Nick Offerman: ‘Trump is about to be presented with a gory butcher’s bill’
Nick Offerman played the bacon-chomping boss in Parks and Recreation. Now the sci-fi show Devs has given him the meatiest role of his life
Tue 14 Apr 2020 06.00 BSTLast modified on Tue 14 Apr 2020 08.09 BST
Devs is a slow, beautiful sci-fi drama thriller about a machine that can see backwards and forwards in time – back to Christ on the cross, forward to some looming unknowable crisis. It grapples with all the big questions. Is there such a thing as free will? Do we live in a multiverse? Could we all be part of a complex simulation?
Devs is masterminded by Alex Garland, famous for writing The Beach and directing Ex Machina. The series has inspired the sort of frantic online rabbit-holing not seen since the glory days of Lost. It’s the show Westworld wishes it was. Its reception in the US has shown what British viewers can expect when it begins on BBC Two this week: give it enough time and it will consume your every waking thought.
And yet the strangest thing about Devs is that the beating heart of this very serious show is Nick Offerman. Yes, Nick Offerman from comedy. Nick Offerman from woodwork. Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation, the satirical US series about an Indiana town’s parks department in which he played Ron Swanson, the libertarian, anti-government boss striving to make his department as ineffective as possible.
I have a lot of experience of making people laugh. But also making them cringe, vomit and sob
Speaking from his home in LA, where he’s under lockdown, Offerman seems as surprised about this career turn as anyone. “Any farm boy like myself, that packed up and went off to theatre school, is chasing the dream of working with a person like Alex,” he says. “I was working at my woodwork shop when I got the call that he wanted to meet with me, and I teared up a little bit. In my world, it was not expected that someone like Alex would turn his gaze in my direction.”
Nevertheless, it’s perfect casting. Offerman plays Forest, a conspiratorial tech CEO so ravaged with grief for his dead daughter that he’s built a giant statue of her on the grounds of his campus. Amaya, his quantum computing company, is being investigated by engineer Lily Chan, who believes it is responsible for the disappearance of her boyfriend. Although Forest starts the series as an out-and-out villain (and it’s great to see Offerman use his physical heft for something other than excessive meat consumption), we gradually see a more humane side as we understand the rationale for his time-bending invention.
How does he feel about the central theme, the question of whether we live in a deterministic universe? “I love ruminating about the big existential questions,” he says. “But I was brought up in a family of salt-of-the-earth public servants, in the middle of Illinois, in the middle of America. I can wrap my head around the science of determinism, but in my everyday life, it’s the last thing I can think about because I’m usually in the middle of choosing the sandwich I’ll be having for lunch – and then the slightly larger, warmer sandwich I’ll be having for dinner.”
It’s a very Offerman answer, rooted in both good-hearted Americana and food. Time and time again during our interview, he’ll return to these twin wells, bringing up the morals that were instilled in him by his family and comparing TV reviews to various types of fast food (“Who put gruyere in this cheeseburger? Are you insane? One star!”).
Offerman, 49, was born in the tiny village of Minooka to a mother who was a nurse and a father who taught social studies at high school. He’s one of four children and much of his growing up was done on a soybean farm, which is just the sort of quirky background detail that could belong to his most famous character. In fact, if you close your eyes, you feel like you could be talking to Ron Swanson. And this might be becoming a problem.
Although Parks and Recreation finished half a decade ago, people still have a tendency to see Offerman through the lens of Swanson. It’s understandable – the character incorporated many of Offerman’s traits: his flair for woodwork, his talent with a saxophone and his outward projection of gruff manliness. It’s a comparison that Offerman has played up, with books like Paddle Your Own Canoe and a standup tour called American Ham. But enough is enough. On his most recent comedy tour, Offerman took to singing a song entitled I’m Not Ron Swanson, which contained the lines: “He can eat a big-ass steak for every single meal / ’Cause his colon is fictitious, while mine is all too real.”
Was the song born of frustration? “It’s a little complicated,” he says, “because people want to conflate me with Ron Swanson’s politics. He’s a staunch libertarian, and I’m interested in everybody having healthcare or being paid a living wage. When I used to look at social media more closely, there would be angry fans saying, ‘I brought my shotgun to your comedy show and it turns out you’re a total snowflake.’”
