Precisely when political leaders of certain countries grasped how much of a threat coronavirus really would be is a debatable issue. But for many members of the public, a precise date can be put on when the truth properly struck home: 13 March. That was when Tom Hanks announced on Instagram that he and his wife, the actor and singer Rita Wilson, a couple who are universally agreed to be Two of the Nicest Celebrities in the World, had tested positive for the virus in Australia, where Hanks had been shooting Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic. (Hanks, truly cast against type, is playing the notorious bully, Colonel Tom Parker.) On The Daily Show, Trevor Noah said: “It’s almost like coronavirus chose Tom Hanks just to send a message to the rest of us. Like prison rules: ‘If I can get Hanks, I can get to anyone.’”
Plenty of famous people have since been diagnosed with coronavirus, from Idris Elba to Placido Domingo, yet only Hanks and Wilson made newspaper front pages. And whereas other celebrity diagnoses have prompted debate about why certain people have access to tests while the masses don’t, the news about Hanks and Wilson, both 63, sparked only anxiety on their behalf. “How dare coronavirus hurt my father!” was the general online reaction, reflecting Hanks’s longstanding status as the United States’ parental figure. Hanks and Wilson occupy a near unique sweet spot of seeming both normal and gobstoppingly famous, making their diagnoses seem all too relatable and totally bizarre.
And their normality is not a pose, judging from the several times I have spotted them out and about in Los Angeles. Once, during Oscars week, I was hanging out in a Beverly Hills hotel where designers had taken over several suites to dress celebrities. Every other person who came in and out of the hotel was a stylist, their heels sky high, their Botox impeccable. Except one: Wilson arrived and left quietly, sporting what looked a lot like a tracksuit and an endearing lack of makeup, never mind Botox. “Picking up one’s own Oscars outfit” might be a very relative kind of normality, but in Hollywood “the real world” exists on a sliding scale.
Thankfully for Hanks and Wilson, but also the morale of mankind, they are now fully recovered from coronavirus and back home in Los Angeles, where they are “staying inside and watching a lot of old movies,” Wilson tells me on the phone. “Like An Affair to Remember?” I can’t resist asking. Wilson has been acting since she was 14, but her most famous scene is probably in Sleepless in Seattle, where her character gushes about the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr 1957 film. She has regained enough of her strength to just about suppress her weariness with the reference: “Oh, that’s a good idea, for sure!” she says with only the faintest hint of rolled eyes.
Wilson and Hanks first developed symptoms on 9 March, and were tested the following day. Doctors told them that they were probably exposed to the virus by the same person at the same time, but no one else they know has tested positive and it’s still a mystery as to how they caught it. Wilson, in particular, had tried to be hyper-vigilant: “It was early March, so people weren’t social distancing yet. But I was already doing no handshakes, no hugging, trying to take my own measures. Then on the plane to Australia, I was like Lady Macbeth – I couldn’t clean everything enough! The flight attendants were like: ‘What is with this lady?’ I had wipes, sanitiser, I wiped down everything.”
Their symptoms were severe enough for them to be hospitalised: “We both had a high fever and were extremely achey. I lost my sense of taste and smell, had stomach issues and shivering like you wouldn’t believe. Yeah, I was scared,” she says. To try to bring her fever down, doctors gave her chloroquine – “not hydroxychloroquine,” she stresses, referring to the unproven treatment President Trump has been promoting. Her temperature did come down, but the side-effects of the drug were “incredibly harsh”.
“Extreme nausea, vertigo, my muscles felt like wet noodles, so I couldn’t really stand,” she says. They were unaware of the international reaction to their announcement because they hardly watched TV and stayed almost entirely offline, except to be in contact with close friends and family. “We were just trying to get through it,” she says.
Back in 2015, Wilson was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. At the time, she told her husband what she wanted him and their two sons, Chet and Truman, to do should she die: “I said: ‘I want you to be sad for a really long time,’” she laughs. “And then I said: ‘I want you all to throw me a party.’”
Did she and Hanks have those conversations again?
“No, but we did have a different conversation before we were diagnosed. Before I had cancer, I would hear about other people having cancer. I said to him before all this: ‘Once you’ve had cancer you understand you are other people. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t get coronavirus – we could get it.’ And we got it.”
Wilson and Hanks have been married for 32 years and famously have one of the most solid relationships in Hollywood. But going through all this, so far from home, and on their own, would have tested any couple. How did they not lose their minds?
“I think that having the virus at the same time made it that little bit easier,” she says. “We were taking care of each other instead of having the pressure of taking care of one person and no one taking care of you or understanding that the person at home needs a break. We were fortunate we were in a place where we understood what the other was going through.”
Wilson was born and raised in Hollywood, the daughter of a Greek mother and Bulgarian father. She started acting as a teenager, appearing on The Brady Bunch and then other US TV shows throughout her 20s. In 1981, when she was 25, she appeared on Bosom Buddies, a sitcom