AUSTIN, Texas—Lounging on a banquette in the upstairs bar at his hotel in Austin, Nick Offerman looks different. He’s at the South by Southwest festival to promote his role as a music-loving single dad in the new film Hearts Beat Loud. Gone is the unruly beard he sports in the new film, as well as the bushy mustache that defined his iconic character on Parks and Recreation. In their place is some neatly manicured stubble, revealing a surprisingly sharp jawline.
His Parks and Rec co-star Chris Pratt has received far more attention for his physical transformation into an action movie superstar, but Offerman is similarly slimmed down from his Ron Swanson days, joking that if the show’s creators call him back for a reboot, he will be forced to “eat more meat at their behest.”
But one thing that remains unchanged about Offerman is his passion for carpentry.
“Can anyone tell me what’s wrong with this finish?” he asks, leaning forward to examine the coffee table in front of him like a disappointed shop teacher.
When no one present can come up with an answer, Offerman says, “If you had guessed they used a polyurethane, which deeply yellowed the wood, which should be much lighter in color, you would be correct.”
The day before our interview, Offerman announced that he was donating $10 to Everytown for Gun Safety for every purchase made from his Offerman Wood Shop for the two weeks leading up to the march. It was his small way of firing back, so to speak, at the NRA for using a Leslie Knope meme to promote its pro-gun agenda just one week after the Parkland, Florida school shooting.
At the time, Offerman tweeted at the NRA and spokesperson Dana Loesch, “Our good-hearted show and especially our Leslie Knope represent the opposite of your pro-slaughter agenda - take it down and also please eat shit.” He appended an American flag emoji to his tweet.
“I deal with this a lot,” Offerman tells me a couple of weeks later. “People from the farthest right to the farthest left alignment claim some sort of ownership of the iconography of Parks and Recreation, but specifically my character Ron Swanson. And that is, I believe, a testament to the success of the show, that everybody feels like it’s about them. Everybody feels like it’s theirs. It’s promoting their team.
“Generally, that’s a good thing,” he adds. “But when a particularly ugly team claims public ownership, then we comment on it. It’s not dissimilar from a musician asking a shitty politician not to play their rock and roll song at their rally.”
In reality, Offerman is almost aggressively reasonable when it comes to the gun debate.
“I would just encourage people to understand that there will never be a clear and simple answer to these questions,” he says. “If there is a solution or even just an alleviation, it’s going to be complicated. And it may certainly require some trial and error. So far, to my knowledge, it’s mostly been a lot of bipartisan shouting and name-calling. A group like Everytown is making a solid effort to simply try to help alleviate a social malaise in which school kids are being slaughtered.”
He says he’s happy to throw his support behind their cause. “Will that fix everything? Of course not,” he says. “Will everything ever be fixed? Of course not. But let’s try something. And if it fails, we’ll try something else. But let’s quit screaming about it and effect some change.”
Offerman also praises Florida Gov. Rick Scott for taking some small steps toward gun violence prevention that “didn’t thrill either side,” but showed he’s “making an effort, which is all we can do.”
In Hearts Beat Loud, Offerman is Frank Fisher, a single father raising his teenage daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Frank is struggling to keep his record store afloat and still harbors dreams of becoming a rock star. That dream comes tantalizingly within his grasp when he and Sam collaborate on a pop song that becomes a sleeper indie hit on Spotify.
Offerman insists that he never wanted to be a rock musician himself. “It came as a wonderful late surprise to me that I would ever play guitar and sing in front of an audience,” he says. “The only way I think I’ve been able to do that is that I make them laugh with my music.”
Last summer, Offerman and his wife, actress Megan Mullally, performed music and comedy around the country together on what they jokingly called their “Summer of 69: No Apostrophe” tour. “It’s allowed me to accidentally become pretty competent at playing music, but nobody ever asks me to play songs just because they like how they sound,” he says. “Usually there’s an ulterior motive.”
Brett Haley, who wrote and directed Hearts Beat Loud, had cast Offerman in a supporting part in his previous film The Hero and wanted to see what the actor could do with a lead role on screen. “I enjoyed him in every aspect very much, as an actor, as a friend, as a human, as someone who is obviously beloved but I think underrated still,” Haley tells me. “And so I wanted to give Nick the opportunity to be at the center of a movie.
