Rita Wilson is everyone’s best friend, one of those performers who appears as beloved in real life as on the screen. As Meg Ryan’s character says in “Sleepless in Seattle” after mistaking Wilson’s character for a romantic rival, “She looked like somebody we would’ve been friends with.” Of course, acting is only one facet of her personality; she’s also a heralded singer and award-winning producer. But to so many people, she’s instantly identifiable as a welcome presence on screens.
“I’ve played the wonderful, warm, kind, understanding sisters, aunts, mothers, daughters, friends, and I have loved it,” Wilson says of her roles in hits including “Now and Then” and “It’s Complicated”; she is on screens now in “Gloria Bell” as Julianne Moore’s bestie. But she has also enjoyed going against type in recent roles. “Playing a narcissistic mother on ‘Girls’ was so liberating. And on ‘The Good Wife,’ I got to be tough and unapologetic and driven; I’ve never played anyone like that before.”
Nice gals will finish first when Wilson receives her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame March 29, which also happens to be the same day her new album, “Halfway to Home,” drops. She admits that when she got the call, “I almost fell over.” The honor has special significance for Wilson, as she was born and raised in Hollywood. “My first thought went to my parents and I thought, ‘Oh my God, if they were alive they would be so happy.’ That was our hometown; that was where we did everything. I remember going to the Chinese Theatre and putting my hands and feet in the footprints of the stars. So this is an honor and a miracle.”
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In fact, Wilson’s star will be mere blocks from her alma mater, Hollywood High School, where she was a cheerleader for the Sheiks. (And just four spots away from husband Tom Hanks’ star.) But Wilson’s family didn’t come to Hollywood because of the business. “My parents came to L.A. because my mom’s sister lived here and the weather was better than in New York,” Wilson recalls. “So they didn’t have that sort of reverence for Hollywood some people did. They just wanted good weather, a good job and to build a family and a life here. In many ways, I grew up in a small town. It was a normal place where we rode bikes and had ice cream and went to movies.”
Wilson pays tribute to this duality on her new album with the song “Big City Small Town Girl,” singing: “I was raised blue collar/A bartender’s daughter/He said, you gotta work hard to make it in this town/Mom made my prom dress/I felt like a princess/Even more than I do in these designer gowns.”
Acting had never entered Wilson’s mind before she was discovered on her first day of high school. “A group of two men and two women said they were there with the school’s permission and asked to photograph me,” she recalls. A couple weeks later, she went in for a meeting and learned the shoot was for Harper’s Bazaar with the renowned photographer Albert Watson. “I think the issue was January 1972 and they wanted to devote it to young people because 18-year-olds were getting the right to vote. I was 14 and that’s how I got in the business.” Another model at the shoot told her about agents, and she ended up signing with Nina Blanchard. From there, Wilson got her first acting job on “The Brady Bunch,” in which she played, of course, a high school cheerleader.
It wasn’t until Wilson got into junior college that she began to think of this as a career. “At 18, 19, I was doing a lot of commercials, so much that I was missing class and couldn’t make it up,” she says. “So I decided: I guess this is my job.”
A big film break occurred in 1985 with “Volunteers,” in which she co-starred with John Candy and future husband Hanks, and she would show her range in everything from dark indies (“Auto Focus,” “Psycho”) to crowd-pleasing comedies (“Runaway Bride,” that scene-stealing turn in “Sleepless in Seattle”).
Along the way, she learned she had a secret skill at producing. Before Donald Margulies’ play “Dinner With Friends” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, she suggested it to the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. “The experience helped me feel good about my taste in material and knowing when something felt right.”
“I’ve played the wonderful, warm, kind, understanding sisters, aunts, mothers, daughters, friends, and I have loved it.”
That radar went into overdrive when she caught a performance of Nia Vardalos’ one-woman show “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”; Wilson immediately knew it would make a great movie. Hanks was just starting his production company, Playtone, and Wilson brought it to him and partner Gary Goetzman. She helped shepherd the 2002 film to the B.O. top, and it become one of the most successful indies in history, grossing north of $368 million worldwide off a $5 million budget. Knowing what a phenomenon it became, it’s hard to believe the struggle to get it made.
“Nobody wanted to finance it,” Wilson says. “And when it was done, nobody wanted to distribute it!”
Wilson produced more films with Vardalos, including that film’s sequel, “Connie and Carla” and “My Life in Ruins” and found more success with another play-turned-feature, “Mamma Mia!” and its sequel. She’s also a producer and actor in the upcoming films “Emmett” and “Simple Wedding,” both made by female writers and directors. And for both films, she co-wrote and performed the end credits songs.
On the producing horizon, Wilson and Hanks have optioned the book “A Man Called Ove,” for Hanks to star in, playing the cranky title character. The 2015 Swedish film version of the book earned a foreign-language Oscar nomination.
Also in Wilson’s future is more music. It wasn’t until she played Roxie Hart in the 2006 Broadway revival of “Chicago” that she knew music had to be a part of her life going forward. The role ranks among one of Wilson’s most demanding, and she wasn’t sure she could pull it off.
“I went to see the show and halfway through I turned to Tom and my daughter Elizabeth and said, ‘There is no way.’ And they looked at me and said, ‘Are you kidding? This is perfect for you!’”
Through the show she met Kara DioGuardi, who encouraged her to write music; they penned Wilson’s first two songs with Jason Reed. “I think I always wanted to do it but I didn’t know how. Going forward, music has to be part of my creative life.”
|Wilson rediscovered her love of singing after appearing in the Broadway revival of the musical “Chicago” in 2006.
Also part of her life is her philanthropic work, which includes 27 years with the non-profit organization Shakespeare Center Los Angeles. And for more than 20 years, she and Hanks have been co-chairs with Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw of fundraiser An Unforgettable Evening, which raises money for the Women’s Cancer Research Fund. Wilson was active long before her own breast cancer diagnosis in 2015.
“I didn’t know I would get breast cancer one day but I was fortunate because the foundation was so helpful with information and resources and allowing me to get the message out there about getting a second opinion and trusting your gut,” she notes.
Ultimately, she says there is creativity in everyone and many ways to explore it. “Some of that creativity is seen by millions of people around the world, some of it is just seen by your kids or your community. But finding whatever that thing is for yourself is so important because it’s a gift from God. I always want to encourage people to find that thing that they love and do it. Whether its painting or sewing or building or songwriting or dancing or music. It’s that thing you love doing where time goes by and you can’t believe you forgot to eat.”
What: Rita Wilson receives a star on the Walk of Fame.
When: 11:30 a.m. March 29
Where: 7024 Hollywood Blvd.