Rainn Wilson is convinced that America needs to hear the story about a group of people who hacked the lottery.
“We live in such a hyperpartisan world and things are so divided,” Wilson said. “Every issue has kind of a red state and a blue state take on it, and this story transcends that.”
Before you think he’s lost his mind, hear him out. Wilson is talking about Paramount Plus’ Jerry and Marge Go Large, which tells the unbelievable but totally true story of a retired couple discovering a loophole in the lottery that allows them to win every time. And we’re not just talking a couple of bucks — the couple won $26 million before they gave up the lottery for good.
Real and Grounded
Back in 2003, Jerry Selbee — a secret math genius who spend most of his career working at Kellogg’s cereal factory as a materials analyst — was trying to fill his free time with something productive. He came across an advertisement for a state lottery game called Winfall. After reading the rules of the game, Selbee realized he could make the game work in his favor.
“I looked at the odds, I looked at what the payoff would be and I did a risk-reward analysis,” said the real-life Jerry to the Los Angeles Times. “It took me less than two minutes to figure out that that game could be profitable.”
The Selbees could have easily taken their money and spent it on material possessions, elaborate vacations, whatever they dreamed of. Instead, the couple chose to take the generous road and share their newfound wealth with their community in Evart, Michigan. For nearly a decade, the Selbees spent hours playing the game, gathering lottery tickets in high amounts and sharing their winnings.
Their story was picked up in 2018 by the Huffington Post, who were shocked by the couple’s quiet generosity. The couple wasn’t looking for fame or recognition; friends described them as “salt-of-the-earth kind of people” and were often impressed by their frugality.
After reading the script for the film, Wilson knew right away he wanted to be part of bringing the Selbees’ story to a wider audience. He said the script made him feel something he’d never quite experienced before as an actor.
“I thought the story was funny, buoyant, ebullient, kind of sad, truthful and grounded — both uplifting and important at the same time,” Wilson explained. “I think it’s important to the story that it felt real and grounded. It’s a comedy, it’s light, it’s warmhearted — but this really happened and these are real people, and I think that gives the film a little more heft.”
The Sky’s the Limit
The film is more than just a heart-warming story, however. There’s plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and many of those come from Wilson’s role as Bill Madres, the convenience store clerk who the Selbees partner with to purchase lottery tickets. While his character is exaggerated from the original story, Wilson still chose to portray his character’s story as honest as possible.
“Bill’s eccentric, and he’s kind of a slob, he’s down and out, kind of sees the world through his unique lens,” Wilson said. “But of all of the kind of crazy, misfit, goofball characters I’ve played before, I’ve never played one quite like Bill.”
Not quite like Bill. Wilson does mention that he has played a similar role to Bill before, and it’s the one he’s most known for. Dwight Schrute was a one-of-a-kind character who was somehow unaware of his comedic timing, while Bill Madres is completely aware of his hilarious effect on others. Bill takes the lottery money and buys a fancy new car after finally divorcing from his estranged wife for reasons unknown; If Dwight won the lottery, Wilson hypothesizes he’d spend the money on a helicopter, bodyguard or maybe even a private jet.
“That sounds like a very interesting Office spinoff,” Wilson joked. “The sky’s the limit. That would be a lot of fun.”
While Bill and Dwight may go the traditional route of lottery winners, Wilson said that he would follow the Selbees’ lead and use the money for someone else’s good. He and his wife co-run several charities and initiatives designed to connect people with leaders, educational opportunities and experiences to deepen their faith.
In particular, Wilson shared he would like to invest money in Lidè Haiti, an educational initiative that uses the arts and literacy to empower adolescent girls in rural Haiti that Wilson co-founded in 2013.
Wilson told Variety about the goal and success of the initiative back in 2014, saying, “This is using the arts to empower girls, help them find their voice, give them hope and help build community. When you teach a skill to a young woman or girl, they will share that information with their friends, their sisters, their aunts, their community. Whereas if you teach young men a skill, they’ll leave home and go to Port-au-Prince and become a taxi driver.”
A Big Warm Heart
Wilson’s passion for caring for others has grown more and more over the years. In addition to creating Lidè Haiti, he’s fundraised for the Mona Foundation, a Bahá’í-inspired charity that empowers and educates young girls and women in developing countries. He’s also become a massive climate justice advocate, even creating a documentary about his trip to Greenland called The Idiot’s Guide to Climate Change.
It’s easy to see why Wilson was drawn to the Selbees’ story. Plenty of people have won big with the lottery. But what sets the Selbees’ lottery-winning story apart from so many others is their generosity and love of others. They saw getting rich as a responsibility, something they owed to their community. The Selbees saw an opportunity to cash in a huge check, and without hesitation turned around to give back to their neighbors.
The Selbees’ story also shows that our world isn’t as black and white as it appears to be. Money can be a corrupting influence, but it doesn’t have to be; it can also be an opportunity for generosity. It’s a shocking story to hear, especially considering the state of the world today. But perhaps what makes it most unique is that the Selbees are ordinary people. All they did was seize an opportunity that allowed them to turn their dreams — and many others — into a reality.
“This is the best of being American,” Wilson said. “Their story is about generosity and community. It’s about giving back, and doing it with kind of a big warm heart.”