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‘Office’ Actor Promotes Freedom of Education

SANTA FE, N.M. — While Rainn Wilson’s quirky character schemes for every morsel of power on “The Office,” the actor who plays him shows more humanitarian concerns.

The man whose devoted cult following inspired an Internet column (“Schrute Space”) and a bobblehead will be in Santa Fe on July 7 to promote a free screening of “Education Under Fire,” a film aimed at exposing Iranian persecution against people of the Baha’i faith.

“This is a cause that is very near and dear to my heart,” said Wilson, who plays the scheming Dwight Schrute on “The Office.” “I’m a member of the Baha’i faith. But I never knew much about the secret Baha’i Universities.”

If you go
WHAT: “Education Under Fire”
WHERE: Santa Fe University of Art and Design, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive
WHEN: 7 p.m. July 7
COST: Free

Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian government has forbidden young Baha’i from attending any of the country’s universities. In 1987, the Iranian Baha’i community took action by launching its own Institute for Higher Education in the living rooms, basements and kitchens of their own homes. Baha’i academics barred from teaching professionally because of their religious beliefs led the classes.

In May 2011, the Iranian government started a coordinated attack against these underground schools by raiding dozens of homes, confiscating computers and materials, and detaining 18 professors and administrators. Seven have received four- or five-year prison terms.

“My son is about 7 years old,” Wilson said. “I never really thought of the withholding of education as the denial of a basic human right.”

Under the Shah, the Baha’i were jailed and beheaded, he said. The denial of education amounts to a more subtle version of suppression.

“It’s an easy way to keep a class of people from becoming doctors and lawyers — they can’t even own their own businesses,” Wilson said. “When I learned about it, I was incensed and outraged. In the Baha’i faith, education is a spiritual right. That’s a terrible way to attack their faith.

“Now it’s online,” he added. “They find out where the classes are being taught so they can shut them down.”

The persecution dates to the 1840s. “The Shah at the time was on record as saying 20,000 Baha’is had been killed,” Wilson said.

Wilson will be in Santa Fe for the film’s opening and will stay afterward to answer questions.

Despite aggressive posturing, the Iranian government cares very deeply about world opinion, Wilson insisted. He asked supporters to write to their representatives.

“International condemnation goes a long way,” he said.

Wilson is on summer break from “The Office,” the Emmy-winning series set to open its ninth season Sept. 20. The mockumentary underwent some turmoil and a ratings dip when star Steve Carell, who played the outrageously clueless boss Michael Scott, left near the end of the seventh season.

“That’s been challenging,” Wilson acknowledged. “He was the comic engine for seven years. (But) I think some of the best episodes we’ve ever done were from last season.”

Newer episodes have focused on Scott’s peripheral characters, like the bumbling Andy and new parents Jim and Pam.

“It’s not about one central character now,” Wilson said.

He has no idea if Schrute will ever gain the power he’s so convinced he deserves.

“He received that power for one episode and we saw what happened,” Wilson said. “He shot a gun off in the office.”

He’s working on an “Office” spin-off that follows Schrute to the family beet farm.

” ‘The Farm’ — that’s Dwight running his bed and breakfast and we meet some more of Dwight’s family,” Wilson said.

The pilot will debut as an episode of “The Office.” Wilson doesn’t know if NBC will pick up the show.

Wilson has been to Santa Fe twice, once when his wife attended a Taos writing conference. He lamented a lack of good (New) Mexican food in Los Angeles.

“I’m excited to get back to Santa Fe; it’s such a beautiful place,” he said. “I can’t wait to get back and have some real (New) Mexican food. There’s nothing else compares. I’ve gained about eight pounds eating enchiladas.”