In truth, the two are poles apart. Offerman took two semesters of ballet. He toured Japan doing kabuki theatre. He repeatedly refers to himself as the black sheep of the family, who cries easily and believes Yoko Ono is a misunderstood genius. He’s thoughtful and articulate on gender and race, and very concerned with the issue of sustainable food.
There were other downsides to playing Swanson, too. “I couldn’t go to a restaurant. No matter what I ordered, they would put an inch-thick layer of bacon on my plate. I’d order a cheeseburger and they’d make me a one-pound cheeseburger. And I would give them a thumbs-up and hear my cardiologist screaming in my head.”
Yet there have always been many sides to Offerman. As well as the tours, the books (four in seven years), his parallel career running a woodshop in LA, and the intimate podcast he and his wife Megan Mullally host from their bed, Offerman has amassed a wildly varied filmography. There has been voice work in Ice Age and Lego movies, prestigious Oscar bait in the form of The Founder, and such heartfelt little indie films as 2018’s Hearts Beat Loud. Then there are TV appearances in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Will & Grace and Fargo.
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“I come from theatre,” he says, referring to Defiant Theater, the experimental Chicago company he co-founded in the early 1990s, winning rave reviews for productions that included everything from Shakespeare to Stephen King. “When you’re a street theatre actor, that means you try to perform in a myriad of genres. Whatever’s on that season. So you might do a Sam Shepard play, then maybe a musical. I have a lot of experience on stage of making people laugh certainly – but also making people cringe, vomit and sob.”
Yet Devs feels like his greatest leap so far. It’s a tremendous performance that sees Offerman shuttling between menace, vulnerability, goofiness and outright terror. Perhaps most impressive is the way that, as of a character who can see the future and therefore can never be surprised, he’s able to give such a relatable human performance. Given its themes, the show is bound to alienate as many people as it beguiles – something Offerman seems fully aware of.
“It’s like a great novel,” he says. “With a lot of people you can say, ‘Oh, you should read this Murakami book.’ And they’ll say, ‘Are you insane? What is this Windup Bird Chronicle? This is madness.’ But then there will be 15% of people that say, ‘Oh my god, that was the best book I’ve ever read.’ There is a quote I wear on my sleeve that goes, ‘If you’re not offending 33% of your audience, then it’s not art.’”
This does not seem like a particularly optimal time to be promoting a TV series, with the world gripped by coronavirus. Does it feel strange? “Well, it does,” he says. “I mean, everything is kind of strange. For those of us whose work involves outputting any sort of content to an audience, everything has to be couched with sensitivity to the tragedy unfolding all around us.
“Fortunately, the greater percentage of us will get through this. A lot of people are suffering and perishing at the hands of the deadly virus. But there are exponentially more people suffering and dying because of the incredible bed-shitting that our administration has performed. The failure – the face-plant of our government in the face of this pandemic – has been unbelievably embarrassing and shameful. And continues to be so. I mean, that sad clown just continues to dance and bleat as though the stock market will somehow save him from the incredibly gory butcher’s bill he is being presented with.”
He takes a breath. “But to answer your question, I’m glad – because I think our show is just magnificent.”
Offerman is a reassuring man to talk to in a crisis. There’s a lot of solace to be had in his mixture of political fury and good-natured idealism. “As an eternal optimist,” he says, “my hope is that something might come out of this time of reflection, where we’re all being made to hold still for a while. Perhaps when it’s over, we will walk outside and look at a tree, or reacquaint ourselves with squirrels and birds in our neighbourhood, and say, ‘Oh, there is beauty, there is worth, there is incredible value to the world and to life. And it doesn’t come through my phone, it doesn’t come through consumerism, it doesn’t come from capitalism.’”
Another deep breath. “I had the good fortune of growing up in a frugal and loving family, so I understood that we can have a beautiful and rewarding life without having three Porsches in the garage. Having three Porsches is not actually that great, because you have to pay to maintain three Porsches. But if you instead get together with your family and build a canoe or a rowboat, you only need one of those. And you can have fun all year.”
What a total snowflake.
- Devs starts on BBC Two at 9pm on Wednesday 15 April.