Rainn Wilson raises his eyebrows. His eyes narrow in a serious gaze, looking for all the world like alter ego Dwight Schrute, the neurotic office worker from NBC’s hit comedy series, “The Office.”
The Dwight-familiar look quickly disappears, however, in a broad grin over now graying whiskers, as the actor talks faith, race and a divided America from the perspective of the Baha’i religion.
A devout follower, he was in Chicago for the Baha’i Light of Unity Festival, nine weeks of events through Nov. 12, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of the religion’s founder.
“It’s a religion that essentially believes we need to get rid of not only religious divisions, but race divisions. Our work is centered on elimination of racial prejudice, equality of men and women, and elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty,” the 51-year-old, Emmy-nominated comedian, writer, director and producer said in an exclusive interview.
Raised in the Baha’i faith, Wilson lived on the North Shore for two years as a teen, graduating from New Trier High School. His parents moved here from Seattle to take jobs at the Baha’i National Center in Evanston.
Wilson was in town to headline a Baha’i-sponsored conference for 250 young people ages 15-25 at University of Illinois at Chicago, leading discussions of human quandaries e.g. “Why are we here?”
He told his own story of walking away from God and religion after his career took off.
“I really just rejected God and faith in anything having to do with morality. I just wanted to do my own thing without anyone telling me otherwise,” said Wilson, who attended the University of Washington and got his master’s degree in acting at New York University. He spent 10 years on New York’s theater circuit before moving to L.A.
“I reached a point where I realized my dream was coming true — I was a working actor, which was beyond my wildest dreams — yet I wasn’t happy. It didn’t make any sense to me,” Wilson recounted.
Soul searching brought him back to the Baha’i faith, a journey he shared in his humorous 2015 memoir, “The Bassoon King.” Today, he is a purveyor of all things spiritual, through his digital media company, SoulPancake, and its YouTube channel boasting 2.3 million subscribers. Named one of Fast Company’s 10 Most Innovative Companies in Video in 2015, SoulPancake has been featured by Oprah Winfrey on her SuperSoul Sundays, and was bought last year by Participant Media.
“It’s inspiring, uplifting content for young people that deals with a big issues, like race, gender, climate change, identity, happiness, positive psychology,” said Wilson, who invited the young people at his Chicago conference to see the world’s chaos through spiritual lens.
“My perspective is that the divisions in our world, and America particularly, are increasing, and we need to increase unity. However, Baha’i’s don’t get involved in partisan politics because we believe there’s a spiritual solution to these issues,” Wilson said.
“There’s a spiritual disease underneath racism that has to be addressed, and until we see all of us, no matter what our skin color, as beautiful flowers in the garden of humanity that are vital souls given by God, these divisions will persist. We have to start there, then work on the institutionalized problems of racism that manifest themselves in the system,” he says, sounding far from the egomaniacal Dwight he portrayed in the nine-season comedy.
Married 22 years to fiction writer Holiday Reinhorn, with whom he has a 13-year-old son, Walter, Wilson remembers his time at New Trier fondly. “I’m super grateful for this city because this is where I started acting. I had some great drama teachers that really encouraged me,” he said.
Wilson’s first TV gig came in 1997, on the soap opera, “One Life to Live.” His first film, 1999’s “Galaxy Quest.” You’ll find him in CBS’ new fall series, “Star Trek: Discovery.”
Light of Unity Festival events are being held at the historic Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, the oldest of 10 worldwide.
“It’s not to teach about the Baha’i faith, but to use the inspiration of our teachings to get people thinking about their lives and these issues in a more spiritual way,” said Wilson.
“I feel like my job here on planet earth is to make myself the best possible person that I can be, and at the same time and in equal balance, be of service to others. It’s a twofold purpose that each of us has, maximizing our God-given capacity and finding out that thing that we can do to help and inspire.”