If you're like me, you probably remember Nick Offerman best as the environmental activist from a 1999 episode of The West Wing, during which he tried to convince Allison Janney that the government should fund a highway just for wolves.
But nowadays, many people know him best as "Ron Swanson," the woodworking, government-hating government employee on Parks & Recreation. He doesn't seem to mind if you confuse him with his onscreen alter-ego, as he acknowledges some similarities, and he's just so grateful to have such a sweet gig (for the record, he called it a "job," not a "gig").
Brought up in Illinois, Offerman studied acting in college and helped found the Defiant Theatre, a company based in Chicago. He also acted in productions at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre before moving to Los Angeles to pursue screen-acting. For years he scored smallish parts in television and movies and along the way met his wife, Megan Mullally. Finally, in 2009, he landed the role of Ron in the then-new comedy Parks & Recreation. Since then his name-recognition's been on the rise.
He doesn't seem like an actor over the phone, even though he's an award-winning stage performer and experienced on screens big and small.
He seems more like a gruff Americana poet, perhaps someone like his hero, Wendell Berry.
SF Weekly: Hi, Mr. Offerman, how's it going?
Nick Offerman: Good. That's my dad; please call me Nick.
And what's your last name?
Hi, Miss Mutert.
Oh nothing, I was just laughing.
Okay. Well I wanted to talk to you about your upcoming appearances in San Francisco. Why a tour, why now?
Last year I was invited to speak at some colleges and I said, "By God, there are some things I'd like to say to the young people." So I wrote this show, it includes my ten tips for prosperity, and it went over pretty well. So I ended up touring to a few dozen colleges, and that's moved on to legit theaters, and it's really been a lot of fun. And I'm premiering this film, Somebody Up There Likes Me, and in each city I'm going to do an event for the premiere. So I've combined the two, so one night I'll be performing with my wife [Megan Mullally]'s band, Nancy & Beth, they will be opening for me, and it's the most astonishing piece of entertainment you could ever hope to see. And then the next night I'll be opening the movie at the Roxie.
What can we expect from the one-man show?
It's a collection of cautionary tales, some mediocre songs from my own pen, with a dash of minor nudity.
What instrument do you play?
I play the guitar. I've been playing for years, and I've recently achieved the level of "intermediate."
That sounds worthwhile. So let's talk a little about your character, Ron Swanson. More than just about any character in recent history, your character Ron is based on your life: woodworking, a general love of meats, and your wife, Megan Mullally, plays your ex-wife. What are we to make of this impulse to connect the man to the character?
I think people always want to do that with really well-written characters. It's mainly a testament to our brilliant writers that they were able to create really a pretty cartoony character like Ron and lead people to think that he bears resemblance to the actor, or vice versa. You know, I do love woodworking, I am a simple man who can use a shovel, but I'm also an actor, I do live in a world. If anybody actually consumed one-fourth of the amount of cholesterol that Ron does, they'd keel over before they finish the meal.
Good, I'm glad to hear you say that, I worry sometimes.
I share the love of meat and scotch, but I don't share his digestive system, which is apparently superhuman.
Speaking of superhuman, the superhuman aspects of Swanson resemble another mustachioed gentleman, Chuck Norris. Have you heard this before?
No, I've actually never heard that, people don't bring up Chuck Norris too much with me. But I think that the more comfortable our society gets, the more it craves a simple man who can get things done. I'm a big fan of feminism, and I appreciate the much greater equality our society has achieved, but in the instance that your party runs into a grizzly bear, you need somebody, either a man or woman, to take care of business. So there's a place for the Cro-Magnon in all of us. I'm glad to see people responding.
Do you know what to do if you run into a grizzly bear?
I'm given to understand that you make yourself as large as possible, put your arms over your head, and walk away, don't run, and make a lot of noise. That's the safety tip. I'm not sure if I would do that, or at least try one solid punch on the nose.
Well yeah, that would be dissuading to a bear. Nobody likes a bop on the nose.
There's something interesting about Ron's libertarianism, written by Los Angeles writers. What does it mean that people have responded so strongly to this libertarian character?
