The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Rainn Wilson

Bears. Beets. "Battlestar Galactica." It's entirely possible that of all the characters on "The Office," Dwight Schrute is the most relatable. That's not necessarily because everyone who uses it as their go-to comfort show necessarily believes they are him, but let's be honest: We all know that guy.

At the same time, though, he's tough to pin down. In an interview with Collider, Rainn Wilson talked about his favorite Dwight Schrute moment, and it's a pretty touching one. It's the episode where Dwight hosts Jim and Pam at his B&B, and Wilson explained: "There's a moment when he's really emotional and Jim gives him some words of kindness and empathy, and then he doesn't notice it but Jim has left. He reaches out and Jim's not there and he looks around. To me, that moment perfectly encapsulated what we did on 'The Office.' It's a Chekhovian, priceless little human misconnection that was really special."

Since "The Office" ended, Wilson has been busy. He's been in movies, he's been writing books, and perhaps most importantly, he's been reaching out to people to share some of the insights he's learned on his own journey. And it's been a heck of a trip. While Wilson has given only a bit of insight into his own traumatic childhood — he once told Maxim that his parents would lock him in a vending machine if they couldn't find a babysitter, in a weird, that-can't-possibly-be-true anecdote — but honestly? That might be the least bizarre part of a heartbreaking tale.

His childhood growing up in the jungle was incredibly difficult

When Rainn Wilson appeared on Steven Bartlett's "The Diary of a CEO," he shared a lot... and at the same time, he shared very little. When asked to specify what trauma he had suffered in his childhood, he understandably declined to get into specifics. But that's not to say he hasn't shared some stories about his difficult upbringing.

When Bartlett asked Wilson to talk about some of his earliest memories and life-defining moments, Wilson revealed that his mother abandoned him to the care of his father when he was about 18 months old. That meant he was raised as a devout follower of the Baha'i faith, a religion that believes all world religions follow the same God, who is guiding humankind on a path to the creation of a utopian society. Peace, acceptance, clean living, and a belief in the word of divine messengers are all key — and that's going to be important to Wilson's story. 

When he was 3 years old, his father — who was a writer and painter — moved them to the Nicaraguan jungle. Wilson recalled being "this abandoned kind of toddler kid living in literally the jungle," and in an interview with USA Today, he described the area as "filled with monkeys and jungles and gun-runners and coke dealers." He also said that was where he — at 4 ½ years old — had the unthinkably awful experience of having a 10-inch-long roundworm squirm out of him and into his underwear. "Awful" doesn't even begin to cover it.

He described his childhood home as a 'loveless shell of a house'

Rainn Wilson and his family ended up moving to Seattle about the time he started kindergarten. In an interview with "The Diary of a CEO," he got candid about how the two wildly different sides of his home life impacted him to the point where, in hindsight, he came to understand that the prevailing theme of his childhood was "depression and anxiety."

"Twenty-two years of therapy has given me a lot of insights into the causes of that," Wilson said. "It was this weird kind of gaslighting mindf***." He went on to explain that even as his family was active in the Baha'i faith and he was taught lofty ideas of peace, love, prayer, and meditation, " my family, my dad remarried my stepmom, who pretty much raised me, and they lived in... a hollow, empty marriage. ... this loveless shell of a house." He explained that it wasn't just the mixed messages, adding that the only emotion he recalled being exposed to was anger.

What he experienced at home was completely at odds with what their faith taught, and Wilson said that everything he struggled with throughout his life "was born of this Petri dish [he] grew up in." And it was incredibly hard: "I experienced a lot of pain in my life, and a lot of suffering, with anxiety and depression and addiction... and I can pin that squarely on a lot of gross imbalances and trauma that I suffered as a child."

His post-college years were dismal

In 2008, Rainn Wilson spoke with the University of Washington Magazine around his relatively newfound success as an actor, and gave some insight that's equal parts frightening and sobering for those looking to get into acting: He said it was about 10 years that he struggled along and lived at the poverty line before getting his break. When he shared more about his post-college living situation on "The Diary of a CEO," it was dire stuff.

Just after college, he and a friend were living in an abandoned brewery that they shared with a number of rats. There were no creature comforts, no heat, no shower, and few prospects. The occasional acting job came his way, but there was nothing that was going to allow him to improve his lot in life. "I was really directionless, I started really experimenting with a lot of drugs and alcohol, and I was pretty rudderless."

In an interview with Sounds True, Wilson said that many of the problems he had while he was living in New York post-college were rooted in his upbringing. Even though he found himself getting acting jobs and starting to get a foot in the door, "At the same time, I was very unhappy. I was deeply unhappy in my life." It was, after all, very different from anything he'd experienced before, and he says he "kind of went berserk in New York." Why? He was sorely unprepared for the real world.

He's been open about the severity of his anxiety attacks and depression

In recent years, the conversation about mental health has only gotten more open — and that's a great thing. Rainn Wilson has participated in that conversation, and he shared his experiences with depression and anxiety with Steven Bartlett of "The Diary of a CEO." He said that at one point, his anxiety attacks got so bad that he believed they were going to kill him. He spoke with a doctor who reassured him it was just anxiety, but it ended up being so debilitating that it led him down the road of depression.

