How Nick Offerman became a progressive in right-wing clothing

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LOS ANGELES — The notorious American West gunslinger, Wild Bill Hickok, always sat with his back against the wall in saloons so he could keep an eye on anyone bursting through the doors with a mind to shoot him. Nick Offerman keeps up the same practice, mainly to clock people who might sidle up to his table bearing a complimentary glass of bourbon or a heaping plate of barbecue.

It’s been nearly a decade since he regularly played beloved, gruff libertarian meat-eater Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation,” but every visit to a restaurant is still fraught for the 53-year-old, who’s shed 30 pounds in the intervening years.

“When I go into a place where I can vibe that there are Ron Swanson fans there,” he says, seated in a pink upholstered booth in the dining room of the Sunset Tower Hotel, “I usually will apologize to the waitstaff and say, ‘Look, I’m really sorry. I am a terrible hedonist when it comes to meat products, but my cardiologist and I had a talk and I’m going to order the Nancy Reagan salad.’”

He gets it. He did, after all, write an essay called “Eat Red Meat” in his first of five books detailing his woodsman-like life’s philosophy. But now, as a humorist who tours the country, he performs a song called “I’m Not Ron Swanson,” which explains that if he lived like that guy, he’d be dead within a year: “He can eat a bigass steak for every meal / because his colon is fictitious and mine is all too real.”

It was on tour that he’d encounter “Parks and Rec” fans who were outraged to find out that he doesn’t have Ron Swanson’s anti-government politics, and indeed was a supporter of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. “Sometimes they’ll leave angered to discover that I’m not a Second Amendment, guns-kissing coward,” he says.

So, he’s decided to agitate them more. In Alex Garland’s “Civil War,” out now, Offerman plays a nameless authoritarian president, vainly lording over a crumbling United States in a fictional, brutal, near-future conflict in which the Western Forces of Texas and California have teamed up with the Florida Alliance and are fast closing in on the White House.

It’s just one of a fascinating string of roles he’s taken on with a political bent, often playing someone far more conservative than he is. “For whatever reason, the way I was brought up and what Mother Nature made me look and sound like lends itself to getting cast to represent people who can use a shovel,” he says.

Offerman’s is the face we see in close-up opening the film, a flawed human in a suit who paces back and forth, practicing a speech: “We are now closer than we have ever been to victory — some are calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind!” Later, the speech plays on TV in a hotel bar where jaded war reporters (Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura and Stephen McKinley Henderson as veterans and Cailee Spaeny as the rookie they reluctantly let tag along) have just returned from a violent street protest and roll their eyes.

This is a president who, Offerman says, “tends to lean fascist,” but who he says is not based on any past president. “I saw one headline, I think from Fox News, that said, ‘Nick Offerman and Kirsten Dunst refuse to admit that this movie is based on Trump,’” he says. “And I just thought how ironic it is. There’s truly no evidence of that hypothesis, but you are insisting that this fascist, fictional president must be based on Trump.”

Instead, he likes to compare his president, who has maybe three minutes of screen time, to Sauron in “The Lord of the Rings.” Garland has said the movie is meant to drive home the vitality of a free press, as the journalist protagonists set off through the lawless wasteland of the country with the goal of getting the last interview with Offerman’s president before he inevitably falls to a coup. Like Sauron, Offerman says, “I’m foundational and fundamental to the story. Without me they never set off for the Mountain of Doom in the first place.”

The “Civil War” trailer alone was enough to start an outcry. How could A24 and British director Alex Garland (“Ex-Machina,” “Annihilation”) dare release a movie about an American civil war, in this political climate, in an election year? Some pundits called it irresponsible, positing that it could possibly cause real-world violence. Critics have pointed out how lacking in specifics the film is. We don’t understand why the war even started.

When he first read the script, Offerman says, “I called Alex and said, ‘Okay, let me make sure I got this right. We’re not supposed to know who’s who. Also it doesn’t matter if this president is Republican or Democrat or other, right?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, the most important thing is that we don’t know.’ And I was like, ‘Great. I love that so much.’”

The only thing we need to know about this president’s politics is “that he’s full of s—,” says Offerman. Because once a bloodbath begins, it really doesn’t matter who started it. And he can’t think of a more relevant movie for this moment.

“It’s really frustrating to just be facing the elective choices that we are this fall,” he says. “As it stands right now, I mean, hopefully, one of the candidates will be serving many years in some sort of incarceration. Finally.”

The first time Conan O’Brien met Nick Offerman, he was a famous talk show host and Offerman was just Megan Mullally’s husband, hanging out in Seattle with her while she opened Mel Brooks’s “Young Frankenstein” there.

The two men agreed to go for an all-day bike ride. O’Brien was a serious cyclist who showed up in head-to-toe silver spandex. Offerman had a rented mountain bike and was wearing cargo shorts. Deep into the ride, Offerman’s chain shattered. They didn’t have cellphones, and O’Brien started panicking. Offerman just calmly took two rocks and hammered his chain back together. They rode home. “And I thought, ‘He’s not like me. In fact, he’s not like anybody I know. He’s like a blacksmith from the 18th century who fell out of a time machine to prank us.’”

To his friends, it’s not a surprise that he’s playing the president. In fact, for 12 years now, O’Brien claims he’s been saying that Offerman who wrote a book, “Where the Deer and the Antelope Play,” about his relationship with nature — should play Theodore Roosevelt: “I think more than any actor alive today, and I’m not making a joke, he could play T.R. better than anybody.” O’Brien actually tried to make it happen once, but then realized no one would take the pitch seriously coming from them. Amy Poehler, his “Parks and Recreation” co-star, says he shouldn’t limit himself: “I think Nick has the talent and the hair to play any president he chooses.”

