Nick Offerman: “Jesus God, Let Me Just Swing a Hammer”

"I get antsy to get my hands dirty." Dave Mangels / Getty Images


This probably won’t come as much of a surprise, but Nick Offerman isn’t the type to make a fuss over his birthday. The actor, writer, and accidental paragon of American masculinity had one a couple of days ago — his 46th — but he didn’t do much to mark the occasion. “I think birthday celebrations are important to people who have more drudgery in their lives,” Offerman says. “Like, ‘Only three more months until I get shitfaced with my brother-in-law!’ I get to do jobs that I love, which is the luckiest thing in the world for a grown-up. So I have a little bit of my birthday every day.” Offerman points to a box on the table in front of him. “In fact, I think that puzzle is the only gift I received.” On the box is a photo of a mustached Burt Reynolds, circa 1972, shot from behind, bare-ass naked except for a football jersey. “Beautiful gift,” Offerman says.

Offerman is sitting in his woodshop on the east side of Los Angeles, a functioning place of actual business where he can typically be found when he’s not shooting a TV show, filming a movie, or penning his next New York Times bestseller. (He has two.) He’s dressed in a blue T-shirt, camouflage shorts, and a navy-blue gimme cap promoting his uncles’ farm and trucking company, and sporting a faceful of scruff with a mustache that seems to have gotten a head start. Offerman has had this shop since 2000, when he was an aspiring workaday actor who made half of his income as a furniture maker. In 2009, when he got the role that changed his life, as Ron Swanson on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, he made the infinitely wise decision to hang on to it. “I said, ‘Well that’s a bummer. I hate to just lock it up,’ ” he recalls. “I love this shop. I made it myself — every time I’d get a good acting job, I’d get one good tool.” That band saw, for instance? “That was from Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous.”

Parks and Rec ended last year after seven seasons, and since then Offerman has been exercising his dramatic chops, guest-starring on FX’s cult hit Fargo and taking a supporting role in this month’s The Founder, an iconoclastic biopic about Ray Kroc, who grew McDonald’s into an international chain. Offerman — who’s excellent, and only the faintest bit Ron Swanson–ish, as one of the original McDonald brothers — says it was “a master class” working opposite Michael Keaton, who plays Kroc. But lately Offerman has also been busy not acting, embracing his second, unplanned career as everyone’s favorite wiseass handyman uncle, dispensing homespun advice about everything from oral sex to boatbuilding and preaching the value of manual labor with books like Paddle Your Own Canoe and his newest, a memoir/how-to/wood-pornography centered around the shop called Good Clean Fun. “It was basically tricking my business people into letting me do what I love,” he says. “When I turn down money jobs because I want to do something at the shop, they say, ‘Grumble grumble, the shop.’ So I noticed the grumbling, and I said, ‘Well let’s do a fancy book that’s going to require me to spend four months in the shop’ — and they were like, ‘Great, we love the shop!’ ”

Offerman just got back from 30 days in Europe with his wife, actress Megan Mullally, where they hit London, Barcelona, Rome, Venice, Berlin, and Copenhagen. “Vacations are hard to come by for us, but when we do, we vacation the hell out of it,” he says. “We visited an embarrassment of restaurants, went to the theater and saw wonderful works of art, and talked to some people at the Vatican, asked for a few rule changes. They said they’d get back to me.” Now he’s home for a week, during which time he’s recording an audiobook of The Adventures of  Tom Sawyer (there’s something about his wry Midwestern merriment that aspires to Twainishness) and getting in some quality shop time. “I get antsy to get my hands dirty,” he says. “If you’re stuck in Atlanta working [an acting] job for six weeks, by week five, you’re like, ‘Jesus God, let me just swing a hammer.’ ”

Mullally credits the woodshop with giving some shape to his days. “Because he’s not actor-y in the way a lot of actors are — which is great, because that’s intolerable. He’s just a really solid person.”

Offerman comes by his blue-collar shtick honestly, having grown up in the middle of corn country, working on a family farm owned by his grandparents in Minooka, Illinois. His dad taught junior high school between working the fields; his mom was a nurse. Somehow the football-playing farm boy caught the acting bug, and he spent a few years cutting his teeth in the Chicago theater scene (dramatic, not improv, though he was buddies with a young Amy Poehler) before moving to Los Angeles at the behest of a girlfriend. He spent a long time hammering nails, building sets and backyard yoga studios to make money between auditions, but was told by a prophetic casting director that all he had to do was grow a mustache and wait for his “sheriff years,” and he’d be fine.

After a while a man appears at the shop door and announces, “There’s a pretty rad cloud formation happening out here.”

“Be right there!” Offerman says. “That’s Daniel Wheeler. Incredible sculptor — his shop is across the alley. We often call each other out to look at the sky.” Offerman shuffles his way to the parking lot and gazes upward, nodding in approval. “These clouds are dope.”

In The Founder, Offerman plays Dick McDonald, one of the two California brothers who started the original McDonald’s hamburger stand in the 1950s. A straight arrow with a buzz cut whose first words onscreen are about the french fries being 5 percent too crisp, Dick is an honorable man who values precision, dependability, and family. “Any character that’s earnest, who has his heart in the right place, I can’t really help but infuse with my dad,” Offerman says. “Dick McDonald is very different from Ron Swanson, yet both are inhabited a great deal by Ric Offerman.”