“I knew he could do it,” Haley adds. “And if I wanted someone to be a dad in my movie, I wanted it to be Nick Offerman.”
Despite having no children of his own, this film is hardly the first time Offerman has played a father on screen. But this is the first time the movie is actually about that father figure.
“I guess I come by it honest,” Offerman says of his ability to exude a paternal energy. “I have excellent parents. And so even though I’m not a parent—my wife and I don’t have kids—I’ve carried the attributes of my own dad into my life. So I make sure everybody’s taken care of, I know how to fix things, good manners are important to me, seeing people treated decently, making sure everybody’s got a ride home.”
The film finds Offerman’s character pushing his daughter to chase fame at a young age, but as an actor he didn’t get his “big break” until he was cast on Parks and Recreation at 38 years old—the same age Mullally was when she broke through on Will & Grace. Offerman says he would “not have been ready” to be famous when he was in his twenties.
“I’m very grateful that it came to me later, because I’m barely able to keep my shit together now,” he says. “So if it had happened when I was 20, I was so ignorant in so many ways, I’m pretty sure I would have driven a motorcycle into the side of a building or something.”
While his old Parks and Rec friends were reuniting in Washington, D.C., for last weekend’s March for Our Lives, Offerman was with Mullally at the Los Angeles version of the march, wearing a “Don’t be a dope, vote like Knope” T-shirt.
Each time he tweeted out a photo of a sign or any message about gun control, dozens of supportive tweets rolled in. But there were also attacks from followers who struggled to reconcile the incongruities between Offerman’s progressive politics and the staunch libertarian leanings of his iconic character Ron Swanson.
For instance, one person responded, “Nick, you played a character who appreciated constitutional realities. Alienating half your fans isn’t something I believed you would do.” Another got the character’s name wrong, writing, “Don Swanson is just another liberal sheep. How disappointing.”
“I get a lot of really sad, tear-filled divorces from right-wing Ron Swanson fans that don’t have much imagination,” Offerman says. While he usually doesn’t have time to “even read the scads of commentary,” he adds, when he does he finds that “closed-minded NRA fanatics will say mean things or argue why ideas like Everytown are so stupid or take that leap that we’re trying to do away with the Second Amendment, all of which is simply idiotic.
“What’s interesting is that other people will try to engage them,” he continues. “And there’s assholes everywhere, there’s people calling each other names and being jerks, but I really like to see on the occasions that people get into reasonable conversations and say, ‘Hang on a second, nobody’s saying abolish an amendment,’ and I think ultimately that’s going to have to hold some water.”
Though his personal politics don’t line up with those of the character he played for seven seasons, Offerman says he has no regrets about making hatred of the government seem so cool, even as right-wing websites like The Daily Caller have turned Ron Swanson’s anti-bureaucracy quotes into pro-conservative memes.
“It’s a brilliantly written comedy program,” Offerman says, explaining that when Mike Schur and Greg Daniels were developing the show they met a libertarian woman in Burbank who worked in the Parks and Rec department and hated the government. “And they said, what a hilarious character for our comedy. And it proved to be true. It was really effective as a comedy construct.
“Everything good and bad about Ron Swanson exists in a very two-dimensional world that is very outside of reality,” he explains, “whether it’s the amount of steak and scotch that he can consume or his hatred for the government and how that affects his life. You can exist that way on a TV show, but it doesn’t work in reality. That’s why it’s funny.”
When he was first cast on the show, Offerman says he did a lot of research about the libertarian movement. “And on paper, it’s fantastic,” he says. “But in reality, it can never work. And that’s why that party has no foothold and never will.”
“I mean, I get it. I absolutely agree with the ideals. But obviously, it’s going nowhere,” he says. “And I think that’s exemplified by the incredibly vociferous and angry denial that comes from that side of people who say, ‘You son of a bitch, we thought were our spokesperson.’ And I say, if you could take a deep breath and think about it, I think you’ll find that I am your spokesperson. But I’m rational and I’m trying to accomplish things in the real world, not in the fantasyland where there is no law.”