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The Actor's Workshop
TV's Nick Offerman stays grounded in craft. He thinks you should, too.
Ron Swanson, the cult hero of NBC's offbeat comedy series Parks and Recreation, is one of the most weirdly compelling characters on prime-time TV: a deadpan, mustachioed municipal bureaucrat in fictional Pawnee, Indiana, who's a government-hating libertarian, a lover of guns and bacon, and (lest anyone mistake him for a crude caricature) a man of fierce personal integrity, with a sensitive, artistic side. Ron is also an avid woodworker, so awesomely masterful that he can craft an exquisite harp from scratch in a single night after downing six glasses of whiskey.
In one legendary episode, a city planner visits Ron at his beloved workshop, where he's in his element, crafting a canoe. This is Ron's domain, where "arbitrary" safety regulations don't apply: There's a wood-burning stove next to an oxygen tank, a rat's nest of wires, and dozens of other violations of city code. The official, who is also Ron's co-worker, orders him to fix it, and even pitches in to help. Ron grudgingly gives in, qualifying it as "bringing my workshop up to the Swanson code," which just so happens to correspond with city code. Later, the official finds a gleaming finished canoe on his desk, a gift bow on top. Ron, a man of few words, won't say "thank you," but he will give you the greatest present he can think of: something he made by hand.
Cut to real life. Ron Swanson's alter ego, actor Nick Offerman is giving a tour of his woodshop in Los Angeles, talking about the joy and meaning of making things. Yes, Offerman is actually a woodworker, with a successful side business crafting handsome custom furniture, canoes, and soon, acoustic guitars, which he likes to play. For the record, he always works sober, and the Offerman Woodshop is well-appointed and violation-free. It doubles as Ron's shop on the show. (The prop department dangered it up for the cameras.)
"It's really a dreamy man-cave," Offerman, 41, says of the 3,200-square-foot former photo studio he converted a little more than a decade ago. One room houses magnificent slabs of salvaged walnut and redwood he's collected over the years from sources in northern California. The famous Swanson canoe, which Offerman built, hangs from the ceiling. There's a gorgeous hunk of patterned burl, soon to be a coffee table for Parks and Recreation's Rashida Jones.
Just about finished is another table for a feature story in Fine Woodworking about a router jig he invented for flattening slabs. It's ultimately destined for the artfully decorated Hollywood house he shares with his wife, actress Megan Mullally (best known for her role as kooky Karen Walker on Will & Grace). "She's an obsessive, incredible interior designer," Offerman says, and every so often she'll come through the shop and lay claim to a piece. "She'll say, ‘Who's this for?' I'll say, ‘It's for that magazine article.' And she'll say, ‘That's for Mommy.'"
Just off the main studio is an office/kitchen furnished with vintage cabinets painted bright green and odd knickknacks, such as a couple of quirky little wood men carved by a friend. Here, as a country-folk-bluegrass mix wafts softly - occasionally interrupted by the buzz of a drill or saw - Offerman relaxes and talks about his intertwined creative lives. Even without his TV character's trademark pompadour and bland office attire, those distinctive arched eyebrows and that deep, resonant voice give you the strange sensation that you're talking to a hipper, mellower Ron Swanson. It quickly becomes apparent he thinks a lot about handwork - especially its spiritual and social value. He's eloquent, and eager to proselytize.
Craft "carries a lot of medicine," Offerman says, and he prescribes a little dose for us all: Once in a while, get off the computer, turn off the TV (after Parks and Recreation, of course), and turn on to handwork. "It's for your own good if you can find something you can make. And there are so many choices - you can make things in the kitchen, in the garage, in the woodshop; you can blow glass. And with the Internet, you can now learn how to make so many things without ever needing to go to, you know, Windsor chair school." (Not that he personally wouldn't kill for the opportunity to go to Windsor chair school, he adds.)
