Never are the flashing pictures as scary as when we understand why monsters do what they do. That’s the play with Devs, Alex Garland’s meditation on love, loss, obsession, and the limits of tech (and then some). Nick Offerman is at the center of this storm, standing in a field, staring at the bigness with his unkempt hair blowing in the breeze as things unspeakable and unimaginable are done in his character’s name. It is, as our review pointed out, a unique fit for the man many still see as Ron Swanson personified (even though he’s consistently done the work of finding characters that tweak and twist away from Hollywood typecasting). That hair and a Brian Blessedian face muff work toward the goal of distancing this character, Forest, from Pawnee’s arbiter of masculinity, but it’s Offerman’s soulful eyes (which Garland called out when speaking with us recently) that find a way to hook a winch to us and it’s why this monster is so chilling — the conveyance of pain, doubt, and determination, and how they rise and ebb.
When we spoke with Offerman earlier this week he discussed the components that he used to build this sturdy thing — the written word, a suit of malaise, feelings of unease about tech sprawl — while also dipping into the philosophical with thoughts on free will, and the concept of having too much of a good thing.
Let’s jump into the deep end with the philosophical stuff. Obviously there’s some heavy stuff in this show like the idea that “life is something you watch unfold.” Where do you come down on the idea of free will? Does it exist?
Well, I mean, I can only speak from behind the particular mug that I was given. So for my part, I feel like part of the success of human consciousness and what allows us to live without going insane is our notion of free will. Whether that’s an illusion or not, I have to believe that I am making decisions and steering my own particular watercraft. Because to me, it would be too depressing and too nihilistic, I think. If I were to come to understand that everything was on a tram line and there was no deviating from my fate, then I’d say, “Well I might as well go blow something up then.” [Laughs]
Yeah. I mean you get where people kind of feel the opposite though, right? Certain things in life do make it feel like sometimes there’s a glitch in the matrix.
Yeah, I mean, I had very solid parents and so I have this sort of value system that involves hard work and minding my manners and being empathetic. And so far, I haven’t been given cause to believe that that is not working for me. But I understand the randomness of life. If an anvil should fall on me this afternoon, I don’t think I would hold it up in an apples to apples equation of like, “Well, wait a second, I thought I did enough good deeds. Why did a cartoon anvil fall on me?” So, you know, it’s complicated. There’s a lot of nuance to it. But I think given the randomness of life, I’m of the opinion that all we can do is try our best and I’m hanging on to my illusion of free will at all costs.
Obviously, there are always going to be myriad reasons why something like this appeals to you but is that part of it? That exploration and poking at that idea of free will?
Well, not specifically. I’d say more to the point would be a really smart and talented writer being fascinated with that question. And that comes across in his (Alex Garland) writing. And so he could be writing about coming up with the ideal backhand in tennis, for all I care. As long as he’s passionate about it and that comes through, then I get the writing and say, “Oh this guy is really good.” I’m not super concerned about the subject matter, as much as the quality of his thought process and philosophy. I have a shortlist of directors I’d love to work with and it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could even exist to Alex. So I was over the moon when I found out he wanted to talk to me for this.
When I spoke with him, he talked at great length about how important it was for him to build a foundation of knowledge about this stuff. What was your level of understanding with regard to quantum computing going in and how much research did you do?
I came in pretty ignorant. I’m a fan of comic books my whole life. And then some sci-fi. I’m familiar with the concepts and the general outlines of quantum computing and of many worlds theory and those sensibilities. I was able to follow Spiderman and the Multiverse my first time through with aplomb. But having said that, I desperately cling to simplicity. I was raised in an agricultural family in Illinois and I would much rather lead a fruitful existence without ever being asked to worry about those heady topics.
I imagine the human element of what Forest is going through makes it a lot easier to cling to as well.
I felt when we were on campus of my company in the show, Amaya, I guess it naturally reminded me in some ways of my woodshop in Los Angeles, where I only have five employees. But in both instances, because of something I thought up, this group of people now gets to work at this company. In the case of Amaya, we create this information technology that is very lucrative. And I found that rather fascinating as someone who likes to deal more in tangible produce. Like, we (Offerman Wood Shop) buy some Walnut and we turn it into a dining room table for you. But to then sit back and look at this company that Forest has built just crafting data was kind of fascinating to wrap my head around. Especially seeing the crucible of that system, which is the Devs building itself. Seeing the simplicity that everything boils down to this incredible central computer that really controls everything as far as Forest is concerned.
Does his somewhat humble lifestyle — the old Subaru, the modest house, the standard attire — does that help to make that connection as well? Where you’re not in $5,000 suits or in an all-glass mansion.
Before the tragedy befalls Forest that we find out about in the show, I think he and his family are sort of doing that thing where they’re indescribably wealthy, but they’re choosing to still maintain a lifestyle that has a sense of normalcy to it. It probably has a lot to do with raising a child. And then when the tragedy strikes, I think that the resolution of this, that Forest comes up with… his sort of ultimate goal that drives the narrative of the show… that becomes such a singular focus that I think he just loses track of any other personal comforts or hygiene. So by the time we meet him in the series, I think that his lifestyle has just atrophied. All he cares about is the single goal of the company. And so he lets himself go. Appearance-wise, hygiene wise, his home, his vehicle. I think that, if it took twice as long, his car would probably break down and he’d start taking the bus.
