Read this interview between Jillian Michaels (interviewer) and Rita Wilson (interviewe). You will learn how to Rita has "gone with the flow" and followed her instinct to flourish professionally and personally.
Jillian spent time with actress, producer, and writer Rita Wilson for an exclusive, intimate interview on getting started in acting, her proudest moments, and her big new gig, as editor-at-large for Huff/Post 50.
By Jillian Michaels for Everyday Health
Rita Wilson is a beloved gem of a woman who has managed a healthy, celebrated marriage for over 20 years in a town that loves to attack happiness. She’s a mom of four beautiful kids who all adore her. She’s a revered producer, celebrated actress on Broadway and the silver screen, dedicated philanthropist, accomplished writer who contributes to such power publications as Harper's Bazaar and the Huffington Post, where she's an editor-at-large. She wears so many hats it’s staggering, but the fact that she wears them all so well is what truly bowls me over. For all those reasons I have found her to be deeply impassioned, influential, and motivating, which is why I set my sights on interviewing her.
What annoys the hell out of me about articles, as the writer and the subject, is that there is no way to interpret tone. So much of Rita’s charisma and warmth is in her tone and I hate that you’re missing that, so let me set it for you. Throughout this interview I could feel her smiling through the phone. There’s a steady unwavering in her tone of speech that conveys patience and strength. The rhythms of her sentences are rife with self-deprecating chuckles as well as long introspective pauses, which allow her to craft her thoughts into potent, impactful messages.
And on that note, let’s begin.
Jillian Michaels: Given all that you have accomplished in your life, I wanted to start out by getting a little background on how you came into all these roles you play personally and professionally, found your passion, and so forth? In essence, give us a little insight into the making of a powerhouse.
Rita Wilson: Awww… thank you. Well, I am very proud to be the child of immigrants. I am a first-generation American. My mom is Greek, and my dad, who passed away about a year and a half ago, was Bulgarian. My parents actually met in New York after the war and then moved to Los Angeles after getting married.
I learned from my parents, particularly my dad, a great work ethic. He worked so incredibly hard despite not knowing how to speak English, coming to this country with nothing. He was a bartender, but managed to buy a home and support our entire family without any debt. I learned from him you work hard. You don’t buy anything you can’t afford. Take care of the people who take care of you.
JM: What age were you when you thought to yourself, I want to be an actress, and why? It seems out of the blue given your background.
RW: It was completely out of the blue. The only thing about it that made sense is that when my parents moved to the States, they moved to Hollywood because my mom’s sister lived out here. When I was 14, it was my very first day of high school, Hollywood High School. I was walking to one of my classes and these adults asked if they could take pictures of me. I knew that it was okay because they were there with the school's principal. So I said “all right.” They took pictures of me, and it turned out those were all people from Harper's Bazaar magazine, which is so ironic because I write for them now. Turns out, they were looking to cast real people mixed with models in an issue they were doing to celebrate 18-year-olds getting to vote.
JM: So this all started as serendipity?
RW: Yeah, total serendipity. When I realized I could do it, I thought, “Oh! This is cool!” Then Nina Blanchard [modeling agency] signed me and I started modeling. Now, in high school I was also a cheerleader, and a girlfriend of mine had an audition to play a cheerleader on The Brady Bunch. She said to me, “Listen I don’t know how to cheer, I’m really bad at it. Would you teach me?” So I said, “Sure,” and I taught her. Then she asked me to come with her on the audition. So I did, and I was sitting in the waiting room and we were practicing cheers. It turns out there were two parts. The casting people came out and said to me “Are you here to audition?” I said "No." They said, "Do you want to audition?” and I said “Okay.” So I didn’t get her part, but I got this smaller part –
JM: (rudely interrupting) Pat Conway! (the name of the character Rita played). Yes, I have seen this episode of The Brady Bunch. I still love that show.
RW: Yes, Pat Conway! Which got me my SAG card, making me a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which meant that now I could do commercials. I got my first commercial on my 18th birthday, and it was for Peter Pan Peanut Butter. And from there I got another agent and just started doing a lot of TV work. It was great. I loved it. But up till this point I had never had any formal training.
JM: So this really and truly started out as fate for you. It honestly seems that you were literally guided into this career. Given that, what part do you think fate plays into our ability to find our true calling?
