Whenever I find myself in a bleak mood, a quick glance at the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness usually does the trick. A near-perfect melding of minds between the "Parks and Recreation" writing staff and actor Nick Offerman, this visual guide on how to live life ("Crying: Acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon") is one of the NBC show's lasting legacies.
For Offerman, who acted in Chicago theater throughout the '90s before moving to Los Angeles, the role has made him a bona fide star after years of years of struggling to get cast. Raised in Minooka, (a farming community not far from Joliet), Offerman returns to Chicago this weekend with the film "Somebody Up There Likes Me." He is both a producer and co-star, playing the sly and comical best friend to Keith Poulson's disaffected restaurant worker.
An anti-coming-of-ager, writer-director Bob Byington's Austin-shot indie captures that perpetually lost feeling that tends to pass itself off as merely "life." It is a film that dares you to push it away, and Poulson is little more than a cipher at its center. But Byington's casual social observations work as terrific little comic set pieces (a debate about appropriateness of the phrase "you guys" hits just the right note), and it should come as no surprise that Offerman's presence goes a long way. His melancholic sarcasm is a terrific boost every time he's on screen. There's a reason Rolling Stone magazine recently named him one of the "50 Funniest People Now."
I first spoke with Offerman (who is married to Emmy-winner Megan Mullally) two years ago, and his celebrity has increased since. He is still a droll yet wonderfully formal conversationalist. In addition to film and TV work, he has spent much of his off-time this year traveling with his one-man show "American Ham," which I saw last year and would describe as a giddier, more Offerman-centric version of the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness.
"That came about organically when I was invited to speak to some colleges last year," he said when we talked last week. "I just thought, 'Why yes, I have a great many things I would like to say to the young people of our nation.'"
Q: The last time you were in town was in June for "American Ham" at Just for Laughs. Will you be doing any "American Ham" shows this time?
A: I'm just here for the film. We weren't able to find any time to slip in anything else because I'm still in the middle of finishing up the season for "Parks and Recreation."
So I'm going to come in and make love to the Music Box (Theatre). When we started talking about doing (the film's) release, the first thing I said was, "Can we please play the Music Box?" Because as a young, broke artist in Chicago, the Music Box was one of my havens. I think I saw Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man" there at least five times.
Q: How did you become involved with "Somebody Up There Likes Me"?
A: I met this filmmaker Bob Byington in 1998 in Los Angeles. We both worked on a film called "Treasure Island" that went to Sundance and won a special jury prize for distinctive vision. We were enamored of the cut of one another's jib, and we remained friends and stayed in touch.
He's had a part for me in the previous films that he's done, and he was always threatening to write me a bigger role. Finally he made good on his promise and wrote me this part and then asked if I would produce it with him. It's the first thing I've officially produced and I jumped at the chance because, when it's a small, low-budget company like this, it reminds me so much of my beginnings in Chicago theater with my (now defunct) company the Defiant Theatre.
Q: I was impressed that you didn't have to do much to look pretty different in the film. Your voice makes you instantly recognizable, but without it, I'm not sure I would have instantly realized it was you with those glasses, a middle part and a beard.
A: Well, thank you, that's my bag. That's what I love to do. And literally, since you just said that in a telephone interview from Chicago, now I'm going to find a project in which I can change my voice and I'll show you. I'll show you all!
Q: According to IMDB, you have more films that you're working on.
A: Gosh, I've got a few things. There's the Diablo Cody movie called "Paradise," which is coming out in the summer, I believe. Very excited for that, and I'm hopefully even more unrecognizable in that. Holly Hunter and I play the parents of Julianne Hough, who is the lead.
I have a movie called "We're the Millers," which I also think is coming out this summer. That's more of a big-budget comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis (about a pot dealer and his fake family). Kathryn Hahn and I play a squeaky-clean Midwestern couple in that.
And I'm doing a voice in an animated Lego movie, but that's a long-term thing. I think that comes out in 2014. They have to draw a lot of Legos.
Q: At some point "Parks and Recreation" will come to an end. Have you thought about what you might want to do afterward?
A: I don't have any clear-cut goals on my vision board in my rumpus room. I just really like getting to do good work, so whoever brings the good writing — whether it's film or TV or live theater. I really have enjoyed being able to bounce (among) those media.
Something like Ron Swanson can only come along once in a great many lifetimes. I feel like I won the lottery in all 50 states at once. So I'll be, in a way, happy to slow down a bit. I've really enjoyed discovering a new side of my career with my one-man humorist show, so I think I'll probably continue to do that as well.