By Colin Stutz; photos by Dan Winters on November 9, 2011
Without meaning to, one day I found Ron Swanson building a canoe. The stoic, salt-of-the-earth director of the Pawnee City Department of Parks and Recreation was disguised as a stubbled craftsman in a backwards baseball cap, untucked T-shirt and jeans. He was shaping a boat of Western Red Cedar with another finished vessel strung directly overhead while the Wilco album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot blasted from inside his orderly enclave. So well disguised he was in a persona so similar to his own, I at first mistook him for a mild-mannered Nick Offerman, he of the Offerman Woodshop in Glendale, California.
The boat was an exception to his normal work there, a passion project, he explained. He mostly builds Craftsman-style furniture, having discovered some years back that his carpentry skills were transferable.
“The best woodworkers are boat builders because there are no straight lines,” he said, showing off the canoe’s well-formed curves, taking short breaks to kindly continue conversation with this complete stranger who had randomly stumbled upon the scene while walking through the neighborhood.
And so, entranced by his workmanship, not for a good while did I recognize him, finally, like this: “Nick…are you on TV?”
Of course, Ron Swanson is just a character. And Nick Offerman is a real person acting as a character on television—a character who would likely not consider the profession of acting to be of considerable worth. Now, months after that chance encounter, it seems impossible to mistake those stern features; though, to be fair, his trademark mustache was missing, rendering his face comparatively soft and not-so-Swanson. Thick and brown like a caterpillar on his upper lip, it sits and squirms. “It’s gotten to be my best disguise,” he says about shaving. And in designing the character: “The first decision we made is that he’d have a kick-ass mustache.” Otherwise a subtly physical comedian, Offerman’s blue eyes are impenetrably intense as his brow conjures the most biting scripted cynicism on network TV, dotting each straight-laced punch line like an uppercut. “I remember sitting in second and third grade doing pushups with my eyebrows,” he says.
But in playing Swanson, Offerman, 41, and his deadpan delivery have spawned a mix of mainstream and cult fandom that has more than 5 million Parks and Recreation viewers inviting him into their homes weekly during NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup, with plenty more tuning in online. Swanson is a libertarian working for the government, suckling from its teat to take it down from the inside, avoiding work of any kind with a centurion wryness that suggests he is not lazy but above it all. (Offerman cites Principals Ed Rooney and Richard Vernon of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club, respectively, as major influences.) Each season of the show is increasingly celebrated, as the team of writers and actors find growing comfort and familiarity within the setting and staff of the fictitious City of Pawnee and its dysfunctional parks department.
“People who like it the most are parks and recreation employees,” says Offerman. “I’ve been approached in probably 10 different parts of the country by people telling me we’re hitting the nail exactly on the head, to which I say, ‘You know we pay some folks from Harvard a lot of money to think up ways to make parks and rec employees look like jackasses, so you might not want to say that in comparison to yourself.’ But people say small government and town meetings are really that insane.”
The show’s creators, Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, both come from developing, writing and producing the American version of The Office and the cast includes a staff of actors that started strong but now feels supreme, including: Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Offerman, Adam Scott and Rob Lowe.
Says Offerman, “In my opinion, the secret formula to the show is Greg Daniels’ paradigm that he sort of culled and created [while working on] a few previous shows [namely The Office, The Simpsons and King of the Hill] and brought that work atmosphere to our show, combined with Mike Schur’s giggling brilliance at creating a world full of hilarious characters and gripping story lines, and then just staffing the show with really smart, funny writers and really affable, talented ensemble members. The ensemble on this show is a ridiculous all-star team of home-run hitters. I love nothing more than to sit back and watch everybody go to town. And we have this incredible team captain in Amy; she’s a giggler and a cackler so there’s a really effervescent feeling around the set.”
As we talk, Offerman is driving from Austin to Oklahoma City, having just wrapped an independent film he’s produced and is starring in called Somebody Up There Likes Me. He is headed to meet his wife, the actress Megan Mullally, well known from Will & Grace and more recently Party Down, but also as Ron Swanson’s maniac ex-wife Tammy on Parks and Recreation. The two met when Offerman was at a real low-point, having moved from Chicago and “the greatest theater community in the country” to a Los Angeles acting scene that revolved around casting calls, film and television. His personal life and profession seemed bleak. “TV work is not incredibly satisfying,” he says. “It’s a nice paycheck for a week, but the five lines you have on NYPD Blue don’t quite hold a candle to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.”
Miserable about it all, he returned to the solace of theater to play a breakdancing East German soldier in a piece called Berlin Circle. There he met Mullally and says with a matter-of-fact affection, “I’ve pretty much been really happy ever since.” The two were wed in 2003.
“In Chicago theater I was able to have a really rewarding career based on the merit of my work, but in Los Angeles there just isn’t a community that works like that,” says Offerman. “At the time, I was auditioning for commercials because that’s one of the ways you can make money while you’re waiting for your Dawson’s Creek to hit, and I had sort of an epiphany, quit doing commercial auditions and started devoting that time to carpentry work, and that quickly turned into heirloom furniture pieces. So I sort of survived in the business by ignoring the business.
“People would ask, ‘Is it hard waiting for your big break?’ And I was working as an actor consistently my whole time in L.A., but when it’s as a journeyman there’s an element of disappointment in the eyes of others. Because until you’re on a show like Will & Grace or Parks and Recreation, people think you haven’t succeeded yet. I was making a nice living as a respected character actor and I felt like a huge success. I did a lot of great work I was proud of—a lot of great theater in the first 10 years of this century and I also developed my woodshop—so I was really happy with my career in show business.”
