Meet Nick Offerman, and you might expect to hear growling Libertarian rants, or manly odes to the glories of outdoor living and Scotch, or perhaps hear nothing at all – just be greeted by a stern, steel-melting glare, the kind that Ron Swanson used to silence folks who crossed his path every single week. This is the advantage and the disadvantage of playing a memorable character like Parks and Recreations‘ anti-government administrator for seven seasons, especially when the character shares the same tonsorial flair and bass-tenor voice as the 47-year-old actor who plays him. Fans expect him to drop Swansonian philosophy at the drop of a Duke Silver fedora. So, for that matter, do writers and casting agents.
“I have the wonderful champagne problem of having been part of a successful TV show,” he says, settling into a couch in a backroom video studio and cradling a prop guitar. (An earlier attempt to sing a Tom Waits song were scuttled when folks were unable to provide a capo. “Count yourselves among the lucky,” he says in regards to his supposed lack of crooning chops.) “And if people write a gruff, taciturn sheriff, they think of me. Which I’m very grateful for, but … I’ve been offered a lot of TV parts that are guys who are ex-Marines or football coaches, and I’ve thought, ‘This could be fun. I could probably do it in my sleep.’ But then it’s, ‘OK, is it going to be hard to avoid a retread or a lot of Swanson-isms a year down the line?’ I just know that, probably halfway through a second season, I’m going to have run a grill. There’s going to be a canoe at some point.”
So when Offerman was doing second-banana work on the set of The Hero, an indie dramedy about a dying movie star that allowed him the experience “of getting to sit and roll joints with Sam Elliott, then watch as he reduced grown men to tears with his line readings,” he was surprised to be pulled aside one day by film’s director Brett Haley. The filmmaker, “annoyingly astute for a 33-year-old,” told him that he’d written a part for Offerman in the next movie. It would be called Hearts Beat Loud. It was about an ex-musician who’s having a hard time saying goodbye to his college-bound teenage daughter. Haley did not want to the comedian to play a wacky neighbor or the quirky greasemonkey who runs an auto shop. He was offering him the lead.
“This may sound crazy, but for the 25 years or so that I’ve been acting, I’d never gotten to play a completely fleshed out human being,” Offerman notes. “I never got roles where the guy just gets to walk down the street. Seriously, I saw that on the call sheet for this one day: ‘Nick walks down the street.’ ‘OK, so what am I doing, is this like a goofy walk where I fall down?’ ‘No, you just walk down the street so people get a sense of how your character’s day is going.’ I almost welled up. It’s like, oh, I’m playing a regular person. Usually I’m, you know, the bus driver and I’m happy if I get five lines instead of four.”
If nothing else, Hearts Beat Loud (which opens wide on June 15th) shows a kinder, gentler, and-now-for-something-completely-different side of the actor. Gone are the majority of the stoic, hypermasculine Offermannerisms you associate with his Swanson-and-beyond body of work, though his extra-dry wit and that oddly girlish giggle remain. His middle-aged record-store owner is partially a romantic lead, eventually drawing the attention of his landlady (played by Toni Collette). It’s funny, but in a more bittersweet way than his usual broad turns. It shows off his rock-star charisma, though he’ll be the first to tell you that, even though he’s played guitar for decades, the scenes of him riffing around took hours of crash-course rehearsals.
And most of all, it allows Offerman to show a tender paternal side, especially when he and Kiersey Clemons, who plays his kid, record a song together that becomes an unlikely Spotify hit. “That girl,” he says, suddenly going into proud-dad mode, “the minute she walks into a room, it’s just a storm of butterflies and sunbeams. I immediately tried to make her like me by getting her to think I was cool. My main technique was trying to impress her with my emoji choice. Sometime I got a laugh. Usually I got an eyeroll.”
Since Hearts Beat Loud revolves around a music-obsessed father bonding with his daughter through songwriting, we decided to ask Offerman about his favorite dad-rock tunes. It could be the sort of Nineties-to-next-gen indie rock favored by contemporary Brooklyn dads; it could be the singer-songwriter stuff beloved by male fortysomethings; it could be, in the words of one Rolling Stone staffer, “the sort of classic rock that Homer Simpsons would play air guitar to.” After stroking what is undeniably a bushy, incredibly well-maintained beard, the actor waxed poetic on everyone from Tom Waits to the Decemberists.
