by Rock ‘n Roll Ghost
For three seasons now, actor Nick Offerman has played the character of Ron Swanson on NBC‘s Parks and Recreation to the hilt. What could have been a dry, grating character with another performer in the role, is instead fast becoming one of iconic status. Offerman can get a laugh with a raised eyebrow or a furrowed upper lip (atop which a thick, manly mustache sits) or, as in last season’s finale, a look of unabashed glee when his character is told that the town’s government will be shut down. Ron Swanson is a man who has no love for bureaucracy and, were he not a nice guy deep down, could callously be dubbed a member of the “Tea Party” (he’s actually more of a Libertarian).
Offerman grew up outside of Chicago, near Joliet (past home to one of the most infamous prisons in America) in the small town of Minooka. His family were farmers and educators. Hands on, salt of the earth folk. And, despite this, they were accepting enough to give their blessing to his chosen field of acting (a career path not often perceived as rugged by the populace), the bug of which bit him while in college.
Once he graduated from University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana), Offerman cut his teeth at several of Chicago’s esteemed theaters (Steppenwolf, Goodman) before moving on to Los Angeles where he worked steadily in films and TV, but still needed to supplement his income by working with his hands. It’s in this time that he honed his skills as a carpenter, developing a passion for woodworking that stays with him today.
Married to actress Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) since 2003, Offerman most recently appeared in the film All Good Things alongside Kirsten Dunst and Ryan Gosling and will next be seen in Casa de mi Padre starring Will Ferrell. Meanwhile, fans of Parks and Recreation are hoping that Offerman finally receives the recognition he deserves with a nomination and win at this year’s Emmy Awards. The show, which also stars Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Rashida Jones and Rob Lowe (to name but a few), has its hour-long season finale tonight, May 19th, on NBC at 10 PM EST/9 PM CST. Catch up on past seasons on DVD/Blu-ray and the current season On Demand or on NBC’s website.
Below is an edited transcription of a conversation I had with Nick Offerman a few months back when Parks and Recreation returned for its third season.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: How have you been doing?
Nick Offerman: Had a good weekend. Did a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater Sunday night, which was a lot of fun. In a nutshell, it’s two person scenes. One person has a scene from a play and the other person has no idea what’s going on and they have to improvise. For example, I did the show with Amy (Poehler), I start the scene and she improvises back to me, but I can only recite my lines from the scene. So it’s incredibly challenging and usually insanely funny the way she tries to figure out what the hell’s going on and I try to make the lines of the scene work in whatever context she creates. It’s really fun to go out and get your stage fix without having to go through six weeks of rehearsal.
It’s a small venue, correct?
Nick Offerman: It is surprisingly small, but it’s quite intimate. It’s very much a hot ticket. Usually there’s a line around the block.
Have you done something like this before?
Nick Offerman: Yeah. In Chicago I did a lot of great comedies on stage, as well as dramatic pieces. Once I got to Los Angeles, it never occurred to me, if you’re an experienced actor you’d be expected to do both comedy and drama, but most of the first stuff I was being cast in in town were hour long dramas and films. After awhile I started to notice I was having a hard time getting auditions for comedies and then a couple of casting directors said to me, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you do comedy.’ I didn’t think it was a special skill like tennis or something. When I was living in New York with Megan (Mullally), I had just done a movie with Rob Cordry, who is a veteran of the UCB, and I had known Amy back in Chicago, so knowing the two of them, they invited me in to start taking part in a couple of shows. I did a bunch of shows in New York, then we moved back home to LA and picked up where I left off. It’s a really fun, supportive community. Megan and I both really enjoy going there. We have a lot of good friends there now. It’s an interesting part of our career paths. A lot of the Childrens’ Hospital people are from UCB, a lot of people from my show are connected.
How did you come to be a craftsman in woodworking? Is this something that you find solace in after a long day’s work?
