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Rita Wilson Recalls Getting Discovered When She Was 14, Being Mentored by Nora Ephron

Rita Wilson
Robert Trachtenberg

 

Rita Wilson was honored earlier today with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the 20210 Installation Gala. I caught up with a the “Sleepless in Seattle” star, 64, yesterday to talk about her start in the business, being mentored by Nora Ephron and battling COVID with husband Tom Hanks during the early days of the pandemic.

When you heard the chamber wanted to give you the Lifetime Achievement Award, what goes through your head?

I was trying to count. I think I’ve been in this business now 50 years because my first job was when I was 14 years old. I was cast as a model for Harper’s Bazaar magazine by the famous photographer Albert Watson. That launched me into being in the business. And then two years later, I got cast as Pat Conway on “The Brady Bunch.” That’s how I got my SAG card.

Tell me about shooting with Albert Watson.

It was the year that they were giving 18-year-olds the vote. It was the first issue of 1972. We shot it in 71. It was bathing suits and surfer chicks. I think they were combining professional models with people like me that they just found at Hollywood High School.

Is it possible to look back at your career and pick one thing that was your ultimate crowning moment?

I think. Nora Ephron casting me and “Sleepless,” and then afterwards in “Mixed Nuts.” And then again in plays that she did. Nora was the first time I ever had a mentor, someone who could say, “Here’s how you do it. I think you’re you have something and let’s work together.” She did this in numerous times during our friendship. My mom was Greek. My dad was Bulgarian. They were immigrants. I was a first-generation American. Nobody was in the business. I never had someone who said, “Here’s how you do this,” until Nora.

You’re also a singer. How much have you missed performing in person?

I miss it a lot. I miss it for many reasons. You want to be with people, you just want to be in the room. I always say that performing a song requires the participation of the audience in order to really get what you’re trying to do. I’m in England right now and I have all these writing sessions set up with English writers and Swedish writers. I love the whole writing process.

How much has your experience with COVID played into what kind of music you’re writing now?

I did a lot of writing during COVID. One of the songs that came out of that right now is called “Hello World.” That was in COVID and it’s sort of the hope that we’d get the vaccine and go out into the world. “I Want to Kiss Bob Dylan” was written in COVID. A new EP that I have coming out, most of those were written in COVID.

How surreal is it that the year of COVID was marked by a lot of people remembering you and Tom getting sick at the start of the pandemic?

We didn’t know when we announced that it was having the impact that it had because we were in the hospital by then and not feeling that great. I remember I did a playlist called “Rita Wilson’s Quarantunes” or something like that. It was just songs that you could imagine, having to do with being locked down or having high fevers and things. And after that, I got really sick. Afterwards, we realized the NBA shutting down and our announcement was sort of when people came to the realization that this was really happening. Still to this day, I can’t wrap my head around the number of people who have died. I still can’t get over that.