RW: Uh! I think about that all the time, Jillian. I always like to ask people, “What’s the thing that you loved to do as a kid?” because I think whatever you loved to do as a kid you should probably be doing as an adult. We are unfiltered and unfettered at that age, and you do something because you love doing it. When I think back on that, for me it was always music and singing.
While I was acting and modeling I still had regular jobs, and one of them was working as a ticket taker at the Universal Amphitheater, so I could watch the concerts. And everybody came through there at that time. It was the '70s, so I saw Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac — I mean you name it, I saw them. I used to look up at the stage and just ache. I thought, “I want to do that! How do you get up there?” But I wasn’t in a band and I didn’t play an instrument. I had no clue at all how to pursue it.
So… I don’t question where my path led me, because I went with the flow. I thought, “I love what I am doing and I am good at it.” So I stuck with it. But I couldn’t… didn’t know how to break into the music thing. I just didn’t know how to do that.
Wilson credits her trajectory from 'The Brady Bunch' to the London Academy of Dramatic Arts to having good instincts – and taking advantage of opportunities that came her way.
Jillian Michaels: It seems at times fate knocks on people's door and they are too afraid to pursue it. So I wonder, what is it about you that didn’t fall prey to intimidation by all this? What do you think it was from your background, or what existed intrinsically inside of you, that allowed you to put yourself out there in these terrifying ways?
Rita Wilson: Gosh, I recognized that it was an opportunity. I get instincts about things and I felt like I could do this. And I realized there was no good reason for me not to do it.
JM: Gut instinct and faith in your abilities. Seems so simple, but it really is truly profound when you are able to understand those concepts and utilize their powers.
RW: And my parents never put in my mind that I couldn’t do something, so they didn’t inhibit me at all. I think a lot of people have parents who say “You can’t do that” or “You have to do this.” They have their own agenda for their kids. My parents didn’t really have that for me. They were like, “Do it if it’s good for you.”
JM: So back to our story…
RW: Well, at about 19 I was about to leave for Paris to model, but before I did I’d heard of this really great acting teacher named Charles Conrad. But there were no openings, so of course I went to Paris. I called home every couple of weeks — these were the days before cell phones — to check in, and I was told there was an opening in Charles’ class. I flew straight home and got into that class, and it was my first time understanding that there was a craft in acting. It wasn’t just say these lines and walk over here.
I did that for a while, but what led me to the next really cool adventure was when I got cast in a play called Vanities. It was about these three best friends who grew up in the South. One day. the director said, “You seem to be really comfortable on the stage. You should do more theater.” So I got applications to RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts), and Julliard. I auditioned for all of them and got accepted to LAMDA, so I went. Remember that I had been doing a lot of commercials up till this point, so I was able to pay my tuition and support myself while I was studying there.
That whole experience introduced me to my love of theater, which is why I’m involved with the Shakespeare Center [in Los Angeles].
JM: Right! This is one of you charities, correct?
RW: Yes. It’s an incredible organization that has a program called Willpower to Youth that’s been adopted by the U.S. Department of Justice for gang reduction. It teaches children Shakespeare to keep them off the streets. It gives them a place to go after school, keeps them busy, and makes them less vulnerable to gangs. They create their own plays, with their own words, based on their own experiences, using a Shakespeare template.
JM: The heights you have reached and the courageous directions you have gone in your career are incredible — especially considering you were the child of immigrants who got her start on The Brady Bunch. Seemingly you have been so open and brave throughout the course of your life. I can’t help wonder if there was ever a time you weren’t?
RW: I think the thing that has inhibited me most in my life has been the belief that you have to be naturally good at something, as though working at it wasn’t enough.
JM: So you’re saying you felt you had to be perfect at it from go?
JM: I think so many people feel that way and it can really be paralyzing because if you aren’t instantly amazing — and really none of us are — it can seem devastating to our self-esteem, and no one wants to feel that. So how would you recommend someone overcome this fear?
RW: When facing any fear there’s always some element of sacrifice and giving up of some comfort. I have never had a problem doing that. So looking back I would say be bold. Keep trying. Let go of worrying about what others think.
Like many of us, Wilson juggles many roles – wife, mother, writer, actress, producer.
Jillian Michaels: Switching gears here, I’m curious, of all the roles you play in the spectrum of your life (as a person, not an actress), which is most important to you.
