Rainn Wilson Brings 'The Phantom Tollbooth', His Quirky Childhood Favorite, to Brilliant Life
The new audio version of the classic children’s book, ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’, couldn’t have been in better hands than those of the very funny former star of ‘The Office’, uberfan Rainn Wilson.By Heather ScottMar 22, 2019 9:30 AM
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There are books that we're introduced to as children that become bedrock to our sense of self or how we see the world. For so many, Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth was just that book, with its clever wordplay and sneaky learning fun. One childhood fan in particular recently found himself in the enviable position of getting to narrate this masterpiece. Listen in as actor Rainn Wilson talks with editor Heather Scott about what the book means to him, how he tackled the deliberately confusing wording, and how the surprise guest narrator joined the project.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Heather Scott: Hello, this is Heather Scott, editor of Kids and YA at Audible. Today I'll be talking with Rainn Wilson. You might know him from his onscreen roles including Dwight Schrute of The Office. He might have crossed your path on YouTube as the co-founder of SoulPancake. I can tell you that's where I turn when I need a reminder that there is good in the world. Or, you might even know him as an advocate and the co-founder of LIDÈ Haiti, a non-profit which empowers and educates girls in rural Haiti. But, at Audible, we are talking about him as the extraordinary narrator of the extraordinary classic The Phantom Tollbooth. Welcome, Rainn.
Rainn Wilson: It's great to be here. Thanks for having me on this thing, whatever it is.
HS: A conversation. We'll just leave it that.
RW: A conversation, a podcast, a show. Who knows?
HS: It's something. Who knows? We can create a new word for it as we go along. I have to tell you that I know probably a dozen people, at least, who cite The Phantom Tollbooth as a childhood favorite book. And I always have to admit that I didn't have it as a kid, and I really wish I had. I didn't pick it up until I was in my twenties. What's your relationship with the book? Did you know it before you were invited to be the narrator on it?
RW: This was an absolutely seminal book for me. Growing up, my favorite book in the world was Alice in Wonderland. And I really didn't think that that could ever be topped. And then, a couple years later I discovered The Phantom Tollbooth. I don't know if it was required reading at my school or not -- maybe I was 8, 9, 10 years old, somewhere in there -- and I just couldn't believe it. It was one of those rare books that filled me with awe all the way through. And I laughed, and I was scared and perplexed. And it was just a fascinating read for me.
It really affected my life, because it was so much about, especially about, language. Yes, there is a whole section on mathematics, but I just loved language, wordplay. Maybe I wouldn't have been an actor if I hadn't read The Phantom Tollbooth.
HS: That's really interesting. I have to say that I feel like coming to it as an adult, I wish I'd had it as a kid, because I think it would have changed my relationship with numbers. I am much more a word person too, and I wish I had had it when I was 8, 9, 10, as you did.
RW: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I wish you would have had it.
HS: I appreciate that. My checkbook appreciates it. Anytime I had to add on my fingers would appreciate it. For anyone who isn't familiar with the book, would you mind summarizing it for us?
RW: Sure. So it's a pretty simple layout. There is a young boy named Milo. We don't know exactly how old he is. He lives in the city. A city that seems a lot like New York City in like the '60s. And one day he comes home to his room to find a box with a card and a note. I forget what it says exactly. But, in the box, is a miniature car and a tollbooth. Like a tollbooth that they used to have on the highways. They still do to some extent, but this is an old-fashioned looking tollbooth with a lever that went up and down. And so Milo decides, he gets a little map and he decides to go on an adventure.
Now, what it's worth saying is that Milo is very bored with life. Everything is boring to him at the beginning. He doesn't want to learn. He doesn't want to read. He doesn't know what to do. He is just kind of filled with a kind of like preadolescent malaise. And all that gets changed when he goes through the tollbooth, and finds himself in the lands beyond the tollbooth, and meets all kinds of dozens, and dozens of strange characters. And he kind of learns and grows. He goes on a mission to find the two princesses that have been kidnapped. Rhyme and Reason are the two princesses and that's kind of the McGuffin, if you will, the thing that's driving the story.
But, really, the story is just an excuse to meet some outrageous characters and have all kinds of wacky wordplay. And throughout the course of the book, Milo learns a love of education. He learns about curiosity and learning. And it fills him with a love of words, and numbers, and the magic of what it is to learn.
HS: So it really is a classic quest, but with that extra twist of wordplay and fun in it.
RW: Exactly. Exactly.
HS: So, so, so much of this book is centered on wordplay. And for me, a lot of that comes to life as I'm reading it on the printed page. So I will admit, coming into the audio, I wondered how you were going to approach some of that. How you were going to handle some of the tongue twisters. How you were going to handle some of the homonyms. "Which/witch" looks different on the page than it does orally. And I wondered if you had any special way that you prepared to get listeners ready for all of that.
RW: You know, it was a challenge, I'll tell you. It's hard enough to do an audiobook, because it's extremely demanding. You want to do honor to the author and get every word right; you want to get every phrasing right, every comma, every period. You want to instill the story with the intention of the author. And when the intention of the author is to confuse and to create chaos on the page, then it is much more challenging. So it was a mouthful, believe me. A lot of different characters to keep track of, to make sure they sounded different. Sometimes I'd be in the middle of it going like, "Wait. What voice did I do for Tock versus what voice did I to for The Humbug? What voice did I do for the mayor of Digitopolis?"
I would forget these things. So it was a kind of a catalog of doing 37 different distinct voices.
HS: I did not keep count, but I can tell you I didn't realize it was 37. I heard 37, but it comes across seamlessly.
RW: Well, that's very nice. It's a lot of characters.