"Circumstances provided the perfect environment for kind of a mental health breakdown of someone who's 25 years old," he explained. Wilson said that he found himself struggling with his mental health for five or six years, and said that even though he started getting more acting jobs, became involved with the woman who would become his wife, and things started looking up in many respects, it wasn't enough to "save [him] from some of what was going on."

Wilson stresses that things were very different in the 1990s, and therapy wasn't something that was readily available for the everyday person. He told Parade that he started therapy after self-medication with drugs and alcohol made his problems even worse, saying, "That kind of forced me to do something about it, you know, investigate more deeply and seek help." 

He's talked about having suicidal thoughts

It's easy to look at the best and the brightest of the entertainment industry and be certain that they probably have no problems whatsoever. How could they? But hearing candid talk about pretty dark thoughts is invaluable for countless other people who are struggling, and when Rainn Wilson appeared on "The Diary of a CEO," he got very candid, indeed. 

He spoke about a point in his life where he wasn't just depressed, but felt alone and disconnected: "Waking up at three in the morning, just wide awake, staring at the ceiling, going, like, 'What the f*** does life mean? Why am I here? Why should I keep living?'"

When asked to elaborate, Wilson confirmed that while he'd struggled with suicidal thoughts at various points in his life, he differentiated between pondering meaning in life and pondering the ending of life. Wilson ultimately used that experience to reach out to help others: He founded media company SoulPancake in hopes of opening up tough conversations, including talking about suicide. He told USA Today that it was a deeply personal thing for him, saying, "I've had many members of my family who have dealt with depression, attempted suicide, cutting, anorexia. I've dealt with it in my family a great deal."

He was at his best friend's side as he died of cancer

Grief over the loss of a loved one is something that's impossible to understand until it's experienced, and in 2021, Rainn Wilson posted a heartbreaking update to his Facebook page. He shared that he had said goodbye to a beloved friend: David Von Ancken had died at 56 years old, after being diagnosed with stomach cancer.

"He was... one of the most vibrant people I had ever known," Wilson wrote. "I miss him already. When he got diagnosed and pretty much knew it was a death sentence, I'll never forget him saying to me, 'It's just static, Rainn. Most of our lives. Just static. Just noise. You've got to cut out the static. Get to what's important.' And that he did. ... I wish you all could have met him."

Just like grief, the toll cancer takes on someone is something that can't truly be understood until it's seen, and Wilson was there for his friend's entire journey. When he spoke about it on "The Diary of a CEO," he said that the diagnosis had been shocking, sudden, and unforeseen, and at the time, Von Ancken was already in Stage IV. "I got to spend a lot of time with him in his last year and a half, after that diagnosis, and we did weekly beach walks." And as hard as it was to see him researching and going through treatments, seeing his friend dealing with his own mortality was even harder.

The sudden death of his father was devastating

The death of a parent is difficult to imagine until one experiences it firsthand, and in several 2023 interviews, Rainn Wilson spoke about the loss of his father three years prior. Speaking on "The Diary of a CEO," he shared that the official cause of his father's death was heart disease, and that they hadn't expected him to die when he underwent a quadruple bypass. "We thought he was going to get through the surgery, and he died. We knew it was risky, but it was not a predicted death," he remembered. 

Wilson said that he was faced with making the decision to take his father off life support after the surgery failed. "It was devastating and terrifying and oddly enough, strangely cliche at the same time." He said that in the face of it all, he kept focusing on how the whole thing was unfolding precisely like a scene from any one of a hundred medical dramas.

Although he's spoken openly about childhood trauma and abuse, he also said that in that moment, he saw everything that he loved about his father, too. "I was filled with such love and such heartbreak, and at the same time, at seeing his lifeless body, I was like, 'This isn't him. This isn't my dad. This is the vessel that carried my dad.'"

The Office left him feeling empty and unfulfilled

There are countless aspiring actors out there, and if you ask almost any of them if they'd be happy with a starring role on a hit sitcom, it's safe to assume that the answer would be yes. But when Rainn Wilson spoke about his time on "The Office" with Steven Bartlett on "The Diary of a CEO," he admitted that he'd been anything but happy while filming.

Instead, he said that for several years, he was vastly unhappy and deeply unfulfilled. He was fairly certain he was going to be typecast. The few movie roles he did get didn't boost his career like he'd hoped, and he found himself wondering if this was the end of the road for him. At the same time, he knew that he should be happy about his success, and in a vicious cycle, that just made everything even worse. 

"There were times on 'The Office' that I really struggled because I really wasn't happy... because it wasn't enough," he explained. "I spent a lot of time — unnecessary time, and angst and anguish — in that anxious discontent, at a time when I should have just been like, 'This? It doesn't get better than this. Enjoy it.'" Wilson says there's an important lesson to be learned from him: Don't wait until you've "made it" to be happy, because there's no guarantee that an arbitrary end goal will make happiness instant. He learned that the hard way.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health or is struggling or in crisis, contact the relevant resources below: