The differences between Dwight Schrute - the self-centered cubicle drone Rainn Wilson plays on The Office - and Robert "Fish" Fishman - the self-centered wild-man drummer Wilson plays in The Rocker - are in the details. One lives on a beet farm, likes Star Wars and is thisclose to embracing fascism; the other lives in his sister's attic, likes '80s metal and is this…close to giving up his rock 'n' roll dream.
But there are more subtle distinctions between Wilson's popular TV character and the guy he plays in his first starring movie. For one thing, Dwight Schrute would never spend 20 years holding a grudge against former bandmates who booted him out of his drummer chair; Dwight Schrute would get even. Immediately.
"Both of those [characters] have big blind spots," says Wilson in a phone interview. "They both have their own particular brand of idiocy. Thankfully, I'm not like either of them."
The Rocker tells the story of Fish, the drummer for Cleveland hair-metal band Vesuvius. On the eve of the group's big break in the mid-'80s, Fish is replaced by a record-company exec's nephew. Within months, Vesuvius is selling tons of records, playing arenas and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone. For the next two decades, Fish wastes away in one low-paying, soul-sucking job after another.
After moving into his sister's house, Fish joins his teenage nephew's band, a pop-punk group called A.D.D. (led by real-life rockin' heartthrob Teddy Geiger), stepping in for a drummer who's grounded by his mom. A YouTube video featuring a sweaty, naked Fish behind the drum kit makes the rounds, and A.D.D. becomes a hit. Fish is finally a star, living his rock 'n' fantasy on tour buses, in hotel rooms and with his frontman's mom.
"I love the broad comedy - the drummer falling over, the sweating, the nakedness," says Wilson. "By the end, I really loved Fish, and I really wanted him to succeed. It's a coming-of-age story for a 40-year-old former heavy-metal drummer . . . which is a different breed of drummer.
"A heavy-metal drummer is a showman. It's about pumping up the nosebleed seats in the arena and the double-kick drum and the stick tricks and finding the hot girls in the audience and making sweat sexy again. Drummers are notoriously idiots. But there's a special kind of idiocy to the showman drummer."
It all comes naturally for the 42-year-old Wilson, who played in rock groups growing up (he was born in Seattle, spent some time in Illinois and now lives in California). "I was in one of the worst cover bands ever, called Collected Moss," he says. But Wilson needed some schooling in hair bands' layered lexicon. "Metal was inescapable if you were anywhere near a radio in the mid-'80s," he says. "So I certainly knew all the metal hits. But those [metal] guys dressed like the ladies. They started to dress like my Aunt Mary Lou. How are people taking this seriously?
"Thankfully I had gone over to the punk and new-wave side of things, circa 1982 or so. I started with the Clash and went to Elvis Costello and the English Beat and XTC and R.E.M. So I got to skip the hair metal, and it was awesome."
Best of all for Clevelanders, our city makes a grand appearance in The Rocker. Even though most of the film was shot in Canada, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a stretch of Euclid Avenue and even a copy of Scene can be spotted, as Fish and his bandmates begin their climb to backstage parties and hotel-trashing. (Wilson spent only two days in Cleveland, but he did get to visit the Rock Hall.)
While The Rocker eventually settles into another believe-in-yourself feel-good studio comedy, there are some genuine laughs sprinkled throughout (especially when Fish unleashes two decades' worth of horndog partying around his underage bandmates). While it's hard to believe that a band as awful as Vesuvius would be one of the world's top groups (let alone one that would stay on top for 20 years), the trouser-popping hair metal at the center of it all lovingly mocks a scene that's still treasured by local music fans.
There's also stellar support from Arrested Development's Will Arnett, Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin, and Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis. "We wanted everyone in the movie to be funny," says Wilson. "It's about Fish, but it's really an ensemble movie. It's not one of those movies where Jim Carrey is the funny guy and everyone else is a straight person around him."
Still, after years of small but memorable roles in Juno, My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Six Feet Under, The Rocker is Wilson's bid for the big leagues. Fish joins Will Ferrell's stable of clueless (and often shirtless) misfits - one of those guys audiences root for, even though he's bound to screw up his love life and career before he finally learns a lesson. "I think I'm ultimately a heart-on-the-sleeve kinda guy, just like Fish," says Wilson. "He often talks first and thinks about it second. And we're both openhearted. But I look a lot more like Brad Pitt in real life."