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SYFY WIRE utopia

Utopia's Rainn Wilson describes comic-fueled sci-fi series as 'Stranger Things meets Quentin Tarantino'

By Bryan Cairns
Rainn Wilson Utopia

Rainn Wilson is no stranger to American adaptations of British TV series or the science fiction landscape. The versatile actor spent nine seasons portraying Dwight Schrute on the American version of The Office. He has also appeared in various genre fare spanning decades, including Galaxy Quest, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Star Trek: Discovery, and The Meg. Now he’s marrying both worlds in Amazon Prime’s Utopia, which is now available to stream.

Based on the British cult classic of the same name, Utopia follows a ragtag group of comic book nerds who are convinced that a popular graphic novel has actually predicted the outbreak of future viruses. The unlikely heroes embark on a mission to unravel the truth and possibly save the world. Wilson plays Dr. Michael Stearns, a scientist whose work may hold the key to preventing a pandemic.

In September of last year, SYFY WIRE traveled to Chicago to visit the Utopia set. Although Wilson wasn’t filming that particular day, the 54-year-old called in to discuss joining another American adaptation, conspiracies, and weaving real-world issues into the narrative.      

What attracted you to Utopia in the first place?

Plain and simple, it was the scripts. Showrunner Gillian Flynn sent me the scripts. I didn’t know what to expect, but I read a lot of TV and film. I read the first one and I was immediately sucked in and engrossed. I think the characters were really memorable. Scenarios I had never seen before seemed really fresh and contemporary [to] America. That’s part one.

Part two, I’m looking at the role. Dr. Mike starts a little smaller, starts a little more as a supporting character. He grows with every episode and takes an incredible journey. It’s an amazing hero’s journey that he undergoes, from a basement-dwelling, nerdy, mushroomy scientist in a university lab to an incredible hero, who is thrust onto the world stage with this mysterious disease and biotech stuff that is happening throughout the course of the story.

Is he a new character or does he have a basis in the original?

I never saw the original series. I really don’t like it when Americans remake British series. It never works out well. [Laughs] That was part of why I knew I would take this job. I’m sure it’s just going to be one season and done because nobody wants to watch a rehash of a far-superior British show.

Obviously, you have some experience in that area. In your opinion, what is the key to pulling off an American remake of a British show?

It’s pretty basic. Take what works. Suit it for an American audience. Try and keep what is smart about the original. British shows are extremely smart, for the most part. You want to keep that and, then, highlight what works for an American audience.

What do you feel works for an American audience?

Obviously, a lot of different things work for an American audience. From Big Bang Theory to Game of Thrones, it’s hard to sum that up. But what people want out of a TV show these days is something very binge-worthy. They want scenarios they have never seen before and twists and turns and surprises. And they want memorable, loveable characters that they can come back to, time and time again.

Do you think for Utopia, like the U.S. version of The Office, it's a case of toning down the bleakness?

That’s a good question. Yes and no. Let’s take The Office for instance. The business model is entirely different. The American business model for television is to reach 100 episodes, so you can get syndication. That’s where the real money is made. If you make too bleak of a show, you aren’t going to reach 100 episodes. When you have government-subsidized television [like in the U.K.], and you are doing six episodes at a time, and you only make 13 episodes total, you don’t need numbers to make revenue. You’ve made your money because the British government and the BBC have put money into it. You can afford to be more experimental. Television almost becomes this experimental art form, whereas it’s so commodified in the United States.

How would you describe the show tonally, then?

I would describe it as Stranger Things meets Quentin Tarantino. It’s these young-adult comic book nerds going on an adventure and unraveling a great mystery. But it has some truly surprising twists and turns and violence and dialogue and humor, where you literally don’t know what it is going to happen next.

You’ve been pretty passionate about working with charities. This show deals with a lot of real-world issues like overpopulation and climate control. Did any of those themes attract you to the series?

None of the themes specifically attracted me to the series. But the fact that the series felt so modern and so relevant to contemporary America...

We live in a conspiracy-obsessed country. There are literally millions of people who think that fluoride is poisoning us, that chemtrails from airplanes are euthanizing the population at the hands of the government, that the Twin Towers was an inside government job, that there are child sex rings in pizza parlors in suburban Washington D.C. People really believe this. And the way that Gillian dealt with the world of conspiracies, where you don’t know what’s real and what’s not... Everything is fake news. You don’t know who to believe anymore. There’s no Walter Cronkite telling you the way things are. She just tapped into the zeitgeist in a really exciting way.

How does your character perceive or identify with about the group of nerds he comes into contact with?

There are two plotlines and eventually, I will make some contact with the other plotline. For the most part, my character, Dr. Michael Stearns, is on his own B-story, kind of on his own little journey. Eventually, all the characters do start to meet each other in various ways. That was interesting, too, coming in and doing an episode where I would only shoot two or three days because I was my own.

Your character has a relationship with John Cusack’s Dr. Kevin Christie. What can you say about that partnership?

My character is a virologist. Previous to the start of the story, he had discovered a peculiar virus that existed among Peruvian Pygmy bats. As he’s drawn into the story, he does have an increasing interaction with John Cusack’s character and Christie Corp., the biotech company that Christie has founded. So, he kind of gets drawn into the Christie Corp. world.   

This isn’t your first genre role. What’s rewarding about playing in this sandbox?

It’s not one I’ve really been in before. I’ve done a couple of horror movies. I’ve done a little bit of science fiction, but I’ve never done a conspiracy-theory thriller, with a comic book sensibility behind it. It was really a lot of fun. I got to do everything in this role. It was mostly serious. It does have some great comedic moments. It’s to be in a genre piece, as well.