Rainn Wilson’s initial reaction to the TV series “Backstrom” was far from positive.
“I literally got a call from my agents as I was finishing the last three or four days of shooting on ‘The Office,’ our 200th episode over nine or 10 seasons. And they said, ‘We really want you to read this TV script,’ and I almost fired them on the spot,” Wilson says. “I’m like, ‘Are you crazy?’ But they implored me, ‘Just read the script. This character is really special.’ And I did. It really hooked me in.”
In the new FOX series that launches Thursday, Jan. 22, he stars as Everett Backstrom, an alcoholic train wreck of a detective who works for the Portland Police Bureau. What he lacks in social skills is made up with brilliant detective work. It may take him several tries, but eventually he can crawl into the mind of any suspect to ferret out the truth.
The series is based on the books by Swedish author Leif G. W. Persson.
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Wilson jokes that roles this good don’t come along often for “weird looking, 48-year-old pasty white dudes.”
His concerns about going directly from the long-running NBC comedy to the one-hour procedural drama diminished when CBS executives passed on adding the show to their lineup. Wilson had a chance to catch his breath by the time FOX stepped up and added the series.
Other characters on the show are: veteran detective and weekend pastor John Almond (Dennis Haysbert), newbie detective Nicole Gravely (Genevieve Angelson), irksome forensics liaison Detective Peter Niedermayer (Kristoffer Polaha) and guileless Officer Frank Moto (Paige Kennedy).
Backstrom’s skill is being able to size up people quickly. He may come across as a total jerk in the beginning, but Wilson promises that he will be less annoying through the initial order of 13 episodes as more is revealed about the detective. But, don’t ever expect Backstrom to become a poster boy for political correctness.
“Backstrom really wears his heart on his sleeve, and his life is unraveling. And watching a brilliant detective at work while things are just not working for him anymore and just falling apart, I think, is really interesting,” Wilson says. “I would much rather hang out with that person than, like, a slick procedural detective who’s got all the answers and effortlessly speaks in these kind of quips as their CSI team looks at every microfiber and everything resolves perfectly every single week. It’s human. It’s frail. And it’s interesting.”
The TV version of Backstrom has been toned down from the way he’s presented in Persson’s books. The printed version of Backstrom is a racist, sexist, homophobic who hates everyone and everything.
Series creator, Hart Hanson, explains that those elements are dramatized but not to the point the audience will hate him. The series has been designed so that he will be more likable (or at least tolerable) as the series continues. Wilson calls it all a matter of social perspective.
“I think there’s a process of you watch the show, and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, this guy’s a racist and a sexist.’ And then you kind of go, ‘Oh, wow, you know what? He kind of hates everybody.’ Then you kind of go, ‘Oh, wow, he hates himself worse than he hates anyone else. What’s going on with that?’ It’s asking a good deal of an audience, but I think it’s a really interesting journey,” Wilson says.
It’s a journey he would not have made if he hadn’t listened to his agent.