"Most people have a slight disappointment that I’m not always wielding a two-pound steak and chugging from a bottle of scotch.”
Nick Offerman is, of course, talking about Ron Swanson—the burly, mustachioed Libertarian he portrays on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, whose love of meat and America is rivaled only by his hatred of bureaucracy.
“Where it hits most poignantly is when I’m in a restaurant or something,” he says, sounding genuinely sorrowful. “And it’s a wonderful problem—but a chef will recognize me and send over three pounds of bacon and a dozen fried eggs. And 23-year-old me says ‘You have struck pay dirt, my friend.’ But the 44-year-old me says, ‘You will literally kill me if I consume this generous gift.’”
It’s one of the curses of having created an iconic character, and Ron Swanson belongs in any serious conversation about the greatest characters in televised comedy post-Seinfeld.
In some ways, it’s difficult to separate Offerman from Swanson—creator from creation. And Offerman himself admits the line between he and Swanson is a thin one.
“Some young ladies in airports will approach me trembling and they’ll say, ‘Ron Swanson?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, no. My name is Nick. I’m an actor. I play Ron Swanson, among other roles.’” He pauses and chuckles a little. “And, you know, they don’t care. So then I usually say, ‘All right, give me all the bacon and eggs you have.’”
In conversation, the similarities between Offerman and Swanson are hard to ignore. Both are given to waxing poetic about the joys of woodworking and the virtues of the simple life.
However, Offerman is far less curmudgeonly than his Parks and Rec counterpart, and he’s gifted with a frequently astonishing vocabulary. But the differences are more than superficial. There is a depth to Offerman that defies not only the character he’s come to be associated with, but the Hollywood stereotype as a whole.
We call our celebrities “stars” because of their stratospheric glamor. Offerman, however, seems bound and determined to keep his feet on the ground. And he wants to teach the rest of the world do the same.
Growing Up Offerman
“It seemed pretty clear from a young age that I had a penchant for performance,” Offerman says. “But we came from such a small town that I don’t think anybody ever thought that I’d be able to get from there to where I am now—including myself.”
That small town was Minooka, Illinois, about an hour outside of Chicago. It was an unlikely springboard for a successful acting career, but Offerman had plenty of support.
“I had a very supportive family, and even though I probably annoyed them at times, I always seemed to achieve most things that I set out to do,” he says.
Plenty of encouragement and a natural talent gave Offerman the raw materials for success, which he put to use in Chicago’s famed live theater scene (where he first befriended then-rising Chicago improv star, Amy Poehler). But his younger dreams of stardom were very different from his current reality.
“When you have expectations of any sort of success fantasy, I think it can’t help but be somewhat disparate from what the reality will turn out to be,” he says. “For one thing, I was younger when I would imagine getting good jobs. The dreams and hopes of a young man are, in my case, more superficial. You think, ‘Man, if I make some money one of these days, I’m going to get a ’68 Chevelle convertible and my life is going to look like a David Lee Roth video.’”
“I grew up among people who make things with their hands. I do a lot of my living with my tools. I would urge people to look into making things with their creativity.”
He laughs at this. Superficially, his laugh is his most charming trait (just watch the 1:30 mark on the video embedded above). While he speaks with great deliberation, he’s surprisingly prone to an easy, delighted chuckle.
“Then, I spent many years living in reality,” he explains. “And by the time I could afford that muscle car, my needs were much different. I realized that if I tried to make my life look like a David Lee Roth video, that would be irresponsible and foolish. By the time I made some extra income, I thought ‘Oh good! Now I can buy that nice new hammer I’ve been looking for!’ or ‘Now I can get that shoelace fixed!’”
A good deal of Offerman’s levelheaded nature comes from his commitment to artisan craftsmanship and sustainability, which he calls his “soapbox.”
“It’s just simply who I am,” he says. “I grew up among people who make things with their hands. I do a lot of my living with my tools. As I became a woodworker and started building canoes and furniture, and then when I began to have more success as an actor and people began interviewing me for publications, I said ‘Hey, if there’s anything I feel would be relevant to talk about it’s that ... I would urge people to look into making things with their creativity.’
“Part of the disease of modern, lazy consumerism is that a lot of the population lives in their screens these days,” he explains. “And people are losing the ability to change a light bulb, let alone change their oil or a tire on their car. And God forbid you have to build a doghouse or a fence.”
Suffice it to say, Offerman—who owns and operates Offerman Woodshop in East Los Angeles—can build a doghouse or a fence. He’s also capable of building some fine tables and his great love: canoes.
“I’m not amazing at it,” he admits. “I’m one of the multitude of people in this country who can use tools, but we’re a small multitude. I derive a great sense of pleasure and satisfaction when I do something around the house. I don’t have to call somebody and pay a $178 dollars to fix a scratch in the drywall. We should all be more Jeffersonian in that we are able to sustain our own lives without having to buy crap from China.”
The Good Story
For all that, Offerman is not the Luddite his legions of fans may be tempted to paint him as. He’s a lover of new media, and is unconcerned by the rapidly changing landscape of film and television.
“I think good material is good material, whether it’s funny or dramatic,” he says. “However we’re able to see it, I don’t really have a gripe with. At the moment, everything is shifting. There’s not a solid bedrock in place. But the nice thing is, after so many years of working hard, I still am incredibly grateful any time someone thinks of me. If I get a call from someone and they say they read a script and thought of me”—there’s that chuckle again—“I feel incredibly humbled and just think, ‘Boy, I sure am glad I put in all that hard work and didn’t become some sort of cocaine fiend.’”
