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Rita Wilson is the ultimate multi-hyphenate: actress, producer, singer-songwriter, spouse of Tom Hanks. For the film A Man Called Otto, adapted from the Swedish novel and movie A Man Called Ove, she gets to flex several of her sharply-honed talents — namely, writing and performing an original song for Otto’s soundtrack, as well as serving as one of the film’s producers.
Wilson became familiar with the source material after catching an FYC screener of Hannes Holm’s 2015 Swedish film, which earned two Oscar nominations in 2016 for best foreign film and best makeup and hairstyling. She was struck by the story’s heart, its message and the prospect of casting her husband in the eponymous role. She began producing movies with 2012’s Oscar-nominated romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and has since worked to get a number of majorly successful titles made, including My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 and both Mamma Mia films.
Her work as a singer-songwriter dates back over a decade, with the release of her first album AM/FM. Since then, she’s put out four more studio albums, and written and performed original music for a number of film and TV projects. The celebrated Hollywood veteran spoke with THR about discovering her passion for songwriting, bringing A Man Called Otto to life, penning her new track “Til You’re Home” and if she would ever reprise her role on Girls.
How did you become involved in the making of this film at first?
I started thinking of all the conversations that Tom and I have had about comedies, and why it’s so hard to find good comedies about something more than just a good joke or set piece. We always thought, “Oh, they just don’t make them like that anymore.” And as I was watching [the Swedish version], excitement and anxiety was building in me, because I thought, “This could be the one. This is an amazing movie. This is funny, it’s got heart, it’s got everything.” So I look over at Tom, and I say, “We’ve got to get the rights to this. And you’ve got to play this part.” He did not say no, which was a good sign.
This film is an interesting choice for a comedy, because it is so sad, and there’s such serious subject matter within it — suicide, and death, and aging. What are those early production conversations like about handling this stuff sensitively?
To me, it was always a story of hope. That’s what I was connecting to, that there was a reason for this person to live, and there’s a reason for any human being to live, because there’s value in any human life. So many people feel unseen, or ignored, or not represented, or a number of things. Even in my own life, I have felt that way. And so to me, it was really a story about making a difference in someone’s life, that this person who everybody had sort of dismissed, was afraid of, didn’t want to encounter, was actually a person who was lonely, [who] wanted to connect and was grieving. That is what people go through all the time.
Where in the filmmaking process do you figure out that you were going to be writing the song “Til You’re Home?”
Marc Forster, our director, was aware of my music. He just said to me, “I think you should write a song for this movie.” In that moment, the songwriter in me was thrilled, and then the producer in me was saying, “This could be a disaster.” I paused and I said, “OK, Marc, first of all, I’m very honored that you’ve asked me to do this. But you have to promise me if you don’t like it, that there will be no hard feelings.” I want to make sure I’m giving the director his vision. My co-writer David Hodges and I got together, because we had to write it before we started production so that Marc could use a track for playback. I remember when my dad died that a friend of mine, the director Mike Nichols, actually said, “You know, Rita, the conversation continues.” I didn’t know, really, what he meant at that time. But as I got further away from my dad’s passing, I realized that I was having conversations with him. Then my mom died, and the same thing happened. I had two close friends pass away. And I was having this conversation. So, David and I talked about that idea that we could write about “I want to tell somebody about my day today,” or “I’m having this conversation in my head and I can’t wait to tell them when they get home this evening,” and that was a really good jumping off point. There’s a line in the script where Otto says, “Before Sonya, my life was just a lack of light. She was the color.” And that became the line [in the song]: “There’s no color in this world without you.”
Do you think that the songwriting process for this is pretty comparable to your typical process with all the other music you’ve written? Or was this an exceptionally challenging piece?
David and I had written before for a little indie called Boy Genius. When you’re writing for movies, you’re actually, in a way, creating your own story and your own character for the film, because if someone is telling their story, we have to translate it for an audience. So it’s almost like you’re writing for another character. And in this case, we wanted it to be two points of view — Sonya to Otto, and Otto speaking to Sonya. At the end of the movie, Marc wanted me to sing because he felt that it should be the voice of a woman. As if we’re finally hearing [Sonya] in this song. I really loved that idea. And my little addition to that, in terms of production, was I wanted to figure out a way that Otto could bring Marisol and Kami and the kids to meet Sonya. And so I thought, “Oh, what if I get Sebastián Yatra to sing this?
What made you think of him instantly as your first choice?
I loved his voice — I first heard him in Encanto. And I thought [his] was the most beautiful, emotionally-connected voice. What he’s able to bring to material is his soul. And of course [I] saw him perform at the Oscars, and he’s just full of love. He’s full of light.
Are there other musical projects that you might be working on, whether that be for another film, or a new album?
Currently, I have an album that came out at the end of September called Rita Wilson Now and Forever: Duets, and it’s cover songs from the 70s with a very fantastic, illustrious group of duet partners: Smokey Robinson, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Leslie Odom, Jr … I love the ’70s. I have a whole other album in the can, that is done. I wrote a song with Laura Karpman called “Because Love,” that was in a movie directed by Eleanor Coppola called Love Is Love Is Love. I have to tell you that songwriting has brought me to a place where I feel I’ve been able to use my voice, metaphorically and literally, in a more truthful way. It has really informed the decisions that I make, about the kinds of movies I want to make. It’s enabled me to really explore in a very unique way what my voice is.
One more question — I’m a huge fan of your work on Girls. Would you ever reprise your role in that if there were some sort of reboot or sequel?
It’s so funny that you say that, because I just commented on Lena’s Instagram the other day. I’m like, “Please make a feature film of this. I think we can now jump ahead and see what happened to all of these characters. Don’t you think the moms need to be in there? I believe so!” I think it’s ripe, like Sex and the City was. I think there will come a time where we need to revisit Girls. It was such a treat playing Allison Williams’ mom. As an actor I have really made my own little statement: “I’m done playing the warm, kind, nurturing mom, sister, wife, friend, daughter. If I’m gonna play a mom, she’s gotta be a little bit off.” I’m so thankful to Lena for seeing that. She created this completely narcissistic, self-centered mother, which I just love. So I’m really thankful to her, and Allison was a joy to work with.
Maybe Marnie and her mom are a songwriting duo in the film.
Oh, please. Don’t you remember the episode where [Marnie’s] partner doesn’t show? [And I say], “No, we’ll go on as the Michaels sisters. We’ll go on together.” How cringy can it be? So fabulous. I love Lena for writing that.
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