The Sunday Conversation: Rita Wilson

Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks co-chair one of L.A.'s quirkier show business traditions: the Shakespeare Center’s annual fundraiser, “Simply Shakespeare.” Now in its 21st year, the benefit, a celeb-studded reading of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” comes to UCLA’s Royce Hall on Monday. On Wednesday, Wilson guest stars on NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” as the mother of a troubled teen.

I see you’ve been popping into some high-profile TV dramas lately. What did you do on “The Good Wife”?

I did two episodes this season, really, really fun and they left it open-ended. My character is trying to steal Alicia [ Julianna Margulies] away from her [law] firm. It’s revenge for Christine Baranski’s character, Diane, stealing a client of mine.

So you’re a villain.


I’d never played that kind of character, and I had such a blast. I thought it was completely liberating. And now I’ve told my agents, “Only find me nuts … crazies, kooks.”

So is that what your “SVU” role is?

“SVU” is a very complex woman, yeah. Without giving too much away, she’s the mother of a 14-year-old. Have you ever met those kids who are a little bit bad seed but then you think maybe not? So you can’t quite make out if someone is bad or just a teenager, right? And this boy, who’s my son, and my character, the mom, have a very interesting relationship, and it’s not a typical mother-son relationship.

I’ve noticed that “SVU” in particular has been getting these great movie actresses to guest star. Does it have special appeal for people in film?

I think the writing in television nowadays is just outstanding, not just on cable but on network television. Television has become the independent film world. These shows have honed themselves. Well, “The Good Wife” has only been on for two seasons, but the people who are on that show have been around for a long time and have been super successful and accomplished. But “SVU,” you take just the talent that’s on the show — Mariska [Hargitay] and Chris [Meloni] — and the producers, like Ted Kotcheff. Our episode was great because we had a female director, Holly Dale, and writer, Dawn DeNoon. That episode in particular had a lot of female energy around, which was great. It was also the [time when] Mariska adopted her baby, so we were all waiting for the news.

Television has the advantage that it doesn’t have to appeal to adolescent boys.

Well, thank you. This is a joy. No offense to adolescent boys, but there are a lot of other people out there.

So tomorrow is the 21st “Simply Shakespeare” fundraiser that you and Tom co-chair. I have the sense that it’s pretty different from what unsuspecting audiences expect. How so?


Let’s call it “Shakespeare Unplugged.” It’s everything you know about Shakespeare. We stick to the text. But there’s a lot of freedom and a lot of play and a lot of improvisation. That’s why the event is really fun. We get a lot of people who’ve never done Shakespeare come in and do it, and they’re thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I have to be Anthony Hopkins,” who has, by the way, done the show.

Shakespeare’s work really lends itself to a bunch of silliness. We always do a comedy. And in the day, Shakespeare would have a troupe of actors, but then when they would tour villages, they always cast a few actors locally. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it would be the actor who played Bottom or the one who played the Wall. There was the ability to enjoy the familiarity of somebody you knew doing something out of their comfort zone. This has the same vibe.

How do you cast this? Do you grab stars at the supermarket?

I call my friends. Now we have a little rep company of people who’ve done it over the years. The regulars are William Shatner, Christina Applegate, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Eric Idle, Tracey Ullman, Arte Johnson. Arte is actually trained as a Shakespearean actor, if you can believe that. And he’s so good. So over the years we’ve had all these great friends we’ve called. Then we’ll hound other people to do it. Like this year we have Faith Hill and Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire.


Isn’t Kenneth Branagh in it this year?

Yes, Kenneth Branagh is in it too.

When did you start including music?

We always had music. My brother [Chris Wilson] is the musical director. And it used to be that just the actors would sing, so if one of the Shakespeare characters would say, “Give me a song, boy,” they would sing something. Sometimes it was what Shakespeare had written, which we added music to. Then one year we decided maybe we wanted to have professional singers, so Natalie Cole came in and did it. Then we had Lyle Lovett a couple of years, we had Jackson Browne last year, Alanis Morisette one year. This year it’s set in the West, so we’re doing country music. I think we’re doing old Hank Williams songs.


What about Martin Short?

Marty has been unbelievable. He always goes off the rails, and you never know what he’s going to do. One year Bronson Pinchot played Malvolio, and he had rigged a costume for himself where, at a certain point Malvolio says, “I’ve tied up my stockings and garters,” because he was in love with Olivia. He had rigged it so that at a certain point, his pants fell completely down around his ankles and exposed the most insane underpinnings of, I believe, there was some kind of gold sparkly leggings. It was a gold codpiece, and then he had the stockings and the garters. No one knew he was doing it, and I cannot tell you, the audience went insane. It was so unexpected and so brilliant.