HS: It really is. Speaking of which, when I heard you were narrating, I got really excited. I think my first reaction was, "He is going to do The Doldrums. He is going to do The Dodecahedron." And just got really excited to hear how you would interpret them. Were there any characters that you were really excited about bringing to life?
RW: Oh, God. There are so many characters. I really love Alec, the little boy who is floating in the air because in his family they're born in the air and as they become adults their feet eventually touch the ground. I think that was a character that I loved. I was excited for the Doctor of Dissonance, in the Valley of Sound, who plays with sounds and noises. And I knew that was going to be a wild ride. But, just mostly all the incredible levels and layers of puns that I knew I would get to dig through. That just made it a blast to read.
HS: Oh, good. I'm glad to hear it. Speaking of all these interesting characters. Coming up near the end of the book, there was a second narrator for a brief scene. There is a boy who is named .58. Was there a special secret about that character and the second narrator?
RW: Yes. You guessed well. You caught that.
HS: I did.
RW: You caught that little toy surprise inside the audiobook. It's a book that my son, who is 14 and named Walter, loves as well. And I really wanted him to just be a part of this experience. So I asked them if they would be so kind to let Walter read a small part. And we tried him in a few and the one that worked the best was the .58 boy. And so I hope it kind of weaves in seamlessly, but it was really fun to get to share the reading of the book with my son.
HS: Were you in the studio together, or did you record separately?
RW: No, we were in the studio together. He came in. You know, I spent a couple of days recording, two or three days, and he just came in for 45 minutes or so. And I worked with him a lot to try and bring it to life. And we had, of course, a great director on the book. And he had never done anything like that before. So I wanted him to give a cool life experience too. When he is an old man in his old folks home, he can go listen to The Phantom Tollbooth and hear father and son reading together.
HS: That's so incredibly magical. I really think that's exciting. And it's a special moment in the book. I think it really makes you think about your own family and your own relationships, and sort of how you fit into the world there. So having your son there, I think brings it home a little bit more.
RW: Yeah. It's nice. It adds some heart.
HS: For sure. So you talked about working with him on getting his voices right, and practicing, and using the expertise of your director. But, were there lessons from your other voice work that you have done that you brought to this? Or, was it sort of more of a private reading experience? Did you draw more on your experience as an actor, or your experience as a dad reading with your kid?
RW: Well, a little bit of both. A little bit of both. I think that I always liked to think of being an actor as being a storyteller. It's just a different way of telling the story. You're pretending to be one of the characters in the story that's being told. And so it was just great to share that with my son. You know, being a storyteller with my son and sharing with him the love of being a storyteller, the love of telling a story, and especially the love of telling a story that is so timeless and magical. And that's one thing I want to say about this book. I didn't know how well it would hold up, honestly. I re-read it a couple of times as a kid, but maybe I hadn't re-read it since I was a teenager.
But, boy, it holds up great. It's just because it's in this timeless world, and so much of the wordplay is still very contemporary, the jokes all work. When you do Shakespeare, a lot of the puns and the verbal jokes don't work from centuries past. And the audience is like, "What are they talking about? All these cuckold jokes." But, it really holds up. I know it's just from 1961 but, it feels very contemporary.
HS: It does. Yeah, before I got the files for the audio, I went back to re-read it. And then, listened to you. So I have had it on my mind quite a bit in the past couple of weeks. And I was really struck by that too. I mean, the book is just over 50 years old, but I think the only dated reference that I was really aware of is Milo mentions having a phonograph in his bedroom. But, I think everything else, I think, is contemporary. Everything else, there is a parallel or it's something we still use. You can still use the word "phone". We still have that confusion about language and play with language. So I'm completely with you. I think it stands up so incredibly well and better than most books of the time I think.
RW: Yes. Yeah. Like Alice in Wonderland, it has a timeless quality.
HS: Agreed. Absolutely agreed. And I don't think it's just because they're going to a fantasy world. I think it's just the nature of really skilled writing, and a real appreciation for everyday language, and how people converse with each other and play with each other while they're speaking.
RW: Right on.
HS: So did you have any takeaways from narrating The Phantom Tollbooth? Did it maybe inspire you as a creator? Are we going to get more creative work from you out of this? I'm not dropping hints or anything, of course.
RW: You want me to write the sequel?
HS: Well, I don't know we need a sequel.
RW: The sequel is ...
HS: But, maybe like a companion.
RW: The sequel is Milo gets out of rehab and needs to go back to the land beyond the tollbooth to kind of get his head straight, or whatever, to detox. No. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, I don't know. It did not specifically inspire me, but, again, just filled me with that same curiosity and love of learning. And I think the great thing about this book is it makes you feel like the age you were when you first read it, other than you who read it as an adult. But, reading it again made me feel like I was 10 years old again. It had that same sense of joy, and wonder, and curiosity.
HS: That's really fantastic. And I think it does. I think reading it as an adult, reading it as a kid, listening to it as a family, I think, gives great opportunities to kind of look at the world in a new way or in a different way. We all get stuck, as everyone knows. You get stuck in your own patterns, in your own habits. And I think this really kind of jolts you, in a good way.
RW: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Absolutely. Absolutely.
HS: Well, as we wrap up today, I'd like to keep the spirit of the book going and give you the last word. You know, continue with the puns, continue with the wordplay. So I'm going to say my thank you's now. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. And as a reminder to anyone who is listening, we're talking with Rainn Wilson and it's about his narration of the classic The Phantom Tollbooth. So Rainn, thank you so much. And I'm going to give you the last word. You might want to tell us what your favorite word is, or your least favorite word, or something else of your choosing.
RW: You know what I'm going do? I'm going to give you literally the last word. That is "a genus of South African weevils found near palm trees" is the last word in the Oxford English Dictionary. And that word is Zyzzyva.