On a chilly night in summer 2018, Nick Offerman was in Santa Cruz, Calif. filming Devs. Much of the show — a high-flown sci-fi miniseries that explores determinism and quantum computing — is set at a mysterious tech company and was filmed at the University of California Santa Cruz. But at three in the morning, the production had moved to a residential neighborhood near the ocean — by coincidence, three houses down from Offerman’s Parks and Recreation costar Adam Scott’s childhood home. Written and directed by Alex Garland of Ex Machina fame, the entrancing series can veer into the surreal, and at one point, the viewer is graced by a vision of Offerman’s character, a bereft Silicon Valley CEO, with a beard full of flowers.
“I wish everyone would bring up Devs and we'd just talk about that all day,” Offerman tells Pittsburgh City Paper from his home in Los Angeles. “I wish I could transport you to that night: me, in the throes of my absolute artistic crush on Alex [Garland], as he knelt above me and and personally placed every flower in my beard.”
Being spellbound by Garland’s “powerfully dramatic” sci-fi series seems far afield from playing Ron Swanson, Offerman’s best-known character, the deadpan libertarian from NBC's sitcom Parks and Rec. But for Offerman, it was “one of the absolute pinnacles” of his career, much of which he never expected.
It’s easy to mistake Offerman for Ron Swanson, even to imagine that Offerman is Ron. Though the role wasn’t explicitly written for him, Offerman collaborated with show creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur — “alchemists” who “made [me] palatable to a great many people,” he says — and gave input into the character. The lines blurring between the two is understandable: like Offerman, Ron is an altar boy from the Midwest, knows stage combat, plays the saxophone, and enjoys woodworking. Offerman’s Los Angeles wood shop, where he and four employees still handcraft items ranging from dining tables to canoes to ukuleles, even doubled as Ron Swanson’s on the show.
Still, conflating Offerman and Ron remains such a common fan misapprehension that Offerman wrote a song about it — he also plays guitar — literally called “I’m Not Ron Swanson,” which he serenades audiences with at his touring live show. (You can catch him in Pittsburgh for “a night of deliberative talking, mirth, and music” at Heinz Hall this Sat., Sept. 30.)
The great unwinding from Ron is an ongoing process, “slowly but surely,” says Offerman, and their relationship can be contentious. By way of example, he hadn’t planned to be on a 12-city tour this fall, but hit the road spontaneously when his actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, went on strike in July.
“I [threw] the truck into park and reassess[ed] my route and said, OK, let me see if I can go to some towns and make people laugh in person while we’re waiting for the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] to get their heads out of their asses,” Offerman says.
At the moment, though Ron Swanson remains a singular role, for Offerman, he also symbolizes what’s at stake in the strike. Offerman says that people forget Parks and Rec, which aired from 2009 to 2015, was not an instant hit, only gaining popularity after it arrived on streaming platforms and became “one of the main comfort shows.”
“So that’s my current relationship with Ron Swanson, is: if you're wondering why we’re on strike … all of us have been paid next to nothing for all of the airing on Netflix, because there’s not a deal in place to pass those residuals. If you saw me on Netflix, I didn’t get paid. All of the people who make all of the shows and films that you love are not getting paid,” Offerman stresses. “It’s a never-ending battle between the capitalists and the laborers, but the laborers in this case happen to be our most beautiful magicians, the weavers of our stories.”
In some ways, Offerman’s career has required outlasting Ron, and re-centering, returning to baseline. He likes to remind us that he’s essentially the same performer he always was — a “dependable journeyman guest star or independent film actor.”
“I was somebody who just wanted to get cast in a play in Chicago,” Offerman tells City Paper, referring to his origins as a theater actor. When he joined Parks and Rec at 38, he was making a living as an actor and married to actress Megan Mullally (they recently celebrated their 20th anniversary).
“I had won the lottery already,” Offerman recalls. “I was Mr. Mullally. She’d get home from shooting Will and Grace and I'd bring her her pipe and her slippers and her newspaper and keep her dinner warm.”
