Rainn Wilson on bringing the laughs to end-of-life drama Blackbird
Whether it's in his personal life or on set, Rainn Wilson likes to make people laugh.
The Office alum's penchant for hilarity especially came in handy on set of his new film, Blackbird. In it, married couple Lily (Susan Sarandon) and Paul (Sam Neill) summon their loved ones to their beach house for one final gathering after Lily decides to end her long battle with ALS on her own terms. Along for the ride are their lifelong friend (Lindsay Duncan), daughters Jennifer (Kate Winslet) and Anna (Mia Wasikowska), Jennifer's husband (Wilson) and son (Anson Boon), and Anna's partner (Bex Taylor-Klaus). It's heavy stuff, but it's punctuated with moments of comedy — usually from Wilson's character, Michael, as seen in moments like the exclusive clip from the film, above.
Ahead of Blackbird's release in select theaters and on demand this Friday, Wilson opened up to EW about the importance of finding that levity in a drama, the tattoo that the entire cast got together, making a "tragic" and "hysterical" sex scene with Winslet, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What about this project made you want to sign on for it?
RAINN WILSON: Well, they were like, "You will have a sex scene with Kate Winslet." So I was like, "I'm in. I don't need to read the script, just where do I sign? Where's the contract?" [Laughs.] No, they sent me the script and I just thought it was beautiful. I was really struck by how sensitive it was around this issue. It's a movie about death, and yet it's a movie about life. And it's so filled with warmth and humanity and humor and love and family, that it reminded me of some of the great plays, like a Chekhov play that is equal parts comedy and drama.
The way it's shot and staged felt very much like a play as well.
Right, right. Yeah, and [DP Mike Eley] shot it that way on purpose, and we rehearsed it as a play. We got in a week early, and we all were rehearsing and got to read through the [script], give notes on the scenes, get to know each other, hang out with each other, get the vibe, get the energy. We really gelled as a cast, and we had just a fantastic time working together. And that really helped the energy of the ensemble as we started shooting. That was very much like theater.
I heard that you kept everyone laughing on set. Is that something that you try to bring to every set, or was it especially important on this one, given the subject matter?
Well, I kind of like to make people laugh. It's kind of in my nature, always has been since junior high school. It's probably the reason I became an actor. I do think it's especially important on a movie that has a subject matter that is as deep and as serious as this one, to find that levity and that connection both for the ensemble and on camera as well. So I was really happy when we screened it last year at the Toronto Film Festival with how much laughter the film got in the screenings.
Were there any jokes or pranks or memories from set that stick out to you?
Well, only that Sam Neill is truly one of the funniest human beings on the planet and he made me laugh so much. It started to bleed over into our characters, where his character in the film just was perplexed by my character and just kind of put off [by him]. So our joking around off screen became kind of joking on the screen and it's very funny to me.
The film deals with assisted death, which is somewhat controversial. Were there a lot of conversations on set about how everyone would handle this situation, if it happened to them?
Yeah, we did. We had long, intense conversations about it. And I think, you know, we all agreed that it's not really how long you're alive, it's really the quality of your life, and kind of how you go out. If you go out surrounded by loved ones, filled with light and love and laughter and family and joy, that's what's most important and that's really what this film is about. This is not a Hallmark Channel weepy film, there is definitely tears to be had. This is about how complex family is, and how mysterious and kind of undefinable the human experience is.
One of the things that struck me about the film is how everyone truly felt like a family. How did you all tap into that?
Well, it wasn't just the rehearsal, it was the fact that we all had a theater background. The whole film is shot pretty much in the same house. We all lived within about half a mile from that house. So, it was this deeply immersive experience. In fact, when we were done, we all got blackbird tattoos. Every single person, including the director, got a blackbird tattoo to kind of commemorate our experience together. I'm being totally serious.
What is the tattoo of?
It's a little image of a blackbird. Yes, we all have it on various parts of our bodies. Sam Neill I believe got it on his penis.
Okay, now you're joking.
You mentioned the sex scene between your character and Kate Winslet's character. In the film, it's one of the great moments of some comedic relief. Was it written that way or did that come about as you were filming?
Well, I'm glad that my sexual prowess could be used for comedic fodder. [Laughs.] Yeah, we always knew it'd be funny. It's touching, heartbreaking, tragic, passionate and it's hysterical at the same time. You're just looking for that sweet spot where every scene, whether we're cooking or washing dishes, or taking a walk on the beach, is filled with the stuff of life.
Right, and life is not perfectly choreographed.
Life is very short and incredibly precious. My father passed away last month. And death is something we all are going to experience and it's all something we share. It's something culturally we don't talk about, [but] there's no greater topic for us to dive into.
What did you take away from this experience? And what do you hope that the audience takes away?
Well, what I took away was an incredible actor's experience, one of the most incredible actor's experiences I'll ever have living in a beautiful English beach house on the coast, improvising and digging into a beautiful script with some of the world's greatest actors, literally. But, what I hope the audience will take away, is that life is incredibly precious, and we need to keep those that we love as close as possible.
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