Offerman has that genuine, down-to-earth quality you see so often in craftspeople (if not always in Hollywood). It's a credit, probably, to his Midwestern upbringing, which emphasized such traditional values as family, closeness to the land, thrift, resourcefulness, and knowing your way around a toolbox. All through his boyhood in Minooka, Illinois, he worked on his grandfather's farm and learned craft the old-fashioned way: making stuff, out of necessity.
"My dad taught me to drive a nail probably when I was 5," he says. Young Nick hung out in the shed with the men of the family, all hardworking, salt-of-the-earth guys who could make or fix just about anything. "My uncles would make MacGyver look like a schoolgirl," he quips.
By high school, Offerman was a skilled tradesman, but his dream was to act. From the beginning, his two talents complemented and nourished each other. To pay for theater school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he spent summers blacktopping. ("They called me ‘The Shovel,' " he notes proudly.) As a freshman, "I was very bad at acting. I was a baby, and all these kids came from Chicago and the suburbs and they had done Shakespeare - who was a playwright, it turned out. I was like, ‘Oh. I've seen Happy Days.' " In scenery class, though, Offerman was a star. "These kids had not used a hammer. Everyone would put me in their show because I would build scenery." That's how he learned acting.
After graduation, Offerman worked as a professional scenery builder in Chicago to supplement his income while he performed in plays. In the late 1990s, he moved to California to pursue film and TV work. To make ends meet, he constructed post-and-beam cabins, decks, and, this being L.A., the odd backyard yoga hutch. When he decided he'd rather work on a smaller, more manageable scale, he realized he could apply the same joinery techniques to furniture. He began reading classic woodworking books by George Nakashima and James Krenov, and got hooked on Fine Woodworking.
"I just was astonished by the Craftsman movement," Offerman says. "There was an honesty to that work, specifically Gustav Stickley, where the parts of the table that hold it together are also the decoration. I loved that aesthetic and philosophy. As soon as I got to Nakashima and [Sam] Maloof, I was like, ‘OK - I'm off and running.'"
That was in 2000, the year he and Mullally started dating; they married in 2003. He was by then a successful (read: working) actor, but "she was an insanely successful actor. I was very spoiled because I didn't have to worry about making the rent." In between parts (including tool-guy roles on American Body Shop and Will & Grace, where he played "Nick the Plumber"), he did commissions for friends and colleagues. Though acting has long been his "first job," woodworking gives him the deep satisfaction of producing objects that are tangible and lasting, with an intimate function in daily life.
"I love making a bed or a dining room table, because those are two very necessary pieces of furniture. You're making someone the board off which they'll feed themselves. Or they'll play cards, or they'll drink and have a rousing good time. To me there's something holy about getting to do that for people."
With a hit show in its fourth season, his time is largely taken up by "that pesky dream job," as he likes to call it. Still, the shop remains. "It's a fortress of solitude, where everything except for the actual nature of the wood material is under my control." Woodworking grounds him, provides the balance he needs to survive and thrive in a high-pressure industry where "you are ostensibly a person with an artistic agenda, trying to create whatever it is you love, in an arena commanded by corporate finance." Describing the dehumanizing ordeal of an audition, he slips into the present tense, as if he's still a struggling actor.
"That's my favorite day - to leave that [casting] room, and come straight here. And whatever it is I'm doing, even if I'm just sanding a board, I sand the board, and I look at it. I've done something tactile that I can look at and see that I've achieved something. That's representative of how woodworking is for me in my whole life."
Like proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement, he sees the shoddiness of mass-produced items as both cause and symptom of a wider disease. "I think we'd begin to see a solution to some of our social problems if we'd just take back our self-sufficiency," he says. "A lot of that can be grasped by realigning ourselves with the crafts that we've lost." He urges anyone with an interest in making to read the work of his favorite writer, the agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry, who advocates craft as a cure for society's ills: "It really speaks to the heart of the craftsperson."
And Nick Offerman clearly has a craftsman's heart. "I love being someone who can effect change on the world around me with my hands and with tools. It's a fellowship that I'm very proud to be part of."
Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor. For the full text of her (often hilarious) interview with Nick Offerman, read "Nick Offerman Unleashed."