Date October 17, 2023
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In banter-filled lecture, Rainn Wilson talks mental health, spirituality and pranks from ‘The Office’

Known best for his role on “The Office,” Wilson spoke about his career, breakout role, mental health and spiritual journey in an event organized by the student-run Brown Lecture Board.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — If there’s one thing to know about Rainn Wilson, it’s that the actor has little in common with the inimitable Dwight Schrute.

It’s a fact that Wilson, who gave life to the character for close to a decade on the iconic sitcom “The Office,” has always made clear when asked. And he’s asked pretty often.

“It doesn’t really work like that,” Wilson said, speaking to a packed auditorium of students in Brown’s Salomon Center for Teaching. “When you play a character, it doesn't seep in and like affect and corrupt and congeal your personality in some other way.”

However, when looking at it in terms of general similarities, Wilson pointed out to the rapt audience that he is able to tick off a few commonalities — including an unusual way of seeing the world and never really fitting in. “Other than that, really the similarities just completely stop,” Wilson said.

The Emmy-nominated actor and now bestselling author visited Brown on Monday, Oct. 16, for a wide-ranging discussion focusing on everything from his career and success on “The Office” to spirituality, overcoming mental health struggles and other ideas he explored in his new book, “Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution.”

Wilson, who is also a successful podcaster and cofounded the media company SoulPancake, was hosted by the Brown Lecture Board, a student-run, student-funded organization that brings speakers to campus each semester. All aspects of the event were managed by Brown students, who comprised nearly the entirety of the audience in the Salomon Center.

Speaking to those students, Wilson recounted the start of his career doing theatre in New York City before moving to Los Angeles and eventually hitting it big with “The Office” when he was 39 years old.

“You just never know as an actor if something's going to hit,” Wilson said. “All of a sudden, I got known for this role and was getting Emmy nominations.”

From spirituality to sitcoms

Wilson delved into struggles with mental health and how he addressed them. He spoke about having episodes of anxiety, loneliness, despair, addiction and crippling panic attacks through his 20s and early 30s but having no support to combat them.

“People didn’t really go to therapy back then,” he said. “We didn't really have a word for a mental health epidemic. You just kind of just sucked it up.”

In a search for a sense of peace, Wilson said he returned to the Baháʼí faith, in which he was raised as a child. The faith embraces an essential unity of all religions and the unity of humanity.

“I grew up and we would be reading from the Bhagavad Gita; we would be reading from the Dhammapada, from the Bible,” Wilson said. “When born again Christians would knock on the door on a Sunday morning, my dad would invite them in and cook them pancakes and have long conversations about the Book of Revelation. We would read the Quran. We would have gatherings with prayer and meditation and music and stimulating conversation. That was the milieu, that was the petri dish I grew up in.”

Wilson embarked on a spiritual journey, rereading many of those holy books and was able to come out of his dark place, he said. The experience inspired him to want to share that journey with others through his most recent book in hope it can help them find solace, too.

“I learned so much… trying to find meaning, purpose, inspiration, vision and wholeness through a spiritual lens, down a spiritual path that I really have always wanted to share that,” Wilson said. “[The book] was an opportunity for me to write about some of these ideas on a large scale.”

Wilson hopes readers can look past the character he played on television and appreciate how his mental health struggles and his spiritual background as the more significant reasons he wrote the book. Ultimately, Wilson hopes the book and his other work in spirituality helps provide insight into the current state of humanity and how spirituality can help bring society together.

“We need to reinvestigate essentially who we are as human beings, why we're on this planet, why and how we exist, and figure out a different operational system,” Wilson said.

The lecture was moderated by Arvind Sridhar, a senior at Brown and president of the Brown Lecture Board. Sridhar's thoughtful questions guided the conversation throughout the night and even made Wilson take a brief pause to acknowledge him.

“He’s good, isn’t he?” Wilson said to the audience who erupted in applause. “Bro, you have a bright, bright future.” With a heavy tinge of comic banter, he added: “You didn’t get into Yale? What happened?”

Throughout the evening, Wilson kept the audience captivated and laughing with wit that sometimes pushed the envelope. “I’ve counted three things that could get me canceled, so far,” he joked at one point.

During an audience question-and-answer portion of the event, Wilson fielded queries on how he thinks spirituality intersects with topics like media, religion, science and art.

Some of the night’s funniest moments of the night came when Wilson was asked if given the chance to pull a prank on former co-stars from “The Office,” who and what would it be? His answer: a prank on Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsley involving a beet erupting from his chest.

Wilson was also asked what would he do as creative director of the show: a movie, he said. The plot?

“I was thinking Michael Scott is in prison so you’d get Prison Mike… and the guys from Scranton have to get to Colorado to bail him out… We’d have all kinds of hilarious misadventures along the way.”