As a boy, Offerman was raised just three miles from the farms where his parents had grown up in the village of Minooka, Illinois. He worked on his grandfather’s farm with his uncles, where they grew corn and soybeans and, all the way up through his high-school years, raised hogs. His grandfather was also the town’s mayor, who, Offerman says, held a “constant expression of indignation” meant to be taken with a sense of humor. The young Offerman learned carpentry fundamentals and how to use tools, and would ride bikes, go fishing and chase girls around town. He and his cousin had a breakdance duo in the mid ’80s called “Flip-Flop and Tick-Tock.” “We were known around the Channahon roller rink,” says Offerman.
“The world I grew up in really lacked popular culture,” he continues. “I didn’t know anybody in my whole community who worked in any version of the arts. Going into something artistic, I might as well have said I was going into Wizardry and The Warlock Studies… I was an attention-getting ham in whatever situation I was in, but it was only when I was looking for colleges that I found out you could actually study theater and become a professional actor in a big American city for a living.”
After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Offerman and some friends started a theatre company in Chicago called The Defiant Theatre. Valued more for his carpentry skills than his acting, Offerman was cast into small parts so that he would build the show’s set. “So I exploited that transaction as I slowly accrued decency onstage,” he says, and after roughly a year he got a lead role in a show. That led to about four years of growing success with his company and several others including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, Wisdom Bridge and Pegasus Players. In addition to acting, he continued building scenery and props, choreographed fights and worked in special effects and makeup design.
After a few starring and acclaimed roles, Offerman, then 26, started looking forward to where his career might be headed. Learning that his 40-year-old friend who’d been “doing shows at the big theaters that had the biggest paychecks” had cleared only about $38,000 in a year, and hearing Hollywood was “looking for people with funny faces”—not to mention his need for insurance for dental surgery to fix a severely decaying molar—Offerman moved out of the Midwest and onwards to Los Angeles.
Highlights from Offerman’s television filmography over the years leading up to his “big break” look something like this: one-off appearances on ER, The West Wing, Will & Grace, NYPD Blue, The King of Queens, Deadwood, Monk, CSI: NY, a couple episodes of Gilmore Girls, a few of 24 and a repeating role on George Lopez where he played Lopez’s mother’s fiancé. He was also cast in roles of varying sizes in several films including Miss Congeniality 2, Sin City, Wristcutters: A Love Story and The Men Who Stare at Goats. And in 2007, Offerman was cast as one of the leads on the Comedy Central series American Bodyshop, which ran for just 10 episodes but, as Offerman says, “opened some eyes in the business that I could perhaps be humorous.”
Soon thereafter, Mullally was cast as the lead in Mel Brooks’ original Broadway musical, Young Frankenstein, and the couple moved to New York. “We have a deal,” says Offerman, “our marriage doesn’t brook separation; so any job that would keep us apart for more than two weeks, we have to have either a good plan to visit each other or one of us goes with.”
In that time, Offerman resettled himself—mostly away from his career, shop and clientele—and built his first canoe. After reading the canoe-builder’s textbook, Canoecraft, and calling the renowned Bear Mountain Boat Shop to order parts and plans for building, he was enlisted to produce an accompanying video to the book. And so he documented his process step-by-step for a DVD called Fine Woodstrip Canoe Building. Today, when speaking of this year and a half in New York—where he acted in the off-Broadway musical The Adding Machine, appeared in the romantic mystery All Good Things with Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst and started doing shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (through the help of Poehler, a friend from Chicago)—Offerman is sure to insist that the building of the canoe was the most important work he completed, citing it as “a huge blossoming in my creativity and my life.”
The timing was such that when he moved back to Los Angeles there were murmurs of a spinoff in the works to NBC’s successful comedy series The Office, which would star Poehler. He was called in for a meeting on the basis of an audition he’d given for The Office a few years earlier and before long, Offerman’s big break had arrived.
A simple, well-spoken outdoors-type, absurd but sensible in his love for tangible craftsman effort (and breakfast), the Ron Swanson character is devoid of a regional American preference but instead is a mostly sane echoing of those natural impulses that scream outward from our collective patriotic id. Offerman, meanwhile, offers a far less dramatic semblance to the same ideology. “With all the characters, [the show’s creators] took parts of our personalities they thought would make good comedy,” he says, “like a love of meats and breakfast foods or a love of woodworking or a simple life philosophy, living life by a simple set of rules. But any input that I had was purely accidental. I didn’t cleverly plan to be a lover of bacon, it was our writers who saw that and said, ‘Hey, that’s a funny character trait, let’s exploit this jackass.’”
Still, one must admit the similarities are pleasantly reassuring to the notion that a mustachioed, flesh-and-blood Ron Swanson does in some form exist in this reality.
“I’m very lucky,” Offerman says. “I’ve had very good teachers and I just try to pay attention.”
That second canoe the mustache-less Offerman was building in the woodshop that afternoon turned out beautifully, embellished by ebony details as well as a tropical hardwood called “padauk” that the builder had given himself permission to add. It’s fair to call his woodworking an obsession: “It’s the kind of thing I can keep learning hand over fist until I’m in my grave and I still wouldn’t be nearly as good as I’d like to be.
“It’s manly in the way that woodworking involves some muscle and sweat,” Offerman continues, “but you could be crocheting the finest Irish doily; it’s still the same magic to me.” F
This article is from FILTER Issue 45