Offerman calls himself “a progressive,” although, he says, politics is “a very thorny subject for someone in my business to be weighing in on.”

When asked what he thinks about Biden-Harris, he starts out saying he wants to “provide support for good government,” and that he’s “astonished by the incredibly good job Biden and Harris have quietly been doing.” But it’s not long before he lets loose. “Trump vs. Biden: Would you rather have a pile of dog s— or a loaf of bread?” he asks. “I understand that it’s not going to help for me to say that. And the people that want the dog s—, I want to be friends with them. I want to say, ‘You guys seem decent in every other way.’ I just understand that a lot of information they’re receiving is like, ‘Oh, it’s not dog s—; it’s pumpernickel.’”

Offerman’s path to “Civil War” actually began in 2018 when he got a call asking if he’d meet with Garland about playing the enigmatic head of a tech giant in the director’s Hulu sci-fi mystery limited series “Devs.” As he was writing “Civil War,” Garland was already thinking of Offerman to play the president. “There’s a kind of obvious reason, which is that Nick’s a really good actor,” Garland says over Zoom, “but I also thought he would be hard for people to pin down in some respects. There’s a bunch of [actors] that would come with a particular kind of information, and I didn’t want to be clearer than that.”

To look at Offerman, with his bushy salt-and-pepper beard and lumberjack’s build, is to assume he ascribes to a kind of meat-and-potatoes version of Midwestern masculinity. He does, after all, run a woodworking shop in L.A. that employs six artisans making furniture and canoes. He grew up in a huge Catholic family in farm country in Minooka, Ill. (where his dad is mayor), and it wasn’t till he started cutting his teeth on the Chicago theater scene that he realized how racist and anti-gay his hometown had been. “I also had never met a Jew,” he says. A lot of people who love Trump are just like people he grew up with. He loves hunters, fishermen, outdoors people. He just wishes they’d speak up to the gun lobby more.

Yet here he is, as O’Brien calls him, “the manliest man with the goofiest laugh” — a high-pitched giggle that sounds like a Looney Tunes character who just inhaled helium. He’s also a self-proclaimed “softy” and avowed feminist — “he loves watching women win and does whatever he can to help make that happen,” says Poehler — who makes hearts out of litter and places them on his “goddess” wife Mullally’s windshield whenever he sees her car. (They wrote a book and did a podcast about the joys of middle-aged oral sex.)

Last year, he flew to Savannah to do a single scene in Ava DuVernay’s “Origin,” as a plumber in a MAGA hat who shares an unspoken moment of empathy with grieving Black author Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor). He also cameos as a conservative cowboy who is tickled to find himself at a gay wedding in “Dicks: The Musical,” starring Mullally and Nathan Lane.

This summer, he’ll be heading to Budapest to play yet another U.S. leader, accidental president Chester A. Arthur in the Netflix series “Death by Lightning,” about the 1881 assassination of president James Garfield, from “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. And he just wrapped the independent film, “Sovereign,” a movie he says is about fathers and sons, in which he plays a member of an anti-government extremist group.

Still, he says, it was hard to shoot scenes in a real gun shop in Arkansas, where his character buys an AR-15 for his teenage son. The clerks were huge fans of his and one got a small speaking part. “And the guy looks at me and winks and says, ‘This one’s great for deer.’ He’s improvising and my stomach just turns over … It gave me chills.”

Offerman only shot two days on “Civil War” — the size of role that most actors in his position would turn down. But he calls Garland “an exquisite artist,” and wanted to be in anything he was doing.

The opening that’s in the final film wasn’t in the script. Offerman was pacing back and forth in costume on set, practicing his presidential address, when Garland decided to film him. “I talked to Alex about how much of a mountebank, how much of a snake oil salesman does he want?” says Offerman. “Because we all know this guy. We all have seen this on the news where the world is on fire and a guy gets up and is like, ‘This is the greatest victory!’”

It wasn’t until editing that Garland decided to ditch his scripted opening and focus on Offerman instead. His final scene is of the president in a very human situation, proving to the audience that even a larger-than-life figure like that “is just a dips— like the rest of us, trying to sell the next Subaru Outback,” says Offerman.

Of all the politically tinged roles Offerman has played lately, though, none have been as impactful as survivalist Bill in “The Last of Us,” who has a touching romance with Murray Bartlett’s Frank, as two of the last remaining men on earth.

He won an Emmy and the positive reactions were the most gratifying he has ever gotten. “But also, I was fascinated with the vitriol, and not just the bigotry, but the people who were specifically so mad that the Ron Swanson actor had played a gay guy,” he says.

“It was the first time I played a gay person in a very visible medium,” he continues. “And I was taken aback by how different it felt to be on the receiving end of all these horrible embellishments equating this beautiful love story between two people with horribly rendered insults and really damaging, traumatic language.”

In response to jabs from the likes of Sean Hannity, Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson, he wrote a song called, “I Thought I Was a Man, But I Was Wrong.” The material wrote itself. “I just said, ‘I mean, I can’t write a better joke than Ben Shapiro questioning my masculinity.”

And he used a speech at the Independent Spirit Awards to snap back at the “homophobic hate” that came his way. “I just wanted to say to bigots of every stripe, ‘You’re never going to win,’” he says, summarizing his remarks. “It’s never going to get better for you. We’re never going to turn around and say, ‘You know, you’re right.’”

As we leave, after three hours of gabbing about Mother Nature and politics and life’s purpose, Offerman finally looks at his phone and lets out a Looney Tunes giggle.

“My business manager texted me seven times,” he says. “Oh, my engraved plate for my Emmy arrived!”

He knows exactly where he’s going to put it: on one of the top two shelves of the guest room, where no one will ever see it, alongside the many awards Mullally has won.

“Never thought I’d have one of those to put on Mother’s Emmy shelf,” he says.

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