People do think of him, and often. As Parks and Rec takes a bow (this next season will be its last), Offerman’s opportunities are ramping up. He’s had several film roles in 2014, including smash hits like The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street alongside quieter affairs like Knight of Cups and faith-based film Believe Me.
If all that has made Offerman a more welcome presence on screen, it’s also made him a more recognizable public figure. Some of the trials that brings with it—like free servings of eggs and bacon—are manageable. Some are less tangible and, perhaps, more vexing.
“My one rule is, if I have a meal happening and I’m approached, then I’m like a wild beast protecting my kill,” Offerman says. “I say, ‘Please let me finish my meal and then I’ll be happy to shake hands or take a picture.’ It’s a weird thing. We’re in everybody’s pockets constantly now. If you happen to see Nick Kroll at the airport, you can pull out your gadget and see anything he’s ever done. It gives people a sense of propriety. They say, ‘Hey, you’re in my world. I own part of you.’”
“After so many years of working hard, I still am incredibly grateful anytime someone thinks of me.”
Offerman turned 44 this year, which makes him just old enough to recall a time when, contrary to today’s TMZ-fueled age of 24-hour celebrity gossip, celebrity lent an air of inaccessibility.
“I feel like there’s a real diffusion of the sort of magic that was once associated with Hollywood and with actors working on those levels,” he says. “When I was a kid and there were three TV channels, film stars, especially, were incredibly enigmatic and mysterious. The only time you would see them as human beings was if you watched the Oscars. You’d see John Wayne walking around with a cane. Or you’d see Harrison Ford not in costume and you’d think, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s a real guy!’”
It’s a bygone era of Hollywood mystique, and Offerman speaks of it a bit wistfully.
“That lent this incredibly special, iconic quality to these figures. Now, anybody who appears on anything remotely popular, you’ve got 300 things a day on the Internet—just amateur opinions and blogs and press items. By the time you’ve finished the first season of the TV show, the whole world knows your shoe size and what rash you had when you were 14. That, to me, has been the biggest change. The entire world has access to everybody, much more than we used to.”
If it sounds like he’s complaining, he’s quick to correct it.
“But, at the same time, every time someone approaches me or even stares at me, it’s a reminder that I’m an incredibly lucky boy. I have one of the greatest jobs in the history of entertainment. I can never escape that.”
Home on the Range
It’s one thing to be obsessed over as an individual, but Offerman is also part of a highly public marriage to Megan Mullally, who these days is best known for playing Ron Swanson’s ex-wife Tammy on Parks and Rec, and also has snagged a couple of Emmy Awards for her role as Karen Walker on Will & Grace.
This year, they’ll celebrate the 11th year of a marriage that has been, by all accounts, a happy one. They share one email address, wrapped up an off-Broadway show together in June and were dubbed “Earth’s greatest love” by New York Magazine, but the very fact that people talk about them is a bit odd to Offerman.
“It’s weird,” he says. “To have your life scrutinized is one thing. You can wrap your head around the superficiality of that. But then when your relationship comes under the magnifying glass, it’s a little weird when that gets lionized.”
He speaks about Mullally with palpable fondness—the two have none of the stoic, robotic affection one tends to associate with celebrity marriages. They share a goofy, playful dynamic. For aficionados of celebrity love, it’s novel. For Offerman, it’s life.
“I come from a fantastic family, and my mom and dad are a great example of a marriage full of love and fidelity,” he says. “And I endeavor, as does Megan, to make ours the same, just like anybody. We’re lucky, sure, but we also work at it. We’re not Disney characters. We anger each other over who left the top off the toothpaste tube. There’s not a Hollywood magic spell going on. We’re just two people who picked the right spouse.
“So everybody settle down.”
Parks and Next
Back in 2009, there was little to hint that Parks and Recreation had the makings of a great show. It was Office creator Greg Daniels’ second show and, given its similar workplace vibe and single camera setup, it couldn’t help but be compared to Michael Scott and the gang’s devastating satire of the American career. But it was all a setup for things to come.
In its second season, Parks and Rec began finding its footing as a very different show than The Office. The show has one of the most enviably gifted casts in television history. In addition to Offerman, it has launched careers for Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt, Rashida Jones and Adam Scott and breathed new wind in the sails of Rob Lowe. Offerman gives credit to the show’s creators.
“Greg created the paradigm in which we could thrive. And [Parks and Rec co-creator] Mike Schur did a lot of the best stuff on The Office. So Greg sort of had a bubble of protection around us in which the company, NBC, let us do whatever we want. Mike took the ball and ran. He’s an incredibly intelligent and warm and loving and astonishingly hilarious individual. It’s unbelievable.”
That warm and loving nature was part of what distanced Parks and Rec from The Office. Offerman and Co. are an altogether more optimistic bunch than Michael Scott and his denizens of long-suffering drones. The Office was about finding happiness in spite of your job. Parks and Rec is about finding happiness in the midst of it. Michael Scott and Leslie Knope are both gunning for that World’s Best Boss coffee mug, but only Knope understands that the secret to earning it is by helping her team become the World’s Best Employees.
That’s something Offerman understands, as well.
“You put Amy Poehler in there, who’s a ridiculous bundle of sunshine and comedic talent and also an incredible leader of people. Amy is the kind of person who could be elected to office if she so chose. She’s incredibly galvanizing to those around her. And a cast of really cute and talented people—and also myself—we’ve been able to put together a formula that hung on by the hairs on our chin.”
And the show has hung on long enough to see Offerman and his fellow cast members move on to whatever’s next. Offerman has several movies in pre-production and is hard at work on his second book.
“I like performing good writing. Wherever there’s delicious material to pass along to the audience, I’m happy to be involved. If I keep getting jobs, I’ll keep minding my manners and feel-
ing like the luckiest boy in town.”
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