artistic satisfaction. His favorite of these moments came when he and Mullally were walking on the beach in Malibu and ran across Garry Shandling.

“She introduced us,” he says, “and he looked at me kind of askance and he said, ‘are you in the business?’ And I said, ‘well, I guess I’m aspiring to be.’ And he said, ‘stick around. You’re going to do alright.’ And I was like, hmmm, okay, I’m not going to question the implausibility of why in the world he would say that. I’m just going to take it and I’m going to wrap my arms around it, and that’s going to get me through two or three years of rejection. Like, ‘Well, you guys obviously haven’t talked to Garry Shandling. Before you cast me aside, you may want to give Shandling a holler. He has a differing opinion.’”

He had a recurring role on The George Lopez Show in 2003-2004, which was canceled, and on American Body Shop in 2007, also canceled. He came to close to several larger roles, but always maintained a commitment, honed in his Defiant Theatre days, to making strange and interesting choices. Because of that, and his rough demeanor, the networks found him too scary to cast.

“Corporate interests are often frightened by a unique style,” Offerman explains. “They know that if they sell Coca-Cola, the numbers are better than if they sell Jimmy’s New Delicious Root Beer Cola Sarsaprilla.”

During this era of near-misses, he auditioned for The Office. He wasn’t cast, but Michael Schur, one of the writers, liked him so much that he wrote his name on a post-it note and placed it on his computer. It stayed there for three years, until Schur got approval to produce and co-create Parks and Recreation. He was building a cast around Amy Poehler, and he wanted to give Offerman the role of Mark Brendanawicz, a character who would eventually leave the show. The network shot that idea down.

“NBC said, ‘no, no, no, you’re not going to cast Nick as that guy who might have to kiss Rashida [Jones, who played a love interest] at some point. Nobody’s going to buy that,’” says Offerman. When I point out that he done alright for himself with Mullally, Offerman doesn’t miss a beat. “Well, see, Megan has talked to Shandling. NBC has not yet consulted Garry to my knowledge, so…”

Schur and co-creator Greg Daniels came back and told NBC that they wanted Offerman to play the part of Poehler’s boss, but the network said the boss needed to be older. Schur insisted, and, according to Offerman, NBC’s reply was, “well, let us look at every other possible actor who speaks English, and a few who speak Mandarin Chinese, in case we go that route.” The field of possibilities expanded from just Offerman to literally thousands, and gradually narrowed back down to one.

The process took five agonizing months. When Schur called to tell him that NBC had relented and that he would play Ron Swanson, Offerman broke down and cried.

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“I’ve had to learn to desensitize myself. I had to become inured to having any emotion, up or down, about these situations, because for years all I’d been dealt was intense rejection,” says Offerman. “Megan immediately said, ‘thank God you didn’t get all those other shitty pilots, because it all was, it was all part of this plan for you to get the greatest job.’”

It wasn’t long before Swanson became an icon, and Offerman’s career took off. He had already landed a role on the excellent Adult Swim comedy Childrens Hospital, and his profile rose as the show gained cult status. He began getting voice work, appearing regularly on Conan, and, before long, re-entering the film world, including a role in the Sundance hit Toy’s House alongside his wife. Most recently, Offerman collaborated with his friend Bob Byington, an Austin filmmaker, on Somebody Up There Likes Me. The film was shot in 24 days in Texas, and the process reminded him of his theater roots in the sense that it was a smaller group working with total creative control and willing to take risks for purely artistic reasons.

Somebody Up There Likes Me bears a resemblance to Wes Anderson’s films, and the adjective “quirky” has been thrown around quite a lot in its description. Byington also attempts to create the Andersonian atmosphere of nostalgia and melancholy stemming from the passing of time, using calculated set pieces and clever, deadpan dialogue. The result is occasionally successful, though there’s a restricted tightness about the film that will, I think, limit its popular and even indie appeal when it hits theaters in early March. The real prize of the film is Offerman himself, hysterical in the role of a middle-aged waiter, and the one actor capable of using long pauses to milk the comedy in every line. I found myself leaning forward, interest re-engaged, whenever he appeared on screen, and the film serves as more evidence that Offerman’s comedy chops extend beyond Ron Swanson.

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The differences between Offerman and Swanson become apparent in our conversation, but so do the similarities. He considers the modern hatred of big government very healthy, and he’s recently read more about the Libertarian philosophy. He enjoys representing a sensibility of longing for a simpler time, and he genuinely believes that Parks and Recreation can help people overcome the hurdles of modern life and move toward decency.

He’s not afraid to admit that there’s an instructional and spiritual side to his one-man show, and also to his upcoming book Paddle Your Own Canoe: Nick Offerman’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living. At the end of our interview, I joke with him that we’d covered just about every subject except God, secretly hoping to get some insight on his beliefs. He obliged, telling me that he disdained man-made religions while still observing the divine.

“I try to focus my spirituality on things like the indescribable majesty of nature and the beauty of the world that can’t be explained by people,” he says. “It’s beyond our capacity. I do believe in God, and I think He’s way cooler than human beings could describe in a paragraph.”

His views are strong, and he feels he has something to more to offer the world than just acting. At the same time, there’s modesty in his concept of himself. I can hear him cringe over the phone when I suggest that he might be an artistic idealist. The word is too precious, even if true. Instead, he prefers to say that the choices he’s made as a performer contain strong ideals.

“Throughout my life, when people told me to talk faster or do something more conventionally, I just immediately feel the weakness in that choice,” he says. “You’re like okay, you want to serve McDonald’s in your restaurant rather than a Reuben sandwich with my special butter gravy. And so I guess I feel lucky I have that sensibility. It’s just the funky fungus that I grew up with.”

That line marks the end of our conversation, and I knew my question had been answered. Swanson was Offerman, yes, but Offerman was purely himself.

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