Nick Offerman Addresses a Divided Nation

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Murray Close

Recently, I fell in love with Nick Offerman’s scotch. The raw product, a Scotch whisky with a distinctly American bourbon presence, aged 11 years in oak red-wine casks that have been shaved down and charred, is certainly drinkable—but the pro move is pouring two fingers into a rocks glass, then adding a splash of filtered room-temperature water. This draws out the perfume, the floral romance, the latent sweetness lying beneath its unctuous, musky angularity. I open with this because the taste of Offerman’s scotch is also a fitting metaphor for the work, the public persona, and the personality of Offerman himself, an author, comedian, humorist, and actor who straddles and blurs the lines between journeyman character actor and full-blown folk hero.

Offerman—who’s in Alex Garland’s new film Civil War, playing the president of a near-future United States—often seems transposed from a bygone era. He’s been described as embodying a “camp masculinity”, but measuring the totality of his body of work, you never get the sense that his passions and interests are in any way heightened or performative. He wrote a book about hiking the American countryside with his friends, the musician Jeff Tweedy and the God of postmodern literature, George Saunders, and dedicated it to his idol, the agrarian poet Wendell Berry. He famously owns and operates a “small collective” woodworking shop in East LA. The aforementioned scotch is the latest product of the ongoing collaboration between Offerman and Lagavulin, the most dad-coded, smoky, peat-y, aged-bone-in-ribeye-friendly scotch on the market. He may be the least annoying unapologetic wife guy on Earth.

Offerman’s path to stardom was unlikely. He emerged from a Ingalls-Wilderesque bucolic Midwest family, made up mostly of people who live lives dedicated to service. “Librarians and school teachers and paramedics and nurses and a craft brewer,” he says. “Two craft brewers now, actually.” He got his break relatively late, at 39, when he landed what became Mike Schur and Greg Daniels’ Parks and Recreation– seven seasons, full of all the hugging and learning more cynical sitcoms eschewed. Before that, he’d spent years jobbing around on stage and screen in relative obscurity; the experience bred in him a gratitude for his later success, and from that gratitude, a seriousness of purpose. It’s made him a rare commodity in his industry: A humble movie star. He can now boast an impressive resume of co-stars and topline auteurs he’s worked with, and rarely works with them only once.

In conversation, he’s deferential, nearly to the point of absurdity. At one point I ask Offerman if there’s anything Civil War’s audience could learn from one of his political heroes and influences, the 26th American President, Teddy Roosevelt. He demurs at first—“I wish I had the retention of a historian,” he says—and then suggests he’s not qualified to discuss Roosevelt with any authority, then moments later, references the attempted assassination of Roosevelt in 1912, and the specific items in his shirt pocket (speech papers, eyeglass case) that slowed the bullet and saved his life.

Civil War is Offerman’s second collaboration with Garland. In the film, he’s the Commander in Chief of a country that has cracked along partisan lines; by the end of the film his White House is besieged by forces from the breakaway republics of Texas and California. The only real interior glimpse we get of the character comes at the beginning of the film, as he rehearses a national address. The first take is full of thoughtful pauses, lags, and a specific, ruminative stutter that may remind you of a former liberal American president. As the rehearsals continue, the speech intensifies to an emphatic, declarative roar that may remind you of a former (and perhaps future) conservative American president, but Garland never specifies the character’s political party, or even his name. Which Offerman was fine with: “I get what my job is in this movie, and it's all in the script. I don't even need to ask who this guy is, who he voted for. It doesn't matter. I'm a paradigm. I'm a trope in a work of fiction that serves a very specific purpose in this novelist's creation.”

By modern partisanship-obsessed metrics, of course, Offerman is a liberal. He supports environmental protections, a woman’s right to her own body and access to healthcare, civil rights for people across the LBGTQ spectrum, and gun control. Offerman explains these positions as less a by-product of political loyalty, than a hands-off-my-freedoms approach to government that borders on the tenets of Ron Swanson’s distinctly earthy Libertarianism. He has somewhat facetiously described himself politically as a “Bull Moose” in the past, and this feels right. He hails from a tradition of rugged individualists like Teddy Roosevelt—“Or Theodore, as he preferred to be called”—and other politicians, writers, thinkers and entertainers who celebrated the Americana their work was drenched in, like Garrison Keillor or Charles Kuralt. To borrow a line from Armando Iannuci’s timeless dunk contest Veep, he’s as folksy as a butter-churn lamp.

“I'm absolutely progressive,” he says, “but I hate the knee-jerk reaction. I'm also very conservative in many ways, not in the rubric of what that means politically, but commonsensically. And that's the thing. The semantics have lost their meaning. It's like putting ‘cage-free’ on your eggs. If it's string”—the hens’ enclosure, that is—“we don't have to call it a cage. My ideology and theologies are not based on politics.”

Offerman believes that there is no political container left for a common-sense, philosophically conservative-leaning, humanistically patriotic intellectual in public discourse. This may also be why he’s so often found himself playing characters whose political viewpoint is narrower than his own. Offerman is a well-traveled actor and has portrayed all types, but something about his look—generic middle-aged white guy, rheumy, light-colored eyes, an unmade-bed face full of smile lines, and an abundance of sculptable salt-and-pepper facial hair—causes directors and showrunners to look at him and see a Republican avatar.

Craig Mazin cast him as a survivalist doomsday prepper on The Last of Us. Ava Duvernay cast him as a MAGA-hat-wearing plumber in Origin. And now, perhaps, this trajectory has found its most overt expression, with Offerman playing a fascist-coded president in Civil War.

When asked about playing these roles, Offerman passes this off as nothing more than an actor’s lot, saying, “I’m a valuable shovel to much greater macro thinkers than myself.” Or a tool, a dollop of paint on a director’s palette—but lately that dollop has been consistently, and increasingly, bright red.

And if there’s one reason those parts seem to call for a Nick Offerman type, despite what Offerman stands for IRL, it might have something to do with his most indelible character. On Mike Schur’s Parks and Rec, Ron Swanson was an Obama-era Tea Party-flavored in-joke—a thorny-yet-cuddly municipal employee who despises government. But Truth Social types online have since embraced and memed Swanson, who they misremember as a pro-life, misogynist, vegan-hating gun lover. Offerman counters with a degree of aggravation and bafflement that seems to stem as much from how many times he’s been asked about this misappropriation as it does from the misappropriation itself.

“Go back and look at how [Ron] expressed his libertarianism through the way he lived,” Offerman says. “He's the best man in a gay wedding. He's a vocal, powerful feminist. And just across the board, he is a true libertarian. If you're not hurting him or his property, then he's okay with you.” Despite his many years away from the role, Offerman still has to deal with misconceptions of who he is and his politics when “fans” come to see his live performances. “I've seen reactions on social media where people come to my show and they're like, I can't believe Ron Swanson is a simpering, titty-sucking libtard. I mean, they're so mad at who they thought was some bigoted John Wayne figure.”

But it’s not a perception the actor seems to feel any need to distance himself from anytime soon.

“I didn't craft what I represent to the audience,” Offerman says. “I'm not a persona or a famous personality, I'm just an actor. I'm a very human, very flawed person who is doing my best to be of service to the storytelling business. And so through no fault of my own, if what I represent or what I convey to an audience is of use in any way to these very clever artists, I'm very grateful for that.”

Originally Appeared on GQ