Rita Wilson: Well of course I would say being a mother. Family always comes first.
Professionally I have the most fun and feel most myself when I am performing live or when I am writing.
RW: Because with writing it’s completely your voice. There is a Joan Didion quote that I love: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear." Writing is a rediscovery of my experiences, in a good way, with my opinion attached to it. As for performing live, it’s a feeling of being naked. You are totally exposed, without any elements that might alter what people believe in that moment. There’s purity to it.
JM: Of all the parts you have played as an actress, which part did you relate to the most and why?
RW: First, I really, really, really loved the scene that I did in Sleepless in Seattle, where the character talks about the movie An Affair To Remember. And Nora (Ephron, the director of the film)… I don’t know… we just clicked. When someone really believes in you, you’re open and free to be uninhibited. She totally empowered me to be this character and I loved it because it was the first time I’d ever had this experience. She was also the first person who supported my writing and guided me through that process, so I love her very much for that.
The second would be when I did Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and The Good Wife earlier this year. I went to my agents and I said, “If I play one more warm, understanding mother, sister, wife, daughter, I think I’m gonna puke. You have got to find me some crazy-ass bitches.” And that’s when they found me the roles on Law & Order and The Good Wife. I was completely thrilled. I felt liberated. To play a character that is nothing like who you are as a person is amazingly fun.
JM: What is your proudest moment?
RW: You have to separate them. You can’t only say family and leave out the ones that have to do with work. I'm very proud of my marriage and my kids, and I'm proud of having produced My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
JM: Demanding room for a personal and a professional life! I’ll be sure and note that. Go on.
RW: As a parent I would have to say anything where you can see that what you’ve done as a parent has impacted them positively. Seeing your children become really lovely young adults and human beings is overwhelming in some ways.
Professionally, I would say the most exciting and most informative thing was finding My Big Fat Greek Wedding, allowing Nia Vardalos to star in it, and having it become the success that it did against all odds. It really validated my belief that good people can succeed. I like to believe that if you do the right thing you succeed, because we have all seen the opposite thing happen. And I was so glad that it happened that way.
JM: It seems like another part of your success is that you are very in touch — in touch with your emotions and what’s going on culturally. You tap in and have the confidence to believe in your vision. You’ve shown that time and time again in your work. Whether it’s producing My Big Fat Greek Wedding, starring in Chicago on Broadway, or in your role as a wife and a mother.
RW: I do trust my instincts. Do I listen to them all the time? No.
JM: Ah, You’ve brought me to my next question. What do you regret and what would you do differently if you could go back in time?
RW: Recently there was an instinct about a person. Other people talked me out of my instincts, and I went with what they thought I should be doing and it ended up being a disaster.
JM: We’ve all done that. I know I’ve done that. And God knows I paid for it as well.
RW: Do you know Gavin de Becker? He’s an amazing author who wrote this book called The Gift Of Fear. It’s all about trusting your instincts. He says your instinct is like a muscle that needs to be exercised, and the more you use it the stronger it gets. I totally believe that. Sometimes life gets in the way, you get busy. I personally get messed up when I think, “Well, those people must know more than I do about this subject. Who am I to say no to this or yes to that? They clearly know more than I do here.” Now I know that’s really not true.
JM: So do you think in a way that painful incident was a blessing, because now you won’t allow insecurity to sabotage your instinct?
In her new role as editor at large for Huff/Post 50, Wilson once again stretches herself to try something new – and daring.
Jillian Michaels: Okay, this next one is gonna be tough for you, buddy, but I want you to wax poetic about yourself. What are the qualities you like best about you?
Rita Wilson: The things I like in other people — a sense of humor, passion, people who do the right thing.
JM: Is there a quality that you don’t like about yourself that you wish you could change?
RW: Hmmm… the reason I am pausing is because there are so many (erupting into laughter). I wish I was a better delegator. I wish I could recognize more easily what’s important and not important in a given situation.
JM: So in essence you wanna be able to give up some control?
RW: Duh! Winning!
JM: Why do you think that’s been so hard for you?
RW: I’ve been on my own for such a long time, or rather, not alone, but making big decisions for myself at a young age. Taking care of myself. Helping out my family. I just feel like I’m that person who does that.
JM: Who care takes?