Our writers very meticulously avoid any kind of political bent on the show, every side gets fair play. If there's anything they're trying to impart to the audience, I think it's that humanity are all made up of all these different viewpoints and we should get along and love one another despite our disparate views. And the notion of Ron, they met a libertarian when they were researching for the show, they met a libertarian parks department director, I think in Burbank, and he hated the government yet was running this government program. They just thought it was really funny, and rightly so. They've mined a lot of humor out of that notion. But they try to equally represent every viewpoint on the show, they're not interested in pushing any of their own personal agendas. They're just trying to use the current state of politics to make funny jokes.
Does Nick Offerman play Ron Swanson or does Ron Swanson play Nick Offerman?
Nick Offerman plays Ron Swanson, and I can't believe what an incredible dream this part has been. All I ever wanted to do after watching my wife make Will & Grace for so many years was to get a job half as good as that was, and I could not have conceived that someone would come up with a part for me as good as Ron is, and I feel like a kid in a candy store. That's what is genius about our writers, particularly Mike Schur, the creator of the show, is that he's able to take parts of each of our personalities and make them sound incredibly funny.
You've got a woodshop in Los Angeles, Offerman Woodshop. How's business?
Business is good. Our constant struggle is to keep the business from growing. When you have a collective comprised of people that love making things with their hands, and you're doing well, you face the choice of growing to the point where your product has to be made to more factory-like production settings, and that's something that we assiduously try to avoid, because once you get into that scenario, you end up hiring laborers who don't love the woodworking the way we do. They're going to be working for the man, so they'll be miserable. And we'll be spending all our time filling out their tax paperwork. So, things are going great. We get a lot of private commissions, we do really nice sales with trinkets on our website, shirts and caps, and we're just trying to maintain where everybody is satisfied and well-paid, but not overworked.
So have you heard about 3-D printing?
What if people could build their own versions of your custom furniture? Their own versions of you? Your wife? What do you think about that change in what it means to produce something?
I think it's, like all advances in technology, it's pretty amazing. And I think that a great many good things will come of it. However, I think a great many more disgusting things will come of it. The whole notion of what we do in my shop is that we make handcrafted items out of wood, and you can't ultimately replace the magic of a human being. People have asked me for years, "What's it going to be like when you can buy Robert DeNiro software, when you no longer need to hire the man, you can just get the program, plug him into your movie?" And I feel like advances like that will happen, and people will make garbage, and it'll make a lot of neat things too, but they will lack the spirit of life of a human being, which no randomized robotic program can ever replicate. To me there's nothing more exciting than a human being standing on stage with light on them, because anything can happen. And there's no replacing a handcrafted item. You can make a program that replicates it, but it's going to be cold.
There's a joint in furniture-making called a dovetail, and it's a very popular joint, popularized by the Shaker furniture builders, and you can buy these jigs to cut your dovetails with a router, with a machine, and that goes a lot more quickly, and it looks approximately the same. But that's where we draw the line: We refuse to make that handmade joint with a machine. And that's the aesthetic we're going to stick to. And we feel that we like our furniture a little higher quality and long-lasting than things that are made faster with more technology.
So, you're in this movie, Somebody Up There Likes Me.
Yes. And I produced the movie.
Can you tell people a little more about it, why they might want to see it?
It's an incredibly enjoyable musing on the state of modern America. The lead character, who never ages, represents the indifference of the disaffected teenager in all of us. And it's about how we pay attention to all the wrong little things while all the big events in our lives pass us by.
Is there anything that interviewers never ask you that you wish they'd ask?
Oh gosh. I get asked a lot about woodworking and whiskers, and meat and Ron Swanson. I get asked about working with my wife. I guess if people would ask me, I would love to do a four-hour interview entirely on the writing of Wendell Berry. He's a great hero to me. I think that his reading should be required in every school.
Nick Offerman performs his one-man show March 22 at 8 p.m. at Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium, 1111 California St., S.F. Tickets are $33-$45. Visit masonicauditorium.com for more details. Offerman also appears the next evening, March 23, to premiere the film Somebody Up There Likes Me at The Roxie, 3117 16th St., S.F. Call 431-3611 or visit roxie.com.