Rita Wilson’s song for ‘A Man Called Otto’ continues conversations she couldn’t let end
Her friend Bruce Springsteen encouraged Rita Wilson to pursue songwriting at 40.
(Nolwen Cifuentes / For The Times)
Rita Wilson had a “visceral feeling” watching the gentle Swedish comedy “A Man Called Ove,” in which a curmudgeonly widower’s plans for suicide are derailed by the lives of those around him. As she has expanded her career beyond acting, she has found more ways to express what she’s driven to explore; she knew she had to develop an American remake starring her husband, Tom Hanks. But when director Marc Forster suggested Wilson contribute a song to “A Man Called Otto,” she didn’t write about how nice it is to have friends, or that we all have something to live for.
She wrote about the continuing relationship we have with those we love who are no longer here.
“I’ve always understood loss,” says Wilson, co-writer (with David Hodges) of the Oscar-shortlisted original song, “ ’Til You’re Home.” To illustrate, she details her parents’ harrowing journeys to the United States from Greece and communist Bulgaria; how she realized as an adult she had a brother, her father’s first child, only to learn he had died as an infant. When she lost her father in 2010 (her mother died in 2014), the director Mike Nichols told her, “The conversation continues.”
“I didn’t understand when he said it. Then you start having conversations with the people you’ve lost. You’re talking to your dad, you’re talking to your friends … and you hear them back,” she says, laughing at how that sounds. “It’s because you know them so well, you hear what their answer’s going to be.”
Wilson is best known as an actress and producer (and sometime rapper), but she has released five albums as a singer and sometime songwriter and written songs for a number of movies — not bad for someone whose first recorded compositions came out when she was in her 50s. She had piano lessons as a girl, but never got to the point of considering herself a musician. As a child of the singer-songwriter era of the ’60s and ’70s, she “was under the distinct impression that, in order to be a singer, you had to play your own instrument and write your own music. Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, you know, all of those ladies.”
Her longing to make music was intensified by her job as a ticket taker at the old Universal Amphitheatre (despite the joy of seeing those singer-songwriter performances being tempered by the less joyous task of cleaning the bathrooms after). She says, “I remember sitting on the steps watching shows under the full moon, watching Joni Mitchell. I had a palpable aching, a feeling in my gut: ‘How do you do that?’ ”
Wilson started modeling and acting and eventually became a producer (with massive hits such as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Mamma Mia!”). She got to sing professionally as well, but couldn’t imagine herself writing songs until her friend, singer-songwriter (and “American Idol” judge) Kara DioGuardi, offered to help her write her first songs in the early 2000s.
“I said, ‘But I don’t play an instrument. I don’t read music,’” Wilson says. “She goes, ‘Neither do I. Do you have something you want to say?’ ”
And that’s when something clicked for Wilson, whose acting career — while lucrative — hadn’t been exactly creatively fulfilling. “It’s that ‘warm, kind, nurturing mother-sister-wife-friend’ — I love that, but I like to say I’ve exhausted the canon on those roles. There was a lot I had to say, but there wasn’t a place to say it.”
“I’ve always understood loss,” Rita Wilson says.
(Nolwen Cifuentes / For The Times)
More sage advice came when Wilson and Hanks were driving around with another successful musician friend, Bruce Springsteen, just chatting with the Boss about songwriting. You know, as one does.
“I said, ‘All right, Bruce, I have a question for you. You’ve been writing songs all your life. What makes me think’ — this will make me cry — ‘What makes me think I can start writing music now?’ And he said, ‘Because, Reets, creativity is time independent.’
“And to me, that was like … it was full permission.”
Wilson says her music career got rolling after that, with the same drive that led her to producing, to generating the material she wanted made. Watching “Ove,” it’s true she and Hanks were looking for a comedy with substance, but there were layers in it that made it necessary for her to spend years developing and producing the project.
“I’m a first-generation American. I understood that my parents were treated differently because they had accents and they weren’t educated, but they were smart,” she says, drawing a parallel to Otto’s new Latinx-immigrant neighbors in the American film. “There was this cranky guy who was just an awful person. And yet I understood him in some way. I turned to Tom and I almost couldn’t get the words out. ‘We have to get the rights to this movie. And you have to play this role.’
“It was about grief, it was about loss. It was about choosing life, ultimately.”
Throughout the film, Otto’s mind drifts into key memories with his wife as if they were happening then.
Wilson says, “If you’re away from your house or [your loved one is] out of town or they have a long day at work, you try to keep that list in your head of all the things that you’re going to tell them about your day. ‘This happened.’ ‘I dinged the car in the parking lot at the market.’ ‘I had a great conversation with my mom today,’ or whatever those things are.
“ ‘I can’t wait to tell you all these things that happened. Can’t wait ‘til you come home.’ ”
She decided the movie’s song should be that conversation, the first verse sung from Otto’s wife Sonya’s point of view, wherever she is; the second from Otto’s.
“The love that you left / Is burned in my heart / With dreams in my mind / Of the next time that I / Have you in my arms,” Wilson sings in “ ’Til You’re Home.” But who should take up the other part? She realized there was a chance to reflect how deeply Otto was affected by neighbors Marisol and Tommy.
“I thought, is there a way that Otto could bring Marisol and Tommy with him in a way as he’s on his next journey? That would be so cool. And I woke up in the middle of the night and I was like, ‘Sebastián Yatra!’ ”
That’s why it’s the Colombian star’s voice singing “The best gift of this life / Is to see you up close / Now and again / In the palm of my hand / I feel your touch.”
The full song plays in the movie’s end credits, but it also pops in elsewhere to give it extra resonance.
“David Hodges sings it in the body of the film,” says Wilson. “In flashbacks, it feels very tender. We wanted it to have a vibe that it could have been a popular song from the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s. [As if] Otto and Sonya said, ‘This is our song.’ ”