As the curmudgeonly new detective Everett Backstrom, Rainn Wilson is up against some stiff TV competition.

Share story

My, this Everett Backstrom is a miserable sot.

Along with being a steady drinker, the Fox television detective is racist, slovenly, cynical and swipes at the world with condescension and impatience.

So you have to ask Rainn Wilson: Why take him on after playing the weirdly wonderful, plot-hatching beet farmer Dwight Schrute for eight seasons of “The Office”?

Watch it

‘Backstrom’

9-10 p.m. Thursday, Fox.

“This is what made the character so interesting to me,” Wilson said of “Backstrom,” which premiered on Fox Jan. 22. “Why does he see everything through such a dark lens? Why is he filled with so much hatred, but also loathing for himself?”

They’re questions for which viewers of the show will get some answers, Wilson promises, if they’ll give him a chance.

It’s a high hope, considering what the show is up against at 9 p.m. on Thursdays: “Scandal,” “The Black List” and, until Feb. 19, the long-running “Two and a Half Men.”

“Even so, we’re hanging in,” Wilson said. Last week, ratings picked up 20 percent, with “zero promotion” from Fox.

“We were hit right away with this kind of snarky assumption that it’s ‘House’ with a badge,” he said. “People rolled their eyes and dismissed it summarily. But the show is much more than that. It’s tricky, complicated and an interesting show.

“As people get to know it, they’re enjoying it.”

Wilson, 49, was on the phone from his home in Agoura Hills, Calif., where he lives with his wife, writer Holiday Reinhorn and their 10-year-old son, Walter.

There was much to talk about for the Seattle native, who still has family here, is a die-hard Seahawks fan and last year joined the board of the Mona Foundation, a Kirkland-based nonprofit aimed at providing educational opportunities for girls all over the world.

He got involved in 2008, when his “Office” success (read: money and fame) took hold, and charities started coming around for help. Did he want to get involved in politics? Social responsibility?

“I needed to do some soul-searching about where I wanted to put my time and energy and, frankly, my money.”

Wilson consulted with his father, Robert, who had a long-standing friendship with Mona Foundation founder Mahnaz Javid, and recommended he take a look at what she was doing.

“The more I dug in, the more I fell in love with it,” Wilson said. “The Mona Foundation scours the world and finds really grass-roots education projects that are already working and develops a long-term plan and finds the funding.

“As a charity, it’s not terribly sexy,” he added. “Someone’s not going to fly in on a military helicopter and build a well.”

But he and his family have traveled to Haiti about six times to visit schools (once just before the 2010 earthquake), and are headed back during his son’s spring break.

There have been critics, those who have said he should use his wealth and fame for a more local cause, an idea that he calls “preposterous.”

“To me, humanity is one family,” Wilson said.

Educating women and girls, he said, improves not just their lives, but those around them. Not just their livelihoods, but their health, and their futures.

“Women spread what they learn,” Wilson said. “When you educate a girl, you’re educating a whole village.”

He wrote an op-ed piece about it for International Women’s Day, which falls on March 8.

On the personal front, he is writing a book, what he calls “A comedic memoir of my life, growing up nerdy in Seattle.” He hopes to publish within a year.

He was born in Seattle and attended school in Shoreline through the 10th grade, where he played clarinet and bassoon in the band at Shorecrest High School. His family moved to Illinois to serve at the Baha’i National Center in Evanston.

He returned to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where he met his wife.

Their first date was at the Sea-Thai Restaurant in Wallingford; another early one was at the 13 Coins. (“We love that place,” he said. “Three in the morning fettuccine Alfredo.”)

Wilson is still a regular around these parts; his father and stepmother live in Wenatchee, where she sells jewelry in the public market.

Every time he comes back, he said, something has changed.

“Seattle is so different from when I was there in the ‘70s and early ‘80s,” Wilson said. “It used to be this blue-collar town of fishermen and Boeing workers. Now it’s high-tech and flush with money. Back then, the idea of that happening was ludicrous.

“But it’s my hometown and near and dear to my heart.”

He still has an elementary-school photo of himself wearing a Seahawks T-shirt. He’s been a fan for decades and has become an unofficial spokesman for the team on the sports-channel and talk-show circuit.

So, where was he on Super Bowl Sunday? Driving home from an event and not wanting to know anything about the game until he got home and had the chance to watch it on TiVo.

That meant no radio in the car. That meant turning off his phone.

“Even when we went into a gas station, I was terrified it would be on,” he said. “So we hit it like a SWAT team, not interacting with anyone.”

Wilson got home about 90 minutes into the game, when the Seahawks were still in it.

And then they weren’t.

“Terrible depression,” he said of the days after. “Next year, baby.”