Actor Rainn Wilson, whose film The Rocker is released this month, talks to Jan Gilbert about the pitfalls of pratfalls and meeting the fifth Beatle.
Red carpet premieres, awards ceremonies, and glitzy parties: all part and parcel of an actor’s glamorous existence, right? Well, not always. Sometimes being an actor means being strapped to the roof of a speeding van in the middle of the night or being hosed down repeatedly with six kinds of synthetic sweat, as Rainn Wilson found out on the set of his latest film The Rocker, a seriously funny comedy about a failed drummer who gets a second chance at the big time… in his nephew’s teen band.
And it looks like The Rocker, Rainn’s first starring role in a movie, could be the Seattle-born actor’s own ticket to the movie big time after supporting parts in films including Almost Famous and the Oscar-winning Juno. Already well known for small screen roles in Six Feet Under and the US version of The Office, Rainn still can’t get over his luck landing the lead.
‘It was crazy; the whole film was like a giant weird fever dream,’ he confesses. ‘When the movie got green-lit we found out in the morning and, I swear to God, by 2.30 in the afternoon a full drum kit had arrived at my house, and the next day a drum coach showed up to teach me the basics.’
But Robert “Fish” Fishman, Rainn’s character in The Rocker, isn’t just any drummer, he’s a heavy metal drummer, so learning the basics just wasn’t enough. ‘There’s a whole other level of drumming when you’re a hair metal drummer: it’s stick-twirling, getting the crowd riled up, putting on a show,’ explains Rainn. ‘You’re like the Las Vegas magician of drummers. It takes a certain kind of personality to be flashing the heavy metal horns between beats.’
A very different kind of drummer to Fish’s heavy metal heroes makes a brief appearance early on in the film: Pete Best, the man famously sacked by a pre-fame Fab Four. ‘It was kinda scary meeting Pete Best,’ admits Rainn. ‘Although the film’s not based on him, here he is showing up to do a cameo in a movie about a failed drummer! But he’s so at peace about it. He’s just a swell guy with a great sense of humour, and we had a blast.’
Meeting the ex-Beatle wasn’t the only experience which left its mark on Rainn while shooting The Rocker. ‘When I take my shirt off near the start of the movie, you can actually see bruises all over my body. That’s from me throwing myself all over the place, like riding a tricycle into a swimming pool four times in a row at five in the morning,’ he tells me. ‘It was painful, but really fun. I love physical comedy, there’s nothing greater than a physical gag.’
It’s a good job Rainn’s such a fan of slapstick as with The Full Monty director Peter Cattaneo on board, it wasn’t long before the comic actor found himself exposing a little more than just his drumming skills. ‘I’m happy to show my body for laughter; it’s been getting laughs for a long, long time,’ says Rainn. ‘They do that on The Office sometimes. I remember there was a scene in the second season of The Office and it wasn’t working for some reason. They needed an instant laugh so I ended up running around with my shirt off!’
Given Rainn’s love of pratfalls, it’s hardly surprising that one of his favourite comedians is the original Nutty Professor, Jerry Lewis. ‘I was a total comedy geek growing up,’ he recalls. ‘My greatest inspiration as a child was Jerry Lewis. I loved the absurdity of his physical comedy. I don’t think I’m much like him, but I loved his movies. I also loved the Marx Brothers and Monty Python. I used to take a big old tape recorder, hold it up in front of the TV and record entire Monty Python episodes and play them over and over in my room and memorise them.’
So when Rainn bumped into one of his comic idols, he couldn’t quite believe it. ‘One of the highlights of my life was when Six Feet Under was just coming out and I was at a premiere for a film in LA. I was being interviewed about the movie, and right behind me was Eric Idle. And he said to me, “I’m a huge fan of your work,” and I was shaking and quivering like a little schoolgirl,’ he remembers, still hardly able to take it in. But never one to take himself too seriously, the 42-year-old star quickly deadpans, ‘Now people compliment my work and I’m like, “Yeah, whatever. You got a cheque for me?”’
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