Q&A: Rainn Wilson On Social Distancing, The Office, Pet Zonkeys, and Which Bears are Best
Before we were celebrating birthdays via Zoom, and before not wearing pants to work was the norm, SoulPancake—a media company founded by The Office star Rainn Wilson—was on a mission to foster human connection on the internet with inspiring and thought-provoking content. Now, amidst a global pandemic, SoulPancake is doing its part to connect and uplift self-isolating humans with a daily Instagram Live series called Hey There, Human with Rainn Wilson. On Hey There, Human, SoulPancake goes live daily with Wilson as he checks in with celebrities like Ed Helms, Jenna Fischer, Finneas, and Penn Badgley, as well as randomly chosen viewers, to share a laugh while talking about their shared human experience, life under quarantine, and more.
We spoke with Rainn Wilson about redefining social distancing, the continued success of The Office, and which cartoon bear is best.
Though it's been around for more than 10 years, it almost feels as if SoulPancake was built for a time like this—when we're all doing what we can to make a human connection, in any way we can. How has your mission to discuss the human experience shifted during these times, with so many people at home and many of them on their own?
We founded SoulPancake over 10 years ago for really this exact thing. We were around before Upworthy was around, before any of the kind of positive social media places were doing their thing. We wanted to get people talking about life’s biggest human questions and make inspiring, uplifting content that challenged and provoked and ultimately brought more light and unity to the world. We’ve been on a long journey together. We’re now a division of Participant Media, which is an amazing film company that has [made several] Oscar-winning films. When this quarantine happened, I was on the phone with the SoulPancake team saying, "We have got to do something. What can I do? What can I do? I want to do something positive, uplifting."
For a long time I had this idea about doing a show where we interview random human beings. I wanted to pitch a TV show called Random Human. Literally like open phone books and just find a random human being somewhere in the United States and I would just go interview them. I'd do a mini-documentary on them just to, again, see how we are all in this together; we all are having this shared human experience. So we thought, why not just take the kernel of that idea and we can do it on Instagram Live. We only get a couple of thousand people watching on Instagram Live, but tens of hundreds of thousands of people watching it after the fact, once it is posted. So this is kind of our way of giving back.
You said something recently that stuck with me about redefining “social distancing” to be more of “physical distancing,” because it feels like we’re finding more and more ways to connect with each other.
Yesterday we had the head of Crisis Text Line on the show, and it was interesting because suicides have actually gone down during the last five or six weeks or so. And I think it’s because they’re having a shared experience and one of the main ingredients of suicide is feeling like you are alone and no one else understands what you’re going through. So the thing I said was, we shouldn't even call it social distancing, we should call it physical distancing. Socially, we need to stay more connected than ever. And that is especially difficult during anxiety-provoking times like this. It's just about keeping those connections alive and reaching out to people.
I just reached out to an old friend of mine and, you know, it felt great because I could tell he was kind of struggling a little bit. It kind of gave him a little boost and a little uplifting, a little love, and it was a really positive experience.
It's really important. Seeing you connect with random humans on the show, you can get pretty deep, even if you’re just talking for a few minutes. The topics can range from sobriety to anxiety to spirituality. Is there anything that sticks out as something you've learned from the people you've spoken to?
Well one thing I did learn is that people all over the world loved The Office. I’ve spoken to Indian Office fans, Polish Office fans ...
I saw you speaking with an Italian Office fan today.
Exactly. But what can we learn from people? That’s a great question. I've known this, and I know it in my brain, but when you’re in an Indian dude's apartment or an Italian woman’s apartment, then someone’s house in Poland, and someone’s place in Mexico, you see: Yeah, we all speak different languages and our skin colors may be a little different, but we’re all having the same human experience. We all want to laugh, we all want to connect. Sometimes we’re sad, and sometimes we’re happy, and sometimes we're anxious. I didn't really plan on this, but the show has been so much more international than I thought it would be. Because of the miracle of the internet, it's just like—boom! I’m talking to someone halfway across the world.
And there’s really no rhyme or reason to who you’re choosing to speak with?
I mean, I try not to. I try and just go with the flow and just see a name and poke it randomly. I try not to look at photos or look at names and make some kind of decision like, 'Oh I'll pick a person of this race or this gender today' or whatever. I just try to go with the flow and get as random as possible. I scroll up and down and just kind of let my finger hit, and it's been fun that way.
What have I specifically learned today? Well the things we’re being told by professionals really do hold true. We can exercise, we can be easy on ourselves, we can stay connected to people. Those really basic things just hold true no matter who we are or where we are.
You've had some amazing guests on your show. But let’s say you could have any random human—dead or alive, fictional or not—who would you choose?
How about someone from Greenland for a random human? I was there doing a documentary for SoulPancake this fall and I really love Greenland so maybe a Greenlandic seal fisherman would be good. I have [also] been wondering about Jack Nicholson. I know he’s got to be super old at this point, but it would be great to get Jack Nicholson. I wonder what he is up to these days.
I wonder if he is even on Instagram.
I don’t think he is on Instagram right now. I doubt he is on “the gram."
Who can we expect to see in the future on Hey There, Human?
