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Who Do You Think You Are? Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

Rita Wilson

This is a transcript of an interview with Rita Wilson on March 26, 2012 about the show Who Do You Think You Are?.

Question:
What inspired you to search after your ancestry?

Rita Wilson:
I'm fascinated. First of all I love the show and I think it's fascinating what people can find out nowadays and how the tracking is so much more realistic with computers and all of that. There were so many gaps in both my mom's and my dad's histories that I kind of thought I want to know. I want to know what happened to my grandmother and what happened to my grandfather and my mother's father had died when she was four years old and I wanted to know where they came from and how they ended up where they ended up.

I imagine it's an experience that most people would have if they didn't have the information. It really forms your identity in a certain way. I knew certain things about my mom's history and I knew certain things about my father's but there were more gaps in my father's than in my mother's. So when they started doing the research they were able to answer the questions about my dad. I don't even know that they could have been questions because they were never even brought up in his life. So it was just trying to fill in the details.

Question:
Has it inspired your husband to explore his side of the family as well?

Rita Wilson:
I don't know.

Question:
You have an album coming out soon. What do you think will connect with people who are listeners to it?

Rita Wilson:
I hope that people will enjoy the music and the songs themselves. I selected the songs because they told stories. There are so many amazing songs from that period, the 60s and the 70s. But for me it was about the kind of memories of being in the car when your parents were driving the car and it was AM radio only and those were the songs of maybe the 60s. And they had the kind of innocence and an idealized version of romance. So as a young girl you could kind of fantasize about what the guy would be like that you would end up with.

And then as I started driving, FM radio was now into the mix and that represented to me sort of the singer/songwriter era and the music that became much more about disillusionment or the reality of what that relationship was that you fantasized about in the 60s. And so each song hopefully that I chose told a story and they were like stories unto themselves. And I just loved that, I loved that aspect of it.

Question:
It seems interesting that your dad was born in Greece but he wasn't really Greek, your mom wasn't born in Greece but she was really Greek. So when you grew up, how much did you feel attached to the Greek culture? And when you went back there now, what did you find interesting about going back there?

Rita Wilson:
I would say that we felt more Greek growing up because for some reason, whatever reason, my dad didn't really. We obviously knew we were half Bulgarian and half Greek but my mom had more relatives here in the States and cousins and so it had much more of a Greek influence. And I also think now knowing my dad's history that I think he was still reticent to really embrace his culture because of what he had to experience when he was young.

We go back to Greece all the time but it was the first time I had visited Bulgaria. And it's powerful when you look around and you meet long lost relatives and you see the similarity in eye color with your nieces and the similarity in movement. One young lady that I met who was really, really smart, she had a Masters degree in Engineering, had the exact same smile as one of my nieces. It's crazy. So DNA is powerful. You definitely feel it. But I loved being in Bulgaria and you definitely have a connection, you definitely have a connection.

Question:
It mentions in the notes that your dad went through all kinds of hardships in Bulgaria. Could you just give us a little example what that meant by that?

Rita Wilson:
We had always known that my dad had been in some kind of a labor camp and we didn't know what that meant and he didn't talk about it really. And when I was doing the show, and you really don't know anything that they're going to present to you. We found out some other details which perhaps led me to believe why he wasn't speaking about his experiences there.

Question:
You sing, you act, you produce, you're doing so many things. What is kind of your favorite thing to do?

Rita Wilson:
They're all creative so I get a lot of pleasure out of doing all of them, you can't make me choose that. That's too terrible. I absolutely love singing, I really do. I love music. I do love music and one of the movies that I produced was Mamma Mia the Musical and Tom has done That Thing You Do. I'd have to say I feel very fortunate to be able to have many creative outlets. I think creative people generally tend to do more than one thing. I know so many actors that paint or write or do some sort of creative outlet. So I think you don't have to really limit it and I love doing all of them.

Question:
Now that you've taken a step into reality television, is that something you'd like to maybe produce or be more involved with in the future?

Rita Wilson:
It depends on what it would be. I don't rule out anything ever and it would have to be something that at that moment I felt would be a really interesting thing to work on, a really compelling thing. So I don't rule out anything because keeping something creative and keeping yourself curious and active is sort of what drives me so I wouldn't rule anything out.

Question:
When you began the journey, how did you prepare yourself for what you might learn good or bad?

Rita Wilson:
There really isn't any preparation. I can tell you that I was anxious two or three weeks before I knew I was my journey was going to begin and then I was anxious every night. Your stomach churns and it's hard to explain. It's exciting and it's also anxiety provoking at the same time because you don't know what you're going to find. And in my episode there were so many emotional things that I was finding out.

So there really isn't any preparation. Some of the things I did was I brought kind of snacks along with me because I didn't know where we were going and what we would be eating so I brought my own little snacks along. And you don't know what the weather is going to be like so you have to kind of pack for different types of weather and make sure that you have proper shoes. I did know that sometimes we would be walking on rocky paths so I was like okay, I've got to bring some sturdy boots. And but you don't really know where you're going or what you're going to be doing so you kind of have to prepare for everything.

Question:
What fears did you have before you met your father's brother? What was that like for you?

