Spinning Platters Interview: Rainn Wilson and James Gunn on “Super”

by Jason LeRoy on April 6, 2011

Rainn Wilson and James Gunn at WonderCon in San Francisco last weekend. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse.

Rainn Wilson and writer/director James Gunn were in San Francisco this past weekend to promote their bold and demented new film, Super (read our Spinning Platters review here), at WonderCon. It was my first time entering the WC fray, and I found myself wishing I’d brought a bag of bread crumbs while navigating the labyrinthine expanse of Moscone South. But eventually I found the designated press room, where I waited patiently with a table of my fellow online press while Wilson and Gunn worked their way down a seemingly endless line of video interviews. One queasy highlight of this was watching Gunn being forced to awkwardly refer to “Jenna Fischer, my ex-wife” each time he was asked how Wilson came to be involved with the project.

But eventually the video interviews concluded, at which point they were escorted directly to our waiting table. “Here are the nerds!” Wilson cried out in relief upon approaching us. As they got seated (and Wilson bellowed “Hello machines!” into our assorted collection of recording devices), we kicked off a lively conversation on topics like how to make a homicidal maniac sympathetic, pioneering the concept of superhero female-to-male rape, and Wilson’s efforts to keep his character as far from Dwight as possible.

From where did this film spring?

RW: It sprang from the mind of James Gunn in…what was it, 1992?

JG: [laughs] It was 2002.

RW: Sorry. I am really, really drunk right now.

JG: We just tried heroin for the first time. [laughs] I originally wrote Super to be a short film, and it just kept getting longer and longer. I fell in love with the characters of Frank [Wilson] and Libby [Ellen Page] and was very intrigued by the premise and how we were going about it, and so it just kind of got larger from there. On the first day I wrote 57 pages, and then went back and elongated it a bit.

And how did you choose Rainn?

RW: I’ve told this story a few times. [Editor’s Note: I did not ask this question] It was on the set of The Office, and Jenna Fischer, who used to be married to James, said, “You know, I was talking to James about this script he had written years ago and why he never did anything with it, and I said wouldn’t Rainn be perfect for the lead role?” James thought that was a good idea and sent me the script. I was totally smitten from the time I started reading it. I just loved it. I’ve never read something so ballsy and imaginative and demented and heartfelt at the same time. And it’s a really rare thing to have a movie that can sustain all of that. The passions are really weird, the comedy is absurd, and the violence is grotesque, but it all fits.

James, you did The Specials eleven years ago, and now with Super you’ve come full-circle on the superhero spectrum. Has your thinking on the subject of superheroes changed at all?

JG: I don’t know if anything’s changed with my thinking. The Specials was pure comedy, and this is a much darker film. It’s the first film I’ve ever made that feels personal. I mean, it’s me. Rainn and I were talking the other day after recording the DVD commentary, and I said, “If Frank’s crazy then I’m crazy,” because he’s me in that way. And Rainn said, “Well, you’re definitely crazy.” [laughs] But this was a much more personal project, and that makes it difficult. I don’t know if my next film will be as personal, because you can only do that so often. It’s a different type of approach. And I was very grateful, from the bottom of my heart, that Rainn and Ellen and the producer, Ted Hope, and Liv [Tyler] and all these people believed in me enough to go on this strange journey with me. It was a very exciting thing to do.

One of the most incredible things about this movie is how it’s constantly challenging the audience, sort of daring us to label or classify Frank as we watch him do all these things. Did you think about how the audience would perceive him while you were collaborating to create this character?

RW: That’s a really key question. It hits the nail on the head. I felt from the beginning that I needed to paint Frank sympathetically and allow the audience into him, to let them feel for him and go on this journey. Because, I mean, he does some really fucked-up stuff! He’s bashing people in a movie line with a wrench for cutting in front of him! There’s so much inappropriate stuff that he does. Even going after his wife — his wife chooses to leave him, and he should really just let her go by all rights. It’s her choice, she’s an adult, she made that decision. So I knew that for all these crazy things that Frank needed to do, that I needed to play him with as much truth as I could bring, and let the audience decided by the end of the movie, “Is this guy demented? Is he a sociopath? Or is he a hero?”

JG: One of the great things about Rainn’s performance is that he’s so likable. There are people who see the movie and say that character was abhorrent, but they still like him. The same thing is true of Ellen Page. Her behavior is even more abhorrent, frankly. She really does put on the costume as an excuse, as a rationalization to beat the shit out of people and kill people, but she’s so likable in the movie. For me, that’s the interesting part. We’re watching these characters do these things where one part of us is going, “That’s really awful,” and the other part of us is going, “Go! Do it more!” And then we have to question ourselves.

From an acting perspective, the best comedy and the best drama comes from commitment. Rainn, how did you find that commitment while playing this part? How did you find balance, particularly in your climactic showdown with Kevin Bacon’s character?