So this week we’ve got Andy Grammer, singer-songwriter. And we’ve got my wife, who I wanted to bring on as a special guest.
Was that your idea?
Yes, it was.
From different rooms?
Yeah, different rooms in the house, exactly. We’ve got Allison Janney on Wednesday, Craig Robinson on Thursday from The Office, and on Friday the actor Chris Wood. He’s been on a ton of shows like The Flash and Supergirl and a whole bunch of other shows.
I know you have a slew of animals at home, so I have to ask: We know it’s Hey There, Human, but let’s say an animal could talk. What animal would make for a great Hey There, Human episode?
Well my wife and I are proud owners of a zonkey ...
Ok, what is a zonkey?
Well, that's a zebra donkey hybrid.
Because it’s called Hey There, Human, he might like the show ... thinking that there is hay.
Sorry for the lame joke. I apologize. I mean, there is a reason why we had writers on The Office and I was just an actor.
I do think everybody would be interested in the zonkey, though. I mean a zebra donkey hybrid alone is enough to get people to tune in.
Yeah, a talking zonkey would be great. If we could have talking zonkey; no one has ever seen that before.
Absolutely not. Which came first: your farm or Schrute Farms?
That's a good question. I actually think Schrute Farms came first, because it was introduced as a concept in season 2 of The Office, then my farm formed far more gradually over time—and our pigs and our donkey and zonkey and horses came along afterwards. Well, my wife’s always been into horses. She’s been into horses before there was ever a Schrute Farms.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of The Office's debut, so we recently ran a March Madness-type bracket called Mifflin Madness on Twitter, where thousands of our readers voted for the show’s best character. I’m sad to say that while it came down to Dwight versus Michael Scott, Michael ended up winning. What do you have to say about that?
Argh, that a**hole Carell.
I know. He is terrible.
Horrible, horrible. So I came in second?
You came in second.
Yeah, well I think it's as it should be. I mean Michael Scott is one of the great leading characters of all time. Do you remember all those years when Alec Baldwin won all those awards and Steve didn’t win any? [laughs] Year after year, and who’s laughing now? I have to say: I love Alec Baldwin. He certainly deserved maybe one or two, but the industry never lauded Steve [Carell] and it's one of the most masterful comedic performances of all time and will stand the test of time. It’s like Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners. It’s like Lucille Ball. It’s one of the great single television performances ever.
I can’t cosign that statement enough.
Dwight is the sidekick, so he should come in second to the comedic lead. I’m totally fine with that.
It’s also kind of hard to argue that Dwight isn’t also one of the most beloved characters in recent television history. Given his typical disdain for people, what is it about the character that you think resonated so deeply with viewers?
You know, I don't know. I don't know. People ask me that question all the time and I don't really have an answer. I think he was very well written and conceived. And I think, as much of an a**hole as Dwight was, you always cared for him. There are always moments of vulnerability; you'd see his feelings getting hurt, you'd see his pain, his struggle, his ambition, his goals and you wanted him to succeed.
So somehow I think between the writing, the acting, and the directing, we always kind of humanized Dwight. Just when you're about ready to write him off as just a straight-up sidekick comedic weirdo, he shows some flashes of real humanity. And that’s what they tried to bring into the show all the time.
What has it been like seeing the new wave of The Office fans catching onto the show via streaming services?
Who would’ve thought that? I mean if you were in a coma five years ago and woke up now—I think I had a tweet about this recently—one of the things you would have discovered is like, “Wait a minute, how did The Office become like the most popular show in the world?" Which is pretty crazy. Fortunately, a lot of those Office fans are tuning into Hey There, Human. The Office was about connection, or flawed, quirky human beings connecting with one another. And that’s the same thing we’re trying to do on Hey There, Human.
What do you think Dwight would make of Hey There, Human?
I think that he would try and find a way to profit off of it. Like for someone to get chosen, there’d be a bribe involved or something like that. But then he would do 30-second interviews with as many people as possible and just try to turn it into a pure capitalistic enterprise.
That sounds about right.
Also, I think he’d be doubting that everyone on the show was indeed a human. He might think many of them are androids ... In Blade Runner, they have these series of questions they ask the replicants to see if they are humans or androids. Maybe Dwight would turn it into that kind of show.
I would love to see that show. Last question before you go. Which cartoon bear is best: Winnie the Pooh, Yogi Bear, Smokey Bear, the Country Bears, or the Berenstain Bears?
What about Paddington?
You know what, I considered putting Paddington in there. I considered putting the Charmin Bears in there as well.
I've got to go with the Charmin Bears because at least they provide a very, very soft resource for one’s anus. So at least they are useful. So I am going to go with the Charmin Bears. But that’s a lot of good bears.
Yeah, it’s hard to pick. But I have to agree that, in these times, the Charmin Bears are coming out on top.
Practically speaking, in this pandemic where toilet paper has become a luxury item, they are more important than ever.
And maybe Paddington will have his year later on.
Maybe so, maybe so. Maybe he’ll actually grow up. Because Paddington is a cub. When is he going to grow up into a bear? I don’t know.
New episodes of Hey There, Human stream live every weekday at 3 p.m. ET/12 p.m. PT on the SoulPancake Instagram channel.