Rita Wilson:
That was extraordinary. It's so strange because he actually looks like my dad's old brother who they had similar kind of faces. So you see a lot of your family tree in a person's face and that's what is so kind of mind blowing. He's 96.

Question:
What was the most interesting thing that you learned about your family background?

Rita Wilson:
The most interesting thing was filling in so many of the blanks that and being able to understand why my dad didn't talk about so many things that happened to him. And that was very powerful.

Question:
Were there any expectations?

Rita Wilson:
Expectations. There's so many expectations but they're not really specific. They're more along the lines of gosh what am I going to find out today. And I hope it's not going to make me cry again because it was such an emotional journey. But and you don't know where you're going. You don't know if you're following your mother's family tree, your father's family tree until you get there. Then you sort of have a sense of where it's going.

It's a crazy journey because you are not only traveling physically but you're traveling emotionally. You have so many ups and downs of your own kind of experience emotionally and you combine that with many, many, many long hours of driving and you're doing things chronologically so I was following where my dad was and what he did next and what happened after that. So sometimes a part of the story was in the same town that we had been in the day before but we needed to drive five hours away to get to the next part of the story. So you have to give yourself over to the process and you have to kind of allow yourself to just go with the flow.

Question:
Were you involved in this from the very beginning or did they do a lot of the research and bring you in the middle?

Rita Wilson:
Oh you don't know anything, they do all of the research. You know nothing. I had to sign all sorts of powers of attorney for documents that we wanted to see in both Greece and Bulgaria because of certain information that we had to access, Bulgaria being a formerly Communist country.

So I wouldn't know why we needed those documents. All I knew is that they weren't allowing access to this unless I would sign some kind of power of attorney. So I knew that there was something that was being discovered that was important and part of the storytelling and the process but I didn't know what it was. So you really know nothing. You are in kind of a suspended state knowing you're going off to do this and then when the journey begins that sort of suspension lasts until the very last moment when the story kind of comes together and you can put all the pieces together.

Question:
What is it that you hope that viewers get from watching you go into this journey into your past?

Rita Wilson:
Honestly I hope that they'll get that when you really want something and it's for the right reasons, nothing can stop you. If it is for the right reasons, if you are looking for a better life and you are looking for freedom that you can really make that happen. My dad overcame extraordinary circumstances because he wanted to be a free person. And I hope that they'll understand that it takes a lot of courage and it takes a lot of focus but it's not impossible.

Question:
Did you take anyone with you for emotional support?

Rita Wilson:
I took my assistant with me because so many of my family members were busy and working and then my brother joined me and that was really great.

Question:
How long were you gone?

Rita Wilson:
I think it was 12 to 13 days.

Question:
And your travels included Bulgaria and Greece and did you go anywhere else within the United States?

Rita Wilson:
No.

Question:
What's your mantra for living such a full, loving, creative, and inspiring life if you could pass something on to the people who watch this?

Rita Wilson:
I think it would be a sense of gratitude. Really, I mean, because I grew up with my dad singing God Bless America every day and as kids we understood that he struggled to become to get to America and then become an American citizen. And I think I grew up with a definite sense of gratitude not only because of what my parents felt but also because I saw how hard my dad worked, how hard my mom worked as a mother. And I understood their sense of sacrifice and their just all of that was because they loved us and because they appreciated being in America.

So I think it instilled in me a sense of gratitude and that I carry with me today. I look around me and I feel very blessed and I feel that I don't take anything for granted and I am thankful every day of my life. I think that's a very good mantra.

Question:
What did your children think of you doing the show.

Rita Wilson:
They were very excited. They were very intrigued. They really, really loved their grandfather and so to them it really gave them a sense of who he was in the parts about him that we all didn't know. And it made me realize that gosh my dad was a really strong person and I think the boys really sensed that exact thing.

And I think it's particularly powerful when you think this is your family line, this is if he can do it, what can I do. And then you also think my father did all of this for a better life and we're all the beneficiaries of that incredible journey of his and the risks that he took.

Question:
Could you just give us a little more insight about your dad? What did he do for a living here in the U.S.? And kind of what kind of a person was he when you knew him and now that you saw some of the stuff, how has that changed any of your views of him?

Rita Wilson:
My dad was a bartender. He came to America and didn't speak English and didn't have a job. So he worked starting out as a bar back at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City and from that he became a bartender. And when I was a kid he would bring the tips home in a Crown Royal purple felt bag and on weekends we would take all of those coins, those pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters and we would put them in the little paper rolls and write the bank account number on them and then take them to the bank.

And so I realized my dad had such an incredible work ethic and there is something very tactile about taking a penny and putting it in a roll and taking it to the bank and understanding that there was work and labor that went behind that one penny. We all sat around on Saturday mornings and did it. I learned from my dad a really incredible work ethic and I'm learning from him later or what I learned about him after this journey was that he had an enormous sense of gratitude.

He had so many friends and so many people that loved him and enjoyed him. He was a really happy person. And it's extraordinary to me that when he experienced what he experienced that he could still be as happy as he was. But he achieved a goal, a huge goal for himself which was somehow finally coming to America. And I think when he did that, everything else was icing on the cake for him.

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