An Interview with Rita Wilson
by Casey Pukl
It’s not hard to see why Rita Wilson has had such an incredible career in the film side of the entertainment business. Not only is she ridiculously talented (and gorgeous), but she’s also sweeter than a sugar cookie!
I had the chance to catch up with Rita about her debut album of 60′s and 70′s classics that is set for release on May 8th as well as her recent experience on the NBC hit show, “Who Do You Think You Are” in which she learned about her father’s incredible past.
CP: Tell me a little bit about your record! I know it’s your debut, and I’d love to know what really inspired you to go for it!
RW: It was inspired by many different things! I had done the musical Chicago in 2006, which was really very risky and scary. I think we all are confronted with things that scare us and sometimes we do them and sometimes we don’t. I had been offered the role of Roxy Hart, and so I went to New York to go and see the play. During the intermission, I turned to my husband and my daughter, and I said, “No way! This is way too scary! I’m not doing this!”
But sometimes your loved ones and your family know more about what you should be doing than you do. So they said I had to do it, and I would love it, so I did it! And what happened was that it turned out to be a life changing experience. I reconnected with music, and I reconnected with performing live, not just as an actor, but also as a singer. After that, I thought well alright, I really love music, and I want to be surrounded by projects that involve music, so I approached an A&R guy that I know who was going to help me with a musical idea that I had using music from the 60’s and 70’s. We were going through the different songs, and I was telling him all of the songs I love and why. Then he asked me if I was going to be in this musical, and I said, “I don’t know, maybe.” And then he asked me if I sang, and I told him that I had, and I love it, but it’s just that really vulnerable part of yourself where you just get shy to even speak the words, “Yes, I sing” (laughs).
So he asked me to send him some recordings that I had done, and at that point I had done just a couple of things. I had recorded a song for the end of a movie I did called, “The Trap” and I sent him that and “Wichita Lineman” which a friend had played guitar on and we recorded on one of those digital recorders.
So then he came back and said, “Why don’t we do an album? We could always do the play, but you should do an album!” And so he brought me down to Decca, and the rest is history I guess!
CP: Was it pretty easy for you to choose the songs for the record?
RW: The criteria for choosing the songs was about the story that was being told in the songs, and not only the melody or songs that were recognizable for me or other people. Like a good movie starts with a good script, I felt that the songs had to start with a good story and music. So we went through quite a bit, but there were so many that I just loved and they told great stories.
When I was a kid, I used to lie down on the floor of my bedroom or on my bed and study liner notes and listen to the music. You fantasize about who the people were, were they singing that song to you, were you singing that song to someone, and I would create these scenarios in my head. The AM songs represent that kind of naive romanticized version of love.
And then FM radio came into existence, and I would listen to music in my car or at home on the transistor radio, or in my case, we had a hi-fi. Do you remember those? It was like a piece of furniture with a TV, turntable, and a tuner in it, all housed in this one piece of furniture. My dad built it (laughs). So we would listen to that.
But the FM radio came into existence when I was driving, so I would listen to the songs, and they now started to shift into the singer/songwriter era. The music was more about the disillusionment of love, and how things don’t always work out the way you had imagined when you were listening to those 60’s songs (laughs).
Each song sort of represents some story that impressed me as a young person about what that was like. For instance, in “Angel of the Morning”, Merrilee Rush recorded it in the 60’s, and then Juice Newton doing it in the 80’s, and as a teenager listening to it, I thought was about seeing what happens when a young girl gives it up to a guy. He uses you, and then he throws you in the trash to find your way home by yourself (laughs)! But then as an older woman, I started looking at it differently. I have a lot of friends who are single, and they’ve said sometimes you’re just with a guy for the moment, and you don’t expect anything from it, you’re just there for the companionship for whatever reason. I started thinking about that song coming from a more mature point of view, and it took a different turn for me.
I look at the stories as if I’m either a character in the songs, or I’m being sung to. I didn’t change the genders because that’s the way I remembered hearing them. Even if it were a guy singing from a guy’s point of view, I’d still sing it about the woman in the story or if it was a woman, sing like a woman singing to someone.
CP: Speaking of great stories, I have to get into this with you. We watched you on “Who Do You Think You Are” recently, and your father’s story was so amazing. I know my boss and I were both in tears watching. [If you haven't seen it yet, you'll definitely want to watch below!]
CP: You clearly had such an amazing experience on that show. Are you thinking about using your father’s story in your music or adapting it into a movie or play at this point?
RW: I did have an amazing experience on the show. It’s so interesting though— other people have suggested that same thing, and I am considering it. People always say that no one is making movies that are period dramas, yet the period dramas are always the ones to win the Oscar (laughs). It makes no sense!
But the experience itself of doing the show was like a gift. You have these incredible historians and researchers whose job it is to find this stuff and find the materials. I had to get special permission to go into the secret files building which housed all of the secret files on my father. There were letters and cards in there that he had written, statements he had given to the police, statements about how he was being followed, lies that they had made up, statements from neighbors and they would turn on each other and say anything about you just so they were off the hook. So you can imagine living like that, under that much oppression, that made my dad get out of there. My dad was on the secret files list until 1983. That’s crazy! It explained why he never went back to Bulgaria until after the fall of communism.
It was an amazing experience, and I just kept saying to the producers since I cried so much, “Please don’t just show me crying all the time!” (Laughs). It was really heartbreaking, but also an amazing journey, and my dad would’ve been so proud.
CP: It really was just such an incredible story. Amber and I both balled our eyes out!
RW: Aww, yeah. It was an incredible experience. The other thing that has happened is that I now have a Facebook page to support the album, and there has been such an outpouring from people who have seen the show and had similar experiences trying to find their parents’ history and genealogy, or people who had been adopted and didn’t know about their background, or people who had parents that experienced hardships during that time. There’s been a pretty incredible community created from this. I mean, talking to you already about it, it feels really good.
CP: I think it’s such a natural curiosity to want to know where you came from, and where your family came from. It was just so interesting to see how many details you were able to find, and what a story it turned out to be.
RW: It really was.
CP: What are you most looking forward to about this whole upcoming experience, the album release, the tour…
RW: Everything. Recording was amazing; the rehearsals with the band have been incredible. I love the process. I love the band, and I love performing live. I’m just excited! It’s so much fun! I’m really proud of the album, and I love what it sounds like. I hope people will feel the same way, but if they don’t, it doesn’t take away from the experience I’m having. I can’t wait to get on the road! Plus, Anthology sounds like an amazing club!
CP: It really is. I think you’re going to love it!
RW: You’ve had some really great people play there!
CP: We sure have. It’s a really intimate experience. You’ll love it. I’m excited for you!
RW: Me too!
Special thanks to the lovely Rita Wilson for her time! Be sure to come out and support her debut at Anthology on Tuesday, May 1! You can preview her album & purchase tickets at the links below!