Even before he turns around, Rainn Wilson knows he’s being watched.
The watcher in question is a man in his twenties who has just walked into a Los Angeles coffee shop, caught sight of Wilson and stopped dead in his tracks. And although Wilson looks nothing like his famed alter-ego, Dwight Schrute, in a Sub Pop T-shirt and jeans, the look on the man’s face is obvious: Wilson has been made.
“Hey!” says Wilson, offering the man a wry smile and wave. Too shy to approach, likely fearing he’ll somehow incur Dwight’s stuffy wrath, the fan drops eye contact and steps in line.
Wilson has embodied Dwight on NBC’s The Office for the last seven years, so he’s as used to this as he is to hitting the Van Nuys, Calif., set every day at 6:15 a.m. With his hair combed forward and his 6'2" frame stuffed into a parade of cheap, mud-colored Oxfords, Wilson has endured what has felt like days spent at a real office, logging hours behind a desk at the world’s only truly beloved paper sales company.
Dwight’s enduring popularity is a mystery. Not as suave as his archnemesis Jim (John Krasinski) nor as central as any of his increasingly absurd bosses (Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, James Spader, Ed Helms, Catherine Tate, then Ed Helms again), Wilson’s character has nonetheless become the show’s anchor. With his ongoing obsession for “bears, beets and Battlestar Galactica,” Dwight has come to represent a peculiar, narrow niche: the television character you root for onscreen but would find unendurable in real life. Through Dwight, Wilson has pulled off the impressive feat of making his character lovable without making him particularly likable.
“He’s very specific,” says Wilson. “You never know how he’s going to respond to something. He can respond to a prank by crying or bursting into anger or imploding—any number of different things.”
“Any lesser writers would have written Dwight as an annoying nerd,” Wilson continues. “He would have had a pocket protector, and he would have made a lot of Star Wars jokes, and he would have been petulant and annoying.