“So then beyond that, to have the great fortune, to have had the opportunity to assay a comedy role on television that people responded to so fulsomely, and then to go on and be allowed to have other acting roles, it’s just a great privilege,” he says. “Because the collective audience doesn’t always allow that. There are a lot of very great actors who have had too big of a success in an indelible role who you don't really see anymore.”
For Offerman, this conjures Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners, played by Jackie Gleason. He imagines what a casting director might say: “You're obviously incredible, Ralph Kramden, but I’m not going to cast you on my lawyer show.” (One could make a similar case for: Michael Richards, Matthew Perry, and George Wendt — Norm Peterson on Cheers.) You might never see The Nick Offerman Show, the idea being that in its absence more intriguing projects, like Devs, might emerge.
“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Offerman tells CP. “And sure enough, by letting the field lie fallow, a very funky new weed grew up.”
Also a best-selling author, this is really how Offerman speaks off the cuff — in witticisms, nature metaphors, and ornate turns of phrase. Describing his live show, he promises the material will be “generally redolent of condiments,” adding, “I just made that up.”
With some regularity, Offerman still receives sitcom scripts for “versions of Ron Swanson … like, OK, we’ve got this whole new idea. You’re an ex-Marine dad who’s great at grilling.” Another trope is the quirky indie film dad, which Offerman has successfully taken on occasion.
In 2015's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, based on Pittsburgh native Jesse Andrews' novel, Offerman plays a father “standing on the porch eating pig’s feet dropping wisdom on the teenagers,” opposite Connie Britton as his wife. The dramedy opened to a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival. (Production also brought him to Pittsburgh over a summer; he remembers riding an incline, “many meats and cheeses tossed about,” and his wife’s pop band, Nancy and Beth, playing — most likely — at Mr. Smalls Theater.)
Largely, Offerman chooses his roles “organically,” noting that he’s receiving fewer scripts than you might guess.
“You don't see me in a lot of studio fare [and] they haven’t been super interested,” he says. “And I'm not ambitious. I don't chase things. I don't call my agent and say, ‘make me an Avenger, you son of a bitch!’”
He also envisions acting work as a two-way street: “I want people to see something in me that they want to work with … for whatever reason, my particular horseradish appeals to them.”
The philosophy naturally draws him to more “countercultural” projects, almost a genre unto themselves. His post-Swanson roles have included all manner of complex characters: Karl Weathers in the FX series Fargo; a version of a real-life porn producer in Hulu’s Pam & Tommy; a grieving father on Peacock’s supernatural mystery series, The Resort; and Colin Kaepernick’s adoptive dad in Netflix’s Colin in Black & White, created by Ava DuVernay.
In January, he guest starred alongside Murray Bartlett in an episode of a premium cable show that “involved mushrooms and the apocalypse” (if you know, you know) earning an Emmy nod.
By coincidence, in a photo promoting his 2023 tour, Offerman appears against a pink background sporting a beard full of daisies. It’s not the only photo currently circulating where his beard is intertwined with plants; others show a fern and pink petals.
The shots are meant to be confounding, consciously subverting masculine expectations — something it’s difficult to imagine Ron Swanson doing.
“What if this plumber slash lumberjack has flowers in his beard? And that’s the statement. That's it,” Offerman says.
He remembers taking the first photo, a few months before Devs, thinking it would be funny and whimsical and imagining how a child might view the image — like Tom Bomadil, the mysterious ancient from The Lord of the Rings, or maybe Ferdinand the bull from the children’s book, who prefers smelling flowers to competing in bullfights.
Ever the journeyman, he remembers following the photographer’s lead.
“I'm grateful when people can have collaborative ideas and say, ‘let’s use the clumsy putty that is you to try and keep us moving in the right direction,’” Offerman says. “As an artist, as somebody who wants to be part of the arc of decency that I think the arts traverse, I want to serve.”