Over the course of his career, Rainn Wilson has done a lot as an actor, writer, director and producer, not the least of which was being an integral part of the American version of The Office. But these days, he seems to be having some of his most fulfilling moments as an artist by voicing the role of the Man of Steel’s arch enemy, Lex Luthor, in the two animated superhero features The Death of Superman and The Reign of the Supermen (the latter of which is available for download and purchase on January 29), and having the recurring role of intergalactic conman Harry Mudd on the CBS All Access series, Star Trek: Discovery.
“Listen,” he shares in an exclusive interview, “when I grew up in the ’70s, I would come home from school and I would watch two shows: the George Reeves Superman — that’s how old I am; it was still being shown after school — and Star Trek reruns. And now I get to be in the Superman world and I get to be in the Star Trek world, even just a little bit — it’s a dream come true. I grew up reading comics, I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy. My father was a science fiction writer, so these have always been my favorite genres. I love being a part of the sci-fi and superhero comic worlds.”
The reason for the appeal of both subjects is that they are, at their core, about humanity and fighting for the fate of humanity.
“Epic battles,” Rainn muses. “It’s mythology, it’s good versus evil. Rising to our best selves, individually and as a species. That’s what the Superman universe did and that’s what Star Trek did on a big scope. I think that comic books are the Shakespeare of our day. They’re huge mythologies and they’re about the human condition. We care about these characters and their journeys, and we love them. It’s about life and death and birth and redemption; human mythological stories. The language may not be quite as highfalutin, but these are great archetypal characters in huge human stories.”
“Superman,” he notes, “was always trying to do the right thing and it’s a lot of fun along the way. I’ve gotten to play more of the villainous characters, but I think that suits me because I wouldn’t know how to play a straight-up leading guy.”
And interestingly, in the Superman films, he’s not a straight-up bad guy, either. “Lex operates in this really interesting middle ground,” he explains, “where he’s kind of a super-villain, but he’s also an ally of the other characters. He spends half the time being Superman’s friend and half the time trying to kill him. That’s a really interesting line to walk. I feel like Lex Luthor’s journey is that if he was just a little bit more humble and had a little bit more wisdom, he could have anything he wanted. But that arrogance, that narcissism, always seems to take him over and push him to the dark side. It’s really fun. I think the audience loves to hate Luthor and they’re rooting for him, like, ‘Come on, stay on the good side,’ but at the same time they kind of love it when he goes over to the dark side and becomes a villain.”
The actor actually finds some common ground between Luthor and his Star Trek character of Harry Mudd, which, as played by the late Roger C. Carmel, was actually introduced on the original series from the 1960s that stars William Shatner and the late Leonard Nimoy.
“Harry Mudd plays an interesting role in Star Trek in that he’s kind of bad,” he says. “He’s like Lex: he’s charming, he’s lovable, self-serving, and I just tried to bring as much life to him as possible, including humor and delicious dastardliness. I love the role he plays, too, because he’s a civilian. It’s very rare that you meet civilians in the Federation. Everyone’s in the Federation or they’re in Starfleet or they’re aliens. You don’t meet, like, a regular person who’s living on one of the thousands of star systems that they administer. That’s just a really interesting aspect of him as well.”
As interesting for him was the opportunity to direct one of the Star Trek: Short Treks which were produced between seasons. His, “The Escape Artist,” was a Harry Mudd-centric episode. “They were doing these Star Trek short films and they had an idea for a Mudd episode, and I think they thought, ‘Well, I don’t know that we can get Rainn to just fly up and shoot for four days. We don’t have that much money. These are kind of low budget-ish kind of things to pay him for it. Can’t pay him for like a full episode even. But I bet he would do it if he directed,’ and they kind of secretly looked at The Office episodes I directed and some other stuff that I had done and produced, and they rolled the dice and offered me both at the same time. Directing and starring in it. It was a great challenge to do both. Lot of special effects and visual effects and aliens and androids, but it was super, super fun. It was really hard, but really fun. I learned a ton and used a storyboard artist for the first time.”
Probably most surprising was the response to a moment where (and here come spoilers) there was a reveal of numerous Harry androids, a callback (or is that a call-forward?) to the “I, Mudd” episode of the original series. “There was an uproar online,” he laughs. “I was reading something online about … ‘Mudd can’t have androids. This is before “I, Mudd,” and that’s when he discovered androids.’ And it’s like, well, he could’ve been involved with androids before he went to the android planet. In fact, that might have been what brought him to the android planet. In any case, it’s a nice connection. There’s something about Mudd and androids that seem to fit together very well.”
For more on Rainn’s views of Lex Luthor — and to meet every actor who has played the part — just scroll down!