Can you talk a little bit about the formation of his look, the very large bushy beard, the unkempt hair? Obviously, the hair changes a little bit, alluding to what you’re talking about and him letting himself go. Curious about how the look of the character found its place and if that was prebuilt in when you signed on.
One of my favorite things to do is try and be as unrecognizable as possible, every time I start a new job. And Alex was very on board with that. And so we talked about the sort of general outlines and we tossed around ideas for hair and whiskers. And ultimately Alex came up with this random photograph of a California looking beach guy. And with the incredibly talented Nadia Stacey as a hair and makeup designer — she won a BAFTA for The Favourite last year — we came up with a way to turn me into the image of that California beach guy, and I was just over the moon. That’s all I ever want is for my production to say, “Yes, we’re going to make you a balding blonde and sort of ginger guy.” For me, I always want people to say, “Oh my God, I didn’t even realize that’s the guy from the other thing.”
Did that look change the character’s personality at all?
Well, I feel like I didn’t glean so much from the look, as I did from the practice. In other words, I think the fact that Forest wasn’t really paying attention to his hair cut or the state of his laundry, that affected how I played the scene and how I felt in my scene work. But as far as the character and the look that we developed, I don’t know, it felt so right, I guess, that I never noticed it. Which again just means Alex’s writing is very good. [Laughs]
We’ve talked a couple of times before, and I remember one time a few years ago we briefly discussed Twitter and I think at that point you had kind of left it behind. You’re back on now. And I know it’s one of those things where people drop it and come back. I’ve done it myself a billion times. I’m curious what your relationship is to tech in general and how you feel about it. Is it something you feel is worthy of embrace, is it something that you’ve tried to run away from more?
Well, I guess I reluctantly accept it. I understand that the business that I’m in requires a certain amount of participation. But I try to keep that to a minimum. And so, I use social media, but I engage much less than I used to. So I don’t get on there looking to have conversations or do anything more usually than communicate information. I try not to just be a sales billboard but maintain a bit of personality. Try and keep some charm, keep the flypaper sticky as it were, so that I can say, by the way, I’m touring through your city in October, or I have a book coming out. But beyond that, I generally try to use it where necessary, and then put it down and pick up a book and read a book, or go work in my shop or put my hands on my wife and bring her some relief.
[Laughs] That sounds like a good strategy. What’s your relationship to the tech gods that we have in real life? Do you feel apprehension towards them?
Yeah, I mean I definitely have apprehensions. I think that the implications have become quite clear in recent years, you know? Particularly with what’s been going on with Facebook; that these companies are global, and that they hold a certain power that transcends nations and, that said, they are also by and large unregulated. There’s no one watching these human beings who happen to control all of the world’s data. Again, I’m a simple laborer. I like doing tangible work. I like to make something whether it’s a performance or a rocking chair, and then I get paid for it. And that all makes sense to me. I understand that transaction. The world of tech, as well as the stock market, all of that sort of making money in a virtual way where you never have to lift a finger… I distrust it and I also think it’s unhealthy for a society. I think that it promotes the inequality that a lot of the world suffers from, you know? We’re very aware of the situation where these billionaires could fix the water problem in Flint and take care of all these troubles and still have a gazillion dollars. While the vast majority of people are struggling to afford their insulin and hoping that they can afford mayonnaise on their bologna sandwich tonight.
I definitely agree with you there. It’s pretty easy and I think legitimate to look at some of these people as potential villains. Does Forest in your mind, fall into that category?
Well, that’s a good question. I’m unzipping Forest and stepping out of him. I need to get a little bit of distance between me and him if I’m going to give you an objective answer. I mean, one thing I love about the writing of the show is that it seems pretty clear to us at the beginning of the series that this is a villain. But then I feel like his motives become much more murky across the narrative as the facts become clear, and perhaps his actions become much more understandable once you see why he’s doing what he’s doing.
I do feel like there’s some hesitancy in certain areas to go full villain. And that I think that is portrayed really well.
Well, yeah. I think it’s the human conscience in him wrestling with the sort of omniscient coder. The conscience says, “Hey, this is immoral, this is wrong what you’re doing.” And the omniscient coder says, “Yes, but it’s all worth it. And it will all be okay in the end because we are hitting a reset button of a sort. And so we won’t be held accountable for these actions.” Having said all that, for me, I would say yes this guy is a villain because he wields the power of nations (in a sense) completely selfishly and all for his own emotional needs. And I think that’s villainous behavior.
This is the cheap dinner party question, but I’ll go for it. If you could go back and glimpse something from the past, is there anything specific that you would want to go look at?
Because I always lean to simplicity, my tendency is to say no thank you. [Laughs] Because in a way, it’s kind of like why I don’t have a cheeseburger for every meal. Because if I have a cheeseburger for one meal, then that starts me down a slippery slope to having one for every meal. And if I go back and witness something… If I said, “Oh, I’d love to be in the room where Neil Young is writing ‘A Man Needs A Maid'” then it opens a can of worms where then suddenly I live outside of my present reality.
I’ve got a crackpot theory that I want to run by you. After watching the show I almost feel like it’s a little bit of a comment on our streaming culture and our need and want and desire and addiction to view everything through screens. Does that sound like it’s somewhere near the green?
That sounds pretty astute to me. That occurred to me while watching the show myself. I think it’s a pretty easily understandable allegory. That, you know, sort of what we’re being sold… that’s the Primrose path we’re perhaps being led down… Is that soon everything necessary will exist in screens.
For better or worse.
New episodes of ‘Devs’ go live every Thursday on FX On Hulu.