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Rita Wilson Finds Her Voice in Songwriting

The actress and singer reflects on COVID-19, her acting epiphany, friendship and grandchildren

spinner image Actress and musician Rita Wilson
Jim Jordan Photography

Love in the time of COVID-19

Having breast cancer made me realize that the things you always think happen to other people can happen to you. And then Tom [her husband, actor Tom Hanks] and I came down with COVID-19 in March in Australia, where he was filming and I had singing engagements. I'm grateful we recovered fully and that we got it early on, before there were so many deaths. If we'd known how serious the illness really was, it would have been a lot more frightening. I think about all the people who've had to go through it alone, with no one to touch them, hug them, wipe a tear from their faces, laugh with them. We're humans. We need to be together, even if it's only on FaceTime.

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The greatest gift

My father fled to the U.S. from communist Bulgaria; my mother, from Albania. As a first-generation American, I understand the value of growing up in a country that's democratic and free. It also gave me empathy for people seen as different, and sometimes dismissed, because they speak English with an accent.

You've got to have friends

When I turned 50, my pal Nora Ephron raised a glass of champagne and said, “I didn't direct my first movie until I was your age. Great things can happen!” That was huge for me. I'd always dreamed of being a singer, so first I made an album of classics from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Then I met singer-songwriter Kara DioGuardi. She became my mentor and brought in these amazing musicians, which led to Rita Wilson, my first album of originals.

Acting epiphany

Writing music made me feel so much more connected to who I really was as a person and an artist. And I realized then that, in my acting career, I'd been doing a lot of roles I'd taken on many, many times before — the warm, supportive sisters, mothers and pals I'd played in movies like Sleepless in Seattle and Now and Then. And I was, like, I'm done with that! I'm only going to do things that really interest me or that say something important. I started choosing parts that were more aligned with that vision, like the narcissistic mother on Girls or the tough lawyer on The Good Wife. It was so liberating!

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Facing the music

My first song, “Grateful,” was about how we all have hard times, but they sometimes lead to things that ultimately make us happier. Soon afterward, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery. The treatment was successful, thankfully. But I told my husband that if I were to go before he did, I wanted two things: One was that he should feel super sad for a really long time. The second thing was that he should hold a big celebration, with a lot of singing and dancing and people telling stories. There's a song about that, “Throw Me a Party,” on my latest album, Halfway to Home.

Child's play

Grandchildren are so pure. They put you in touch with the child part of yourself. They make you laugh like mad. Just today, I FaceTimed my 9-year-old granddaughter — I'm teaching her how to write a song on her piano — and she made changes that improved the song. I love a girl with ideas and opinions. —As told to Kenneth Miller

Rita Wilson, 63, made her rap debut on the Naughty by Nature single “Hip Hop Hooray (Remix).” Profits will be donated to the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

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