“Passenger Side,’ Wilco
“I’ll limit myself to two Wilco songs … and I’ll go with early ones, since that’s when we dads got turned on to Wilco. When I picked up Being There – of all the records that have come out, that was the one that made me say: How can he see inside me so clearly? Jeff Tweedy, you sweet bastard! I actually told him this 20 years later, when he showed up on an episode of Parks & Rec that I directed.
The song that I identify with is on A.M., however, and it’s called “Passenger Side.” It’s so much about me and my best friend – I mean, it must be about hoards of middled-aged men and their best friends. [Laughs] The other one is “Sunken Treasure,” off of Being There, and if you’ve seen the documentary of the same name, there’s a part where he talks to the audience about being quiet during the songs. Then he gets the whole fucking audience to be quiet for 30 seconds. I’ve reused that when I’ve done live shows a bunch of times. I will tell that to the young people – “Just be in the moment” – and they will say yes … as they film me saying that, staring into their phones. [Laughs]
“Detlef Schrempf,” Band of Horses
Is Band of Horses in that dad-rock wheelhouse? Yes? Ok, then, a shout out to them for doing a song called “Detlef Schrempf” – he’s a basketball player who was on Parks & Rec and is also the title of a really beautiful Band of Horses song. I wish I could remember what album it’s on … I can never remember what song is on what album because of the dearth of the physical product being in my hands. [Editor’s note: It’s on Cease to Begin.] That’s a fancy way of saying “an album,” by the way. Gather round, kids: You used to buy your music and listen to it while staring at the cover, losing yourself in the artwork and reading the lyrics. Every so often, someone will send me something on Spotify, I’ll listen to it and love it, but I never quite know what the words are. That vinyl experience … it’s something I grieve for. [Pause] This all sounds like a bunch of very dad-rock things to say, doesn’t it? Anyway, “Detlef Schrempf.” Great fucking song.
“Shine On, You Crazy Diamond,” Pink Floyd
I discovered Pink Floyd very late, and their music feels like the original dad-rock, sort of. I saw Roger Waters perform The Wall a few years back – amazing. A lot of dads there, for sure. I’m choosing “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond,” because my friend – the “Passenger Side” guy, actually – that song always makes me think of him too. He got sober, thankfully, but he easily could have been the subject of a song like this. Those guys are always the most fun friends to have if they can stick around.
“I Was Meant For the Stage,” The Decemberists
I discovered the Decemberists through a friend of mine from theater school who’s really into H.P. Lovecraft. He rented half of my woodshop for a time, and makes the most awesome horror props that you can buy for your live-action role-playing games; he also creates fonts, like “Dracula’s Handwriting.” Just this astonishing, gorgeous nerd. And he used to obsessively play this Decemberists’ song “I Was Meant For the Stage.” And I would just go, “Man, who the hell is this? This is my jam!!!” Then a few years later, out of the blue and totally unconnected to me discovering it, my wife [actor Megan Mullally] recorded this gorgeous torch-song cover of it. She’s covered everybody from George Jones to Gucci Mane, but I have a weakness for her take on that one.
“The Briar and the Rose,” Tom Waits
When you hear “dad rock,” you think of the sort of indie-rock stuff we’ve been talking about or, you know, Peter Frampton or the Dave Matthews Band – that kind of radio-friendly, summer outdoor amphitheater kind of stuff. But I’m going to make a case for Tom Waits, and I’ll tell you why. My dad was at my shop helping me build some ukeleles and I had on this mix that I’d made for my brother’s bachelor party. And this Tom Waits song from The Black Rider came on, called “The Briar and the Rose.” And I said “Ok, Dad” – because we’ve been having this conversation for 20 years now – “just listen to the lyrics. Listen to the words and tell me that this isn’t really romantic.” It’s got this beautiful sentiment that just happens to be coming through [goes into Tom Waits voice] a voice that sounds as if this gentleman is about to expire. My dad is just sitting there listening to it, shaking his head: “He sounds like someone put his hand in a vice!” Well, ok, we’ll have to agree to disagree, Dad. But I think he started to come around to it by the end. So now, when I think of this, I think of me and my dad sitting there, listening to this man with a 30-grit voice talk about the impossibility of love. [Pause] Call it “my dad” rock.