An Interview with Baha’i Actor Rainn Wilson

A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of meeting up with actor Rainn Wilson. We have a bunch of mutual friends and they always spoke so highly of him – not just because he’s such a great actor and played the role of Dwight Schrute so brilliantly in the hit TV show The Office – but more importantly because he was just a really nice down-to-earth guy who was sincere in his desire to serve humanity.

Well, my friends were right! I was finally able to meet him at the Texas Baha’i School a couple of months back, and let’s just say I wanted to hug him straight away. His spirit of humility and his attitude of service to others made my heart smile. He was one of the main speakers at the school and his humble posture of learning and dedication and focus on working with others, and especially teenagers was awesome.

I wasn’t going to ask him, but it’s not everyday you get to hang out with a Baha’i actor with celebrity status, and I know a lot of my friends and other Baha’is around the world are curious about him and would love to get to know him more, so Rainn happily agreed to be interviewed on Baha’i Blog.

Baha’i Blog: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview Rainn! Something I know a lot of Baha’is want to know is what it’s like being a Baha’i in Hollywood, and what’s the general perception of the Faith among those you’ve come across – do a lot of people in Hollywood know about the Baha’i Faith?

There are a TON of misconceptions about Hollywood. You read a lot of insane stories in the press about decadence and celebrity train wrecks and, although those things really exist, the majority of the people in the entertainment industry are focused on doing high-quality work, making the world a better place, cherishing families and engaging in their community. I won’t say its perfect here in LA (far from it!) , but 90% of the people in show biz are really good people, trying their best and having regular old human struggles on a daily basis. I’ve worked a lot of jobs and believe me, the insurance industry in New York City is WAY more venal, competitive and back-stabbing than anything in Hollywood. Materialism is definitely a powerful force here in LA. It determines status. For the first 5 or 6 years I was here I drove old dumpy volvos that were always on the verge of breaking down. People really notice these things and i was judged accordingly. It’s preposterous really, to be sized up by what you drive.

And this exists in the Baha’i community in Southern California as well. Status, class, clothes and cars are very much ‘noted’ at many Baha’i gatherings. It’s so sad. Can you imagine going to the next world and having to have a conversation with God and Baha’u’llah about how much time and attention in your life you devoted to material things, class and status!? That would be the most depressing thing ever.

But materialism is rampant everywhere and our Baha’i communities often reflect the qualities of the outside world.

Lots of people know about the Faith in LA and many of the Office cast have come to gatherings that my wife and I have hosted. People have a pretty positive view of the Baha’is and are very upset about the terrible persecution they’re suffering in the birthplace of our Faith, Iran.

(By the way, I drive a nice but very plain Chevy Volt right now. Low emissions and a great sound system!)

Baha’i Blog: You had mentioned that one of your personal mentors was Baha’i writer/director Mark Bamford, and that he had once said that he had decided that his ‘Baha’i’ community life and ‘non-Baha’i life’ were going to be one in the same, and that this was something that always stuck with you. Can you elaborate on this please?

I had a great Baha’i teacher when I moved to Los Angeles in 1999. I was just tip-toeing tentatively back into the community as I had turned my back on religion for the previous ten years and while at a very crowded and confusing event at the LA Baha’i Center I met this very tall, very commanding young man named Mark Bamford. Him and his brilliant wife Suzanne had weekly gatherings at their house that were always filled with really cool, diverse people talking about the big ideas of the universe and the realities of being a person of faith. He was a screenwriter and director and exemplified for me how you could have a sense of humor while working in the industry AND have a strong foundation of faith and service at the same time.

One thing Mark said to me, stuck with me. He said he always would follow his commitments to the Faith with the same exacting discipline as he would his professional commitments. He said, most Baha’is would never show up 20 minutes late to a meeting with Spielberg. Why do they show up 20 minutes late to a Baha’i meeting? That’s a hypocritical double standard.

Baha’i Blog: So do you have any advice for someone who’s struggling to find his or her place in the community?

This is a tough one. There’s like 150 thousand Baha’is in the US and many of them are rarely ‘active’ in their communities. That’s about how many people belong to one enormous mega-church. And we’re scattered all over the continent. We’re really very small as a community.

One thing that Shoghi Effendi once told Enoch Olinga (as related to me by Hooper Dunbar) is that the Faith needed “crazy lovers”.

Be a crazy lover and you create your own community. Don’t look around and go, ‘man all these old farts have such boring Feasts and are so weird, I want nothing to do with this community!’ Create your own.

If your love for Baha’u’llah’s message is pure and passionate and you believe that his revelation holds the key for the peace and salvation of human kind, you need to change your whole relationship to the Baha’i community. Remember how JFK said, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country? Too many folks, youth especially, show up to gatherings and kind of look around and say “I’m not getting much out of this.” Forget that way of thinking. Show up in a spirit of service, lit by the fuel of love for Baha’u’llah and ask what you can do to uplift and move forward your community.

And what we think of as community is changing. The thing we’ve really been finding out over the last ten years is that the Faith, as guided by the Universal House of Justice, has a fantastic plan to transform us locally and globally. Get together with your friends and neighbors and pray and sing and talk and serve and teach children and galvanize youth towards service and the arts. That’s your community. Doesn’t matter if they’re all Catholics or Atheists or Muslims!