Offerman’s dad has been the defining figure in his life, a decent, self-reliant throwback who taught his son how to wield a hatchet and drive stick. In the new movie, there’s even a serendipitous moment of life imitating life: The McDonald brothers relocate their hot dog stand from Arcadia, California, to nearby San Bernardino by sawing it in half and towing it down the highway; Offerman’s dad did much the same thing with the home Offerman and his siblings grew up in, an old, two-story farmhouse he got from a neighboring farmer in exchange for providing a new heater for his neighbor’s tractor shop and a set of cabinets for his kitchen.

The movie tells the story of how Ray Kroc, a salesman from Illinois, fast-talked his way into a partnership with the McDonalds, built their business into a national chain, and then ultimately forced them out and took the name for himself. They’re the Winklevoss twins to his Mark Zuckerberg. “Dick and Mac were just nice, wholesome guys,” Offerman says. “They were too decent and naive to be successful.” There’s a climactic scene in the movie in which Dick and Kroc have a falling out over milkshakes because Kroc wants to make them using powdered milk and Dick insists that if he’s going to serve someone a milkshake, by God, it’ll have milk in it. “That’s my problem, too,” Offerman says. “I’m going to lose money trying to make the best milkshake you’ve ever had.”

He’s speaking metaphorically, of course; the Offerman Woodshop is doing just fine. (“Knock on wood,” he deadpans.) The shop functions as a co-op, with each of his six woodworkers crafting their own wares — baseball bats, meat paddles — and everyone pitching in on commissioned work. (For example: “I just did a movie with Dave Franco and Alison Brie, and they had a new house, so we made them a walnut bathroom counter.”) Offerman doesn’t make any money off the shop, but it supports itself, earning enough to pay everyone’s wages and buy glue and wood. “My business manager has given up now, but for years he was like, ‘Why don’t you come up with something I can put in SkyMall?’ ” Offerman says. “But if I did that, a bunch of employees in some factory would make them, and they wouldn’t be happy, and I wouldn’t be happy.”

“He’s like a gentleman farmer,” Mullally says of Offerman. “I call him Farmer Joe — he’s so slow and deliberate.”

This summer Offerman is touring with Mullally for their two-person stage show, Summer of 69: No Apostrophe. (It’s a sex joke.) They have one of those too-good-to-be-true partnerships, perfect ever since they met doing a play together in 2000, when Offerman was a struggling actor living in a basement he was renovating and Mullally was a sitcom star five months away from winning her first Emmy, for Will & Grace. “She rescued me,” he says. “I became her student. I just pulled up a stool and watched.” They married in 2003 in a backyard wedding featuring a Japanese tea ceremony and a mariachi band. “We still make each other laugh with great regularity,” Offerman says. “I’m so grateful she will still let me milk a joke.” (“He really gets me when he dances,” Mullally says.)

Though Offerman’s persona is in some ways the ur-dad, the couple doesn’t have any kids. (They do have two miniature poodles, Clover and Elmo.) “I think I would have had fun [being a dad],” Offerman says. “We tried to have kids for a bit, and it didn’t take, so we figured we missed her window.” They discussed alternatives: adoption, “something scientific.” But Offerman’s career started to take off, and then he got Parks and Rec, and they realized that a home with two busy actors might not be the most stable place for a kid. “So we chose to remain each other’s child,” Offerman says. “I haven’t had much reason to regret the choice.”

And in a way, he gets to play father to a few million people, through his books and his stand-up special, American Ham, which features his “10 Tips for a Prosperous Life” (say “please” and “thank you,” always carry a hanky). “It’s straight-up dad stuff,” Offerman says. “It’s all tied to the notion that while we don’t have kids, I do have some things to say to the young people.”

Now that he’s mastered crafting furniture and canoes, Offerman’s next big project is to try to build his own guitar. He’s aiming for a replica Gibson J-200, “this massive country guitar” that’s beloved by Jeff Tweedy and Neil Young. Offerman has flirted with buying one for years, but they usually sell for five figures, and he’d listen to himself play it and think, “I can sound this crappy on a much less expensive guitar.” So he never pulled the trigger, but eventually he had a realization: “I’m never going to feel that my playing deserves such a great guitar — but I can make one of these motherfuckers.”

It’s all part of his grander plan to take a small step back from performing and spend more time doing other things he loves. Mullally says he took nearly 200 flights last year — “which is not healthy.” So this fall, after their tour, Offerman will shoot another stand-up special, Full Bush (another sex joke), then take a break from showbiz for a bit. “It would be really gross and immodest of me to list the things I’ve said no to in the last month,” he says. Suffice it to say, they’re jobs he once would have killed for — which, for a guy who’d probably rather be working a spokeshave anyway, is a genuine victory.

“I just had an epiphany,” Offerman says. “I was driving home from this woodworking school in the redwoods, and it hit me: The reason you did this [woodworking] book was to teach yourself to slow the hell down. I’d spent so many years trying to do great work, and for about five or six years I’ve been able to cram my gullet full to bursting. But eventually you’re, like, ‘I need to go back to having time at home with Megan and my family. Just being bored and doing puzzles.'”