RW: Exactly. It’s sorta like my role, in a way, and with anything in life you have to want to change — which I do. With some things I believe we need a smooth transition. This one of those things for me. Yet I’m a big believer in being scared to death because you can really grow when you're put in a circumstance where you’re deeply challenged. I felt that way when I did Chicago on Broadway.
JM: You keep leading me to my next question. I know that was a huge dream of yours. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with making their dreams come true?
RW: You have to get over the self-consciousness of what people think. For me, that is the No. 1 thing, because that will trap you. That voice in your head that says, “You can’t do this. Are you insane? There are people who have been doing this for years. Who do you think you are?" (makes the sound of a tape recorder spooling on fast forward) We put imaginary limits on ourselves that are destructive, and we should never allow that voice to play a part in the situation. If you really have a passion for something, then just do it. Find a way to do it!
Before I did Chicago I started taking a watercolor class. I’d always wanted to learn how to do it. I’m not very good at it, but I love the entire process. So I was taking this class once a week. I knew nothing before I started, and every week I would take this class and guess what… after five years of taking the class, you don’t get worse, you get better. If you sit in your house and you do nothing, then you'll do nothing. But if you get out and do something, then you’ll do something.
JM: Huff/Post 50: What is this? This is all you, right?
RW: Arianna (Huffington) approached me with this. It sounded really fun because it’s dealing with all the areas that I love in terms of boomers and what we are dealing with as a generation. Our generation is really interesting and curious and vibrant. So I felt it would be a really fun project to explore.
JM: And what do you hope the boomers will take away from it?
RW: Hopefully it will be a place where boomers can come to find topics of discussion for things they might be experiencing. For example, an individual in our generation might be becoming a grandparent at 54, or they could be raising 4-year-olds. I’m interested in talking about taking care of elderly parents. Many of us have found ourselves in the position of parenting our parents. I’m interested in exploring finances, politics, business… There’s also a particular area of interest to me, which is reinvention. You may have accomplished all you need to accomplish and yet you’re still young, with so many good years ahead of you. How do you want to spend that time? What do you want to do? I want to explore all these things.
JM: And how are you reinventing yourself at this time in your life?
RW: I don’t like to talk about things until they are done.
JM: But you’re currently doing it! Why does it have to be “done” to mention? (Yes, I’m privy to some inside information.)
RW: I’m not touching this one yet.
JM: Come on, at least allude to it!
RW: No. You don’t need to talk about it. It’s not that I don’t want to open up fully. I find that it’s my own personal rule that I don’t talk about things before they are happening.
JM: Lord. Okay, fine. I’m only letting you out of this because you are one of my most impressive friends and I don’t want you to not talk to me again. And just the fact that you are always reinventing yourself is truly inspirational. So then, last question, buddy: What is the best advice you can provide as a wife, mother, and career woman to our readers?
RW: As a wife? That’s tough. I really feel that it’s specific to the relationship. I don’t want to generalize any advice like, “Make sure you laugh a lot,” because that’s one of the things that I always say Tom [Hanks, Wilson's husband] and I do. Because if someone doesn’t have that with somebody, yet they have a really solid marriage, I wouldn’t want them to question it. They may have something else that binds them. Don’t you think that’s kind of specific?
JM: I do get that, but I also think there’s a respect that’s inherent in watching you two together. You guys respect each other so much. It seems no matter where the other one is, no matter what journey you’re on independently, you guys respect each other and everything the other person is going through.
RW: Yes. That’s true. We do respect each other very much. And of course I want to be married to him. I love him.
JM: So then love and respect! Is offering advice to a mother equally specific?
RW: My mom always said to me, “Your kids teach you.” I think that’s very true and I’ve always interpreted that to mean you you’ve got to be a good listener. Not just to your children’s words, but to who they are. Allow them to be who they are without imposing any sort of agenda or desire on to them. Let them find their own way, their own journey, and don’t try to control that.
JM: And for the career woman?
RW: Trust your gut — about everything. And communicate what it is you want at all times. Don’t think that people can read your mind.
JM: Now woman to woman — what’s your parting shot to the readers?
RW: Women can accomplish anything they set their minds to. We have lived in a world that’s been predominantly run by males for a very long time. And in it would be nice to see a shift where we allow a woman’s voice and a woman’s take on things. We can’t just go around having wars and killing people left and right. Women have to trust their voice, trust their individual power and assert themselves in their own unique ways.