Nick Offerman: I grew up in a farm family and was lucky enough to be the progeny of a bunch of tool guys, from my dad to my uncles to my grandfathers. So by the time I graduated high school, I was a pretty handy carpenter, mechanic and plumber. In theater school that served me well because I was terrible. All through theater school and my first year in Chicago, I was a really bad actor. But I could build the scenery, so people would put me in their shows in a little part so that I would build the set for them. It ended up being a great thing, because in Chicago you couldn’t make a great living as an actor in plays, so I would build scenery during the days and that would provide me a living. I ended up having my own shop and I became quite proficient as a carpenter.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I couldn’t quite get the same thing going on, because it doesn’t have the theater community here that Chicago did. Fortunately, a few friends here and there started wanting a cabin built in their yard, a deck, some rough furniture for an editing bay. I was able to keep my skills going. I was building this cabin in somebody’s yard and I decided to make a post and beam structure and it was kind of around that that I discovered old school jointery. I was just absolutely bewitched by it. I realized that it was within my power to build incredible old antiques that are made to last three hundred years. As a sort of reaction to modern day catalog furniture pieces that are so crappy and disposable. It was sort of fated to be. I started to get commissions and one after another I would get a job building a piece for somebody and I kept learning more and more furniture. To have that in my life while I was making a go at it in Hollywood was such a great blessing, because it’s commonly known as a very brutal business filled with a lot of rejection. To have this woodshop where I could go work on a table or a canoe is so incredibly satisfying because I’m the boss. There’s no network here giving me notes or telling me that I’m too weird. I also cling tenaciously to my woodworking because it truly feels like it’s part of my family. I feel like I can hold my head up to the farmers because I’m working with my hands. In a sort of Jeffersonian way, I think that makes me a better American to not just be an actor, but I’m also building furniture pieces that will hopefully become heirlooms in people’s families. That just feels better than sitting around playing video games.
Where you grew up, what were you expected to grow up to be and what were your plans early on?
Nick Offerman: It’s a very good question that I’ve never come up with a real pat answer for. I grew up in a really small town that didn’t have a lot of, what I would call, urban culture. I was a smart enough kid, I had really good grades and I got a scholarship, but nothing really excited me when it came time to pick colleges. I was like, I kind of have a good line of bullshit, so maybe I’ll go into law. Or maybe I’ll play the saxophone. I was in a jazz band and was really into playing the tenor sax. But then I was at the University of Illinois, which is my alma mater, with a girlfriend who was auditioning for their dance department and I met a couple of theater students. I had no idea that professional theater existed outside of Broadway or London. By the time I went home I said to my folks, I think I want to audition for this theater department and they were like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ When I decided to go to theater school, it never occurred to me that I could get to New York or Los Angeles from doing Chicago theater. It was such a small town mentality.
Even when I moved to Chicago I never dreamed I’d move to either one of the coasts. I was the second child of four. I always demanded the attention of those around me. I enjoyed entertaining my peers and my family. I spent a lot of time at the altar at my Catholic church. I was an altar boy and then a lecter, which is the person who reads the Gospel readings before the priest gets up there. I definitely felt a stage bug, I enjoyed being up there in front of people and trying to make my friends laugh without being caught by my dad. No one in my whole community had ever gone into any sort of art form as a career, so it was very insane/ballsy of me to jump off of that cliff. My parents, to their credit, are very salt of the earth…they both grew up on farms a few miles from where I grew up, and they said make sure you have something to fall back on. They were very supportive. Once they started seeing me in plays, they became even more supportive. My family are incredibly hard working, decent Midwesterners and I think that maintaining my furniture shop is just my way of feeling like I’m part of the family.
There’s a real lack of strength and ruggedness in the modern era and that is something that I appreciate in you as an actor. There’s a real difference now compared to the John Wayne era.
Nick Offerman: It’s something that Megan and I have talked a lot about. She really values in me that I’m not 126 pounds and I don’t get my chest waxed. There really has been a shift…Robert Redford was on Oprah and they showed a clip of The Way We Were and there was a shot of him with his shirt off and he was all insanely hairy. And now if you put that in a movie, it would be considered hilarious. Because you look at these guys that are modern, leading men and are completely nubile, hairless boys, that is something that our society sort of misses, is that the men of our country no longer have a hair suit ideal to look up to.
I’m not exactly a shining example of what perhaps my grandfather hoped for. I’m not particularly mechanically inclined. But it does seem strange to me that there are so many non-rugged examples, that it’s not the ideal anymore.
Nick Offerman: If I may wax for a moment, it’s what the retailers have turned us into. We’ve become consumers. We make much better sheep if we have to pay for everything instead of being able to make anything for ourselves…if I am ever going to get on a soapbox, it’s about that. There’s a writer named Wendell Berry, who’s a Kentucky farmer, who writes some incredibly wise things on that subject. About how we’ve been sold a bill of goods. The American dream that we’ve been sold is to do as little work as possible and to get paid as much as possible for it. Part of my furniture habit is remembering the respect I have and the pride I feel in being able to work with my hands and do things for myself, I want to add that even though I can use a lot of tools and what have you, I’m also a simpering wuss in the eyes of what my grandfathers were. Even my uncles that are still farming, I can’t hold a candle to these guys because I’m a professional actor. My uncle was recently hauling a wagon of corn down a two lane county highway and the tongue of the wagon broke off. He pulled over and he had everything he needed in the back of his truck he needed to build and weld on a new tongue to that wagon. If you told that at any party that I go to in Los Angeles, they would think that you were either completely full of it or a wizard.
I would imagine that in Hollywood, you would be someone that people would be in awe of.
Nick Offerman: I don’t think that they’re in awe of me, I think that they find me peculiar. One thing I love about the business, there’s ten regular actors on the show, there’s one hundred twenty crew people around us all the time, by and large, these are tool people. I’ve worked a lot of the jobs that the crew have worked. Those are my farmers now. When I have a question now, I go to them. It’s something that I think is systematic of our modern age.
I’ve gotten pretty good at woodworking, but I’ll happily pay a guy to tape drywall. I know how to do it and I’ve done it, but I’d rather pay a professional. For me, I feel like all we can do is cleaning up our own mess. My furniture shop saves me. It keeps me from spending my days at the pub. My wife said, she always thought she’d never marry an actor. To make a gross generalization, actors are these narcissistic people who spend all of their time trying to get a job that involves everyone looking at them. A lot of my friends when they’re out of work, they’re going crazy, calling their agents…I could never deal with that. That’s why I go find something to work on so I don’t go crazy.
When you started in the theater department at U of I did you know then that acting was something you would do with your life or was it not until you moved to Chicago?
Nick Offerman: By choosing to be in that program, I was throwing my hat in the ring from the get go. I just had a gut feeling. Nobody ever told me I should find something else to do, but I was often discouraged from doing things in what has become my style or my personality. For years and years people would tell me you gotta talk faster. Even as recently as four or five years ago, people were trying to get me to change my style. Then finally I got a show on Comedy Central, the same people that had been discouraging me from was suddenly hilarious. I’ve tested for pilots at NBC for years and they’d always say, ‘he’s a little weird, he’s a little too interesting, he’s a little too intense.’ Then when I got this job they said, ‘we found this guy, he’s so weird and intense and interesting…’ It’s all a matter of luck and timing. I had this feeling when I decided to go to theater school and I just stuck with it. I kept getting signals that I was doing the right thing. If it dries up here at some point, I’ll have a nice table making business.
Would that be enough for you if that were to happen?
Nick Offerman: Sure. I can always do theater. I…knock on wood, I’ve had a really nice, slowly rolling snowball of a career. It seems like I should be able to find something to do for awhile. But if suddenly I was unable to get any acting work, I have a really nice gig being a housewife for a comedy legend. I’ve got my shop. I started doing stand up a few years ago. If I run out of acting work, there are other ways to entertain folks that I would pursue.
In the downtime between Parks and Recreation seasons, were you able to work in any films?
Nick Offerman: Right at the end of summer I was tickled pink to get a part in this Will Ferrell movie called Casa de mi Padre I have known Will for years and have always dreamed of working with him. So it was really exciting to get this call. The entire film is in Spanish. It’s super funny and super weird. I’m really excited to be a part of it.
Can you describe what your role in it is?
Nick Offerman: The film takes place on a Mexican ranch and I’m an American DEA agent who’s come to investigate a wrong doing.
Working with Amy on Parks and Recreation, who you had previously worked with in Chicago, is it a lot of fun to be able to work with her so closely again?
Nick Offerman: Amy is like a tiny, blond Michael Jordan, circa 1997 or so. I think I can go ahead and say that Amy is my hero. I found this to be true by and large of Saturday Night Live veterans. Fred Armisen, Will Forte, Seth Meyers, Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, they are the nicest, most unassuming personalities, which makes it such a joy to be on set with them. Their talent doesn’t come with an ego, and that allows everybody to feel so good about their work without being afraid that the lead is going to throw a tantrum or throw a TV through the window. I’m constantly amazed by Amy’s ability to carry the show and to perform so much material so inventively. If we do twenty takes on a scene, she’ll turn in twenty different ideas on how to do it. All the while, acting as a producer, keeping her eye on the show from afar. Getting to work this closely with Amy is a great piece of good fortune that I’m grateful for.