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Rainn Wilson on the meaning of life, America and the ‘gratifying’ legacy of The Office

Star of The Office and Jerry & Marge Go Large Rainn Wilson talks about asking the big questions and entering a new chapter in his life

We all wonder… If you won the lottery, how would you spend the cash?

“I would probably give the money to poor people,” says Rainn Wilson. He may know he’s on a Zoom call with The Big Issue, he may just be trying to look good.

“I would, I really would,” he insists. “But then again, I’ve got enough. I made money on a little TV show so I’ll be fine.”

That little TV show, the US version of The Office, remains the most popular comedy series of the century almost a decade after it finished. As such, Wilson will always be known as Dwight, though he’s grown facial hair and ditched the severe middle parting.

“We get ok residuals,” he continues. “Residuals for streaming services are very, very minimal. Which sucks. It’s a union contract thing. But when they replay episodes on cable TV and international sales we get money. So yeah, I get a nice chunk of change every year. It’s pretty sweet.”

Someone must be reaping the rewards of deals with streaming channels? “I’m sure someone is making money there. But it’s not the actors.”

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As uptight as Dwight was, Wilson’s latest role sees him a lot more relaxed. Jerry & Marge Go Large is based on a true story. A retired couple in Evart, Michigan spot a flaw in their local lottery. They pool the resources of the town then invest their winnings back into regenerating the town.

“I loved the script when I read it because it was just so uplifting and warm-hearted,” Wilson says. “Hollywood doesn’t make many movies about real, small-town America. Nice people who believe in each other and help each other, who are trying to make the world a better place and have fun along the way.”

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Wilson co-stars as Bill, a liquor store owner Jerry and Marge (played by Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening) buy their thousands of tickets from. Bill’s been described as everybody’s drunk uncle. Did Wilson base it on any specific drunk uncle he’s encountered?

“I have a number of drunk uncles. And drugged out uncles. And drug dealer uncles. But no, no one specific from my family.

“I was trying to encapsulate who Bill is: Hawaiian shirt, a little down on his luck but always up for an adventure. A bit of a screw loose, you’re not sure what’s going to come out of his mouth next. Everyone has someone like that in their family.”

Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening star alongside Rainn Wilson in Jerry & Marge Go Large. Credit: Paramount+
Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening star alongside Rainn Wilson in Jerry & Marge Go Large. Credit: Paramount+

Like The Office, Jerry & Marge Go Large is about people and the communities they can build. At the heart of the story is Jerry finding a way to connect with people using his uncanny way with numbers.

Wilson too has used his gifts to connect to audiences all over the world.

“I started in the theatre. I did 10 years before I did any TV and film. And it’s easier to connect because you’re in a big room with a bunch of people. If you’re making them laugh and you’re making them cry and you’re making them think, you’re bringing everyone together in that room. I know it sounds cliché, but that’s the magic of the theatre.

“When I did The Office, the thing that struck me most was that I did not expect the number of people who thanked me for being a part of the show, because it helped them in their lives. It brought them joy, it brought their family together. It distracted them when they were feeling anxious or depressed.

“Being part of a show that makes people laugh and the world a better place – it feels really gratifying. I feel really honoured and I’m really lucky.

“I think Jerry & Marge is similar. This is what the world needs right now, these kinds of stories. Doesn’t have to do with Brexit and doesn’t have to do with January 6 or gun control or abortion or red states and blue states – it’s just good old Americans doing nice things from one another.”

At divisive times, the message of togetherness is a powerful one, especially in America which has particular notions around independence.

“America is very complicated because one of our central tenets is E Pluribus Unum – out of many one. But that was written when Blacks were slaves and women weren’t considered citizens,” Wilson says.

“And we also have: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. And I think that’s problematic. Life, we’ll put aside. Everyone wants life, duh. But if you’re pursuing liberty and happiness, then that has nothing to do with connection and community.

“Connection and community really brings out the best of America. So if it was Life, Community and Connection instead of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, we might have a different kind of society. So we’ve got a lot of work in front of us.”

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Right in front of Wilson at the moment is the feeling that he’s entering a new chapter in his life.

“My son is 17 and in a year he’ll be going off to college. Then my wife and I… what do we do without raising my son?

“Figuring out this next chapter is big. And I’m seeing various ways that my body is breaking down. My cholesterol is higher and I’m gaining some weight and my knee hurts all the time. Like, what’s going on? My body is failing me.

“This brings up questions of mortality – so there are some big questions in this next chapter.”

Wilson is a deep thinker. He’s a follower of the Baha’I Faith and hosts a podcast, Metaphysical Milkshake which has the easy ambition to find the meaning of life.

“I will say that looking for the meaning of life is something that’s very important to me,” he says. “It’s something I’ve written a lot about and explored a lot. I’m writing a book about spirituality that’s coming out next year. I think that life’s biggest questions like, why are we here? and what’s the purpose? can make our lives richer and better.

“For me, it is connecting with people. It’s figuring out ways to be of service to others. Going on adventures, trying to fill my life with gratitude and saying yes to what life offers me. And I’ve been blessed in a number of different ways to be able to do that.”

Maybe he would actually give his lottery winnings away to a good cause.

Jerry & Marge Go Large is available to stream now on Paramount+

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