I would say to any young Baha’i that their love for God and service as well as Baha’u’llah and his message need to be the battery that you draw your strength from. The source is his teachings.

Actually read the holy writings. I’m amazed by the number of young Baha’is that never really do.

Baha’i Blog: You mentioned a personal interest in the more mystical elements of the Baha’i Faith. Can you tell us a little more about that?

I love mystery. I love transcendence. I like music that transports your soul in indefinable ways. I love it when you see a bunch of swooshes and blobs of paint that have been lovingly, inexplicably put on a canvas and you can be moved to tears with the astounding beauty of it.

When I was finding my way back to faith after some dark ‘self-filled’ times, I was reading about Native American spirituality and the Lakota concept for God was “Wankan Tanka”, the Great Mystery. Ancient, loving, father-God of the directions, of nature, of our ancestors. These readings taught me to see God in a new, deeper, fresher way.

I read the teachings of the Buddha frequently and I love the concept of Maya or Samsara, where our physical universe is a dream, an illusion and our spiritual selves are our true reality.

Baha’u’llah teaches: “Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form when within thee the universe is folded?” And Abdu’l-Baha urges us all to become “incarnate light.”

These are the teachings that resonate deepest with me as a spiritual being having a human experience (to quote DeChardin).

Shoghi Effendi says that the core of religious faith is “that mystical feeling that unites man with God.” Too often us Baha’is are too focused on the draining administrative work and not getting connected to the source, The Great Mystery.

Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us about some of your initiatives like SoulPancake, and why they are important to you?

SoulPancake was never a Baha’i thing, but it is a Baha’i inspired thing. It’s a website, app, book, YouTube channel and media company that seeks to explore “Life’s Big Questions” and uplift and challenge audiences to dig into what it really means to be human. It’s a service for young people. A place for people to go to find light and laughter and meaningful dialogue about death and faith and love. The Universal House of Justice urges us to seek out conversation with our communities on the issues that matter to us most, this is what SoulPancake strives to do.

It is, at its heart, the fullest testament to Baha’u’llah’s teaching of the “Independent Investigation of Truth” as we could create.

Baha’i Blog: What message do you have to other aspiring actors and artists out there?

Art is something that needs to be studied, trained for and worked at. Find the very best schools and teachers and mentors. Put in those ten thousand hours. Sacrifice for your art. Understand the difference between being an amateur and a professional artist. There’s NOTHING wrong with being an amateur, but if you want to be a professional, dig in with all of your being as if you were committing ten years to the study of being a brain surgeon.

Life is fleeting. Strive for greatness. View your art as service and you’ll never go wrong.

Baha’i Blog: It was truly great meeting you Rainn, and thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview!

You can find out more about Rainn Wilson’s Hollywood career from his profile page on IMDB, and you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook as well!

Also, if you haven’t checked out SoulPancake yet, I highly recommend it!

About the Author

Naysan is the editor of Baha'i Blog and he has worked in various avenues of media for two decades. He’s passionate about using the arts and media to support and explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and he has produced and collaborated on popular music projects like the "DawnBreaker Collective" and the successful Ruhi-inspired sequence of "MANA" albums. His experience as a producer for CNN was invaluable while working on a number of special projects for the Baha’i World Centre, including the "Building Momentum" and "Pilgrimage: A Sacred Experience" videos. If there’s a media-related Baha’i project out there, chances are that Naysan was involved with it somehow!

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Discussion 5 Comments

  1. So refreshing at last to read a candid assessment of seven crises in and beyond the Baha’i community – especially galling are our internal problems described by Rainn which mirror the experiences my wife and I encountered as volunteer custodians of the Sydney Baha’i Centre’s (Australia) 850 seat auditorium for a couple of years recently:

    inactivity
    materialism
    hypocrisy
    boring Feasts
    cursory reading of the Writings
    focussing on the draining admin work
    Baha’i time

    Why is it refreshing Paul?
    Rainn and Baha’i Blog’s editor (Naysan) are not only honest enough to speak the truth but courageous too in sharing it in print.
    While in no way decrying the arts I’d point out that Rainn’s notion of the cure being found there is the questionable part in that few of us are really talented.artists
    Philistines like me can and do get a lot out of the arts and the Writings make it clear how important the arts are for our outreach work too but it’s only by focussing on the fundamental Baha’i principles that all of us can practise together what will bring about the triumph of the Cause, i.e. the only cure. The arts stimulate and inspire us whereas living the principles prove in an enduring way to our neighbours and to seekers that the Baha’is are not hypocrites

    Baha’i love

    Paul

  2. Rainn Wilson is determined, I think, to speak his (often comic, but deeply serious) truths to the Baha’i community. Two summers ago at an ABS conference, he used part of his speaker-time — knowing that the auditorium was filled with young people that may not have attended many other sessions other than the corridor meet ‘n’ greet mills — to movingly implore the young believers, especially those “descendants of the heroes of the Faith”, to not get sucked into their leather jackets and pectoral muscles and nice cars, and to rise and serve the greatest cause there is. Who is better suited than you are? he was saying. And few are in a better position to do this than he is, I’d say. His fame gives him a platform to address ears that most of us can’t really be heard by, and I think he uses it judiciously but boldly. I appreciate the frankness, which I do not find in any way negative or divisive. Very valuable reading, BB.

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