The Return of Ron Swanson (and More from Nick Offerman)
PHOTO COURTESY OF NBC UNIVERSAL
The wearer of television's most intriguing mustache since Ned Flanders', Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman is back. Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson on the show (which returns to NBC's Thursday line-up January 20) spends his time off-set building furniture and boats, looking for his next stage role, and co-starring in movies like the recent Ryan Gosling flick, All Good Things. But he's been missed as Ron, the quasi-libertarian, breakfast-loving Director of Parks and Recreation for the fictional Pawnee, Indiana. We spoke with Offerman about ensemble acting, absurdist theater, and whether Americans have too much freedom.
DANIEL D'ADDARIO: How are you?
NICK OFFERMAN: I'm very well. I had a very nice day working in my woodshop.
D'ADDARIO: You came out of the Chicago theater scene. What was it like working there?
OFFERMAN: It was fantastic. I've never seen a theater community to rival that of Chicago. Neither New York nor L.A. has the raw talent or integrity that Chicago theater has, and I think it's because Chicago doesn't have Broadway or the film and TV business to distract it. And so, we didn't make a lot of money, but we lived like kings in every other regard. I built scenery all day, I choreographed fights for theaters, and then I acted in plays at night.
D'ADDARIO: What was your favorite play you ever did?
OFFERMAN: Oh, boy. Two come to mind. One was called Ubu Raw, Alfred Jarry's absurdist play, which is spelled Ubu Roi. "King Ubu," from the French. We spelled it "R-A-W," because we were particularly irreverent. The few of us who founded the company inexplicably had a lot of Kabuki theater training, so we sort of took our Kabuki skills, mixed in a little Tex Avery cartoon style, and had these really loud, fun, rambunctious productions. They're something of legend. So that was the most fun play I did with my theater company, called the Defiant Theatre, and then I did a seven-hour play called The Kentucky Cycle, for which I won one of those theater trophies, and that was just a magnificent, epic-scope play about a piece of land in Kentucky.
D'ADDARIO: Do you ever find yourself wanting to go back to theater?
OFFERMAN: I do—I do theater in Los Angeles. I'm in a company called the Evidence Room. And that's where I met my wife [actress Megan Mullally], sneakin' up on 11 years ago. And I've done, I think, eight plays with them. My wife and I are looking for a play to do right now. We just continue to do small productions wherever we are. We're not looking to get rich or famous. We just seem to need to perform plays, because that's our food.
D'ADDARIO: Is that what you did during the hiatus of Parks and Recreation—or how did you pass the time?
OFFERMAN: I haven't been able to do a play for a couple years. Before I got my dream job on Parks and Recreation, I had a lot more time to do plays, and the last couple years I've been going crazy, not being onstage.
D'ADDARIO: You call it your dream job, and I know you've guest-starred on a lot of other shows as well. How does the set compare in terms of tone?
OFFERMAN: Well, as you said, I've worked on a lot of sets, both TV and film, and I sort of came up with my own theory, that there's two kinds of sets. One kind, where the set is fueled by something dark: fear, or greed. And so people are all miserable, everybody's afraid that they're going to get fired—those sets are not fun to work on. On the other kind of set, the work is fueled by love, and everybody loves what they're doing, feels rewarded and appreciated, and that makes the work that much better. And, sadly, it's probably half-and-half, in my experience, but fortunately, Parks and Rec is the most laid-back, loving set I've worked on. [Show creator] Greg Daniels is responsible for that: He obviously has learned how to create an atmosphere where people feel free expressing themselves, and it makes for great comedy.
And then [executive producer] Mike Schur has picked up the baton from Greg and created a world on our set where we just love being there. One thing we love to do, whenever we go into a room on our stage or on location, we all start going through the paperwork on the desks, because the art department goes so deep that even the bureaucratic paperwork that are just laying around in holders, is hilarious. They've written everything—whenever there's a brochure, or a program for some event, everybody takes one home, because they're hilarious. And it's like that for every department.
D'ADDARIO: Talking specifically about your character, Ron, I know you and he both carve wood as a hobby. Is that something you brought into the show?
OFFERMAN: Well, when we were starting the show and I was talking to the writers a lot, I would always be calling them from my woodshop, and eventually they said, "What is this woodshop? Can we come visit it?" So one day at lunch, all the writers came and visited my shop, and they thought it'd be a funny attribute for Ron to have. Ron engages in woodworking of a sort that I never would. I've never made a harp. He's a woodworker on TV, so he works a lot faster than I do in real life.
D'ADDARIO: Do you find that your real-life woodworking is a way to decompress, or do you find yourself hurrying to fit both acting and woodworking in?
OFFERMAN: Well, one of the reasons I call it my dream job is because on an ensemble show like ours is, you naturally have, usually, a day or two off every week while Amy [Poehler] and Rashida [Jones] are shooting their story, so it's this amazing job where I get to play this amazing character and yet I still have a day or two every week where I can go to my shop and work on my woodworking.
D'ADDARIO: When the series started, Ron as a kind of anti-bureaucracy figure coincided an anti-bureaucracy tone sweeping through the news. Did you take inspiration from real figures when it comes to Ron's attitude towards dismantling Pawnee bureaucracy?
OFFERMAN: Well, when Greg and Mike Schur were conceiving of the show and the characters, they met with some different parks departments around the state, and there was a woman in, I think, Burbank, who had that very attitude. She was very anti-government, and she was working in the parks department, and they found that to a funny dichotomy. They extrapolated it, and have found a really gleeful character through whom we can all question the very tenets of our democracy.
D'ADDARIO: What's the secret to making a character so straitlaced and often callous so funny?
OFFERMAN: That's maybe not a good question for me, because I'm behind it. I'd have to get out in front of it to see. All I can say is, when I was first presented with the character, it just made me think of guys that I love to hate. One that comes to mind is Paul Gleason, he was the principal in The Breakfast Club—guys that are overly stentorian or pompous in a position of medium power have always just cracked me up.
I had the good fortune of watching the last six seasons of Will & Grace be made, and both shows had these amazing writers' rooms. One of the things they're so good at is writing so truthfully for your characters that the audience assumes you came up with it. Our show has had a lot of notoriety for having a lot of great improvisers on the show, and we do a bit of improvising, but the vast majority of what you're seeing is scripted, so in the case of Ron, I think the writers have really wrapped their heads around this guy who lives his life by a simple set of rules. I think in this day and age, our civilization might be suffering from having too much freedom, or too many choices, so it might be really enjoyable to see a guy who eschews all the modern choices and lives by these simple rules, and has an incredibly enjoyable life. All he needs is bacon, an axe—he has seven items that he needs, and he lives like a king.
D'ADDARIO: Besides your own, what TV shows do you watch? Or is it kind of a busman's holiday to watch at night, since you work on a show all day?
OFFERMAN: The more Megan and I work, the less TV we manage to catch. Like anybody, we don't miss Breaking Bad and Mad Men, we really love those shows, and before this show was ever conceived of, we were huge fans of The Office, and we'd watch and say, "Man, if I could just get a job on something like this, I think that's really where my wheelhouse is." And I had known Rainn Wilson for years, we auditioned against each other a lot, and I said, "That part that Rainn got, that Dwight Schrute, that to me is a dream come true." And so it was really uncanny when this all went down. If I had more time, I'd watch more woodworking or home-improvement shows, but, not enough hours in the day.