You’ve probably seen the promos or the billboards, if you live in a city that still utilizes them, and it’s true: Rainn Wilson is back on our TV screens this week. He’s the lead and titular character on Fox’s new procedural dramedy, Backstrom, based on a Swedish book series about a horrible man who is a great cop, adapted for the U.S. market by Bones creator Hart Hanson. Like Hanson’s earlier series, Backstrom is an ensemble cop show centered around an investigator with particular skill, and at a recent set visit, Wilson told press that it was the chance to play this exact character that drew him back to series television so quickly, and the rest of the cast told us the reason they were excited is because of Rainn Wilson.
“I was finishing The Office,” Wilson said, “and my agents called and they were like ‘we want you to read a TV script for a pilot, one-hour’. And I was like ‘Are you high? What are you, crazy? Are you drunk with power? What are you thinking? I just did 202 episodes of a TV show, I’m not going to do another TV show.’ And they’re like ‘We would never ask you this. Just trust us, just spend half an hour and read this script’. And I read the script and I was really moved by it. And I was instantly captivated by it.”
Wilson also maintains that the decision to headline the project had more to do with that captivating script and not to do with distancing himself from a certain Dunder-Mifflin employee. “I was definitely looking for roles to play that had different colors in the palette. And Backstrom is just a magnificent role. I hadn’t read anything like it in a TV show before. He’s very cantankerous and self-hating and racist and sexist and addictive, but he’s got a lot of heart and humanity and humor and a lot of different dimensions. And that’s just really rare. And especially someone at the center of a show, driving a show that has all those different colors. It’s very complex and challenging. And I was a little bit afraid of it. So I knew that that was a good thing, so that’s when I signed on.”
The supporting cast is made up of a mixture of fresh faces and veterans, each bringing something different to the table for Backstrom‘s benefit. Genevieve Angelson, who plays the very green and by-the-book Detective Gravely, told us who each of the others on the team are and what they contribute: “Dennis Haysbert plays Almond who is sort of the wisdom, the oldest cop, the person who’s seen the most; Page Kennedy (Officer Moto) is the muscle but he’s also really sort of the heart of the show; Kris Polaha plays Niedermayer who is forensics – he’s like all the evidence and facts; Beatrice Rosen plays Paquet who is sort of the person who puts it all together in pieces; I think I’m the audience. I think I’m the person who’s the voice of what the viewer will be thinking. Who gets to sort of see Rainn and say ‘you’re awful. Everything you do is just two thumbs down, but also, I love you; you’re a great cop.'”
Angelson also told us that she based her entire character on interplay with Wilson. “When my part was getting cast, it was a reimagining of the character. I got an email from my agent that they were looking for a woman who was brown-haired and in her 30s and I was totally wrong for it but they were willing to see me. So, I was like, ‘if I try to do that, I’ll be the worst one who does that, so I’m just going to go in and play off of Rainn.’ And so pretty much everything that I have invented about this person is a foil for Rainn.”
Dennis Haysbert as the wizened minister/detective Almond said the hardest part of the show for him has been allowing Backstrom to take charge. “Everything is kind of done through Backstrom’s eyes,” Haysbert said. “And the rest of us are basically in support of that. I have to play this character a little less in charge than I’ve been. So I have to acquiesce. I’ve been in charge on The Unit, I’ve been in charge on 24 and pretty much the movies I’ve done. It’s interesting to have to pullback. If it was the John Almond show, it would probably be [different]. As it stands, I deal with things a certain way and most of my investigation is with him. So, I’m kind of like the soul and the strength that keeps people up and on the straight and narrow… but Backstrom, well, that’s why it’s called Backstrom.”
Backstrom has another important member of his inner circle, who isn’t a cop; Thomas Dekker plays Valentine, Backstrom’s best friend (though they hate each other), underworld connection, and roommate. Dekker told us that playing Valentine has been a challenge given his many eclectic facets. “He is always kind of an integral key element into Backstrom solving a case that he wouldn’t be able to do just in the police department, but that said, he’s also his friend, he’s a thief, he is a punk rocker, he is gay, he’s a lot of things and kind of the beauty of Valentine is is that he’s a sort of a different person from moment to moment, like you never really know, even as an actor playing him, you know I never really know quite where he’s coming from, which is really exciting for me to play with and ultimately, his purpose I think is to help convey who Backstrom is.”
Dekker also had nothing but praise for working with Wilson, the consummate professional. “He’s one of the most exceptional actors I’ve worked with, certainly in television,” Dekker said, a television veteran himself from quite a young age. “He has an incredible ability for improvisation. [H]e just throws things in at the last second that are really inspiring and fantastic, as I think for both of us, obviously, my whole main storyline is with him, and certainly for his character, the most personal situations he has are all shared with my character. So, we definitely get to play in a realm that I doubt he gets to play with, with any of the other performers, and obviously, same for me. So, even the crew jokes that when there are Backstrom-Valentine scenes, it’s sort of the best time of the day, because it’s sort of the one area that really isn’t exposition.”
It can certainly be heavy to step into the central role in a much-hyped new drama, and there’s pressure riding on Rainn Wilson with being the focal point, but the actor told us he’s acknowledged that responsibility but hasn’t let it get to him too much. “I’ve been acting too long to care about whether people are going to like it or not,” Wilson said, serious as you please. “They’re going to like it or they’re not going to. There’s stuff that I’ve done that I thought was stupid that people loved. There’s stuff I did that I thought was amazing that people just hated. And, I don’t know how they’re going to respond [to Backstrom]. That’s completely out of my control. But I do feel the pressure in terms of, I have to drive these scenes, I have to learn these lines, I’ve gotta make sure that the arc of every episode tracks and that we’re really following Backstrom’s story throughout every episode. That’s crucial.”
Catch Rainn Wilson’s gruffer side, along with all the other characters, when Backstrom premieres Thursday, January 22nd, at 9/8c on Fox.