After portraying peculiar paper salesman Dwight Schrute for nine seasons on The Office, Rainn Wilson resurfaces in the Fox crime dramedy Backstrom (Thursdays 9/8c).

This gig’s a little different, as he’s playing the title role of a racist, sexist, antisocial, self-loathing detective whose brilliance at crime solving earns him a pass—or at least reluctant tolerance—from everyone around him.

In this Q&A, Wilson explains why the role was just too good to pass up, despite some physically uncomfortable moments on the set.

“Really interesting, varied parts with lots of different facets and colors and textures don’t come along very much for weird‑looking, 48‑year‑old, pasty-white dudes…”

What drew you to Backstrom?
I got a call from my agents about the script as I was finishing the last three or four days of shooting on The Office, and I almost fired them on the spot. But I read it and it really hooked me in. Really interesting, varied parts with lots of different facets and colors and textures don’t come along very much for weird‑looking, 48‑year‑old, pasty-white dudes. I knew I needed to do it. I definitely have my demons, definitely have my dark side, as we all do, and to me it was a fantastic opportunity and challenge to get to explore those colors after nine or ten years of playing Dwight.

Do you like this guy?
I can relate to someone whose life is falling apart and they’re doing their best to get by using humor to survive. Backstrom really wears his heart on his sleeve, and his life is unraveling. It’s human. It’s frail. And it’s interesting. Yes, this guy’s an asshole; but you get to know him a little bit, and you’re going to start learning some really interesting things about him and his coping mechanisms, about his family. We get to meet his father, a sheriff, played by Robert Forster, and his ex‑fiancée, played by Sarah Chalke. Backstrom is an artist, and he really should be painting or making pottery or writing poetry or doing something like that. That’s really where his heart is, but he has this preternatural ability to solve crimes. It weighs on him, but it’s something he’s got to do.

Did you always want to play a detective?
I grew up watching all these great anti-hero detectives in the ’70s: Columbo and Rockford and Kojak, and I loved those characters. I don’t really watch crime shows so much, but I really am intrigued by the crime solvers themselves, and their personal lives, and what’s driving them. So I was really excited to jump into something like this.

Backstrom seems to be always eating or getting drenched or both.
Yes. Wet a lot, naked a lot, eating a lot—any state of discomfort. I think I gained about 20 pounds shooting this show. When they shoot rain scenes, there are these giant rain towers that they use, and they haven’t figured out how to put warm water in them yet. It’s ice cold, and sometimes you’re shooting at three o’clock in the morning and getting rained on. It’s brutal. You can wear a wetsuit. You can wear silk long johns, whatever you want, but it’s pretty hard. It’s also really loud. It’s hard to keep your focus with the fake rain pouring down over your face. It’s very challenging, but if this show continues for more seasons, something I’m going to really have to get used to.

Has your son Walter seen the show?
He’s seen a couple of the episodes. Some of them are a little too raunchy for him. He’s 10 years old, but he’s very excited to watch it on Thursday. He was really too young to watch The Office, but he’s very excited by this whole journey of bringing the show to life.

You’ve got some movies in the can. Details?
There’s one called Cooties that’s coming out this year from Lionsgate, a really funny Shaun of the Dead-type horror/comedy, and then The Boy should be coming out this year or early next year. It’s an artsy horror film. I’m excited for people to see those films, and I get to play some very different characters. In Cooties, I play a truck-driving, former football star and gym coach with a big muttonchop mustache and a whistle, and it was a hoot to do.

Photo by Frank Ockenfels/Fox