RW: Like you said, the best comedy comes from playing it truthfully and playing it straight in the most absurd situations. The comedy I like the least is the kind that’s so checked out and tongue in cheek and above it all right to the end, that you don’t really care about the characters. For me as an actor, I like to transform into characters and tell stories. So it was a pretty deep commitment. As for the last scene where I’m going face to face with Kevin, I had a very different idea in my head about how that scene should be. We were shooting at 4:30 in the morning and James came up to me and said, “No, this is the scene where Frank lets it all out, he pours all of his passions out. He tells him, You don’t deal drugs, you don’t molest kids, you don’t butt in line. The rules were set a long time ago.” I was too tired to resist him at that point, so I was like, “You want me to go for it?” And he was like,”Go for it.”

JG: Kevin, too! I had to push Kevin to get so upset in that scene. But for me, that was the crux of the whole movie. That’s what the movie’s about. There’s one character, Jacques [Bacon], who’s a moral relativist, and there’s Frank, who believes that there’s right and wrong, and right and wrong don’t change. That’s the central conflict in the film, and I understand both sides of it.

Wbo was the character of Frank inspired by? There seems to be a lot of Travis Bickle in there, as well as Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

JG: I hear that a lot. I never thought of Falling Down, and I don’t know if I ever thought of Travis while I was making the movie, but I certainly did after I was done. There’s something more innocent about Frank. No matter what you think about Frank’s behavior, what he wants to do is something good. Whether he’s actually able to do that is up for the viewer to decide, but I think that’s very different from Travis. But without a doubt, Taxi Driver was the biggest influence on this film. When we were trying to sell it, we pitched it as Napoleon Dynamite meets Taxi Driver. [laughs]

What was it like pioneering female-to-male rape in cinema? Was that the first scene of its kind?

JG: It was definitely the first superhero female-to-male rape that I’ve seen in a movie.

RW: It won’t be the last.

JG: That was a tricky scene. It was always in the script, and I think Ellen and I probably had more nervousness that Rainn did before we shot the scene. For Ellen it was very difficult, because she’s been raped a number of times in movies, and she said afterward — and this is not making light of rape — but she said afterward, “It’s much easier getting raped on film than being the rapist, because you’re the passive one.” But when you’re the person who’s actually manhandling the other person… It was very hard for her to do. I didn’t think about it till afterward, but I would hate to play a rapist in a movie.

RW: [lasciviously] Not me.

JG: [laughs] So that was a hard scene, but I love her in it. And there is a part of me that finds it… romantic! I kinda want those two together! Obviously if Frank was really putting up a fight he’d just throw her off. There’s a part of him that really wants it, but he’s got this internal battle. So yeah, there’s a little bit of romance there. [laughs]

How did you get Nathan Fillion onboard as The Holy Avenger?

JG: As Nathan said in his recent EW article, he will do anything I ask. [laughs] So he got into the tights and the wig, although the wig was his idea. Nathan’s a good friend of mine, and I love working with him, and he loves working with me I guess, and anytime I ever ask him to do anything, he comes in. I have certain high expectations of him, and he always goes above and beyond the call of duty. He’s a great guy.

Rainn, you’ve directed some shorts and a few episodes of The Office. Do you see yourself getting more into directing?

RW: I’m definitely more and more interested in directing as I go, but I have a ton to learn. I don’t feel up to directing a feature film right away. I think I’d need to move toward that. But I’ve been really thinking about the theater. I even said to Ellen,”What kind of role would you like to play in the theater?” Because I think it would be really fun to see her on stage. I don’t know how much she’s done, but I think she’d be really amazing.

Did you choose this character intentionally to help people see you differently?

RW: Anyone who’s on a TV show that plays a very distinct character is going to be working their whole lives to play other characters to be in contrast to that. That’s just the way it is. But I was acting for 14 or 15 years professionally before I got booked to The Office. I’ve played all kinds of different roles, and I did theater for nine or ten years in New York before I moved to LA and did any TV or film. I’m mostly just an actor, and I want to play the role the way it needs to be played. I didn’t consciously say, “Hmm, how can I play this as differently from Dwight as humanly possible?” I did say to James when we started, “If you ever hear me sounding like Dwight or anything feels like a Dwightism at all, let me know and let’s shoot it differently. So keep your radar up about that.” And fortunately that didn’t happen.

JG: I also think that when Rainn and I talked about the script from the beginning, the role was always a certain way. It was never wacky. It’s homicidal, but not wacky. And the acting style was always naturalistic. That was the reason Ellen and I hit it off so well. We had a common reference for the films we were talking about, and they weren’t the kind of movies you’d think we’d be talking about in reference to Super. Movies like Ratcatcher, and the films of Lukas Moodysson, the films of Ken Loach. That’s what we wanted to do: take this very outlandish premise and all this over-the-top stuff and put it in a different context. That’s always what the role was, and Rainn’s a great actor. He’s gonna be able to bring to any role what’s needed.

Super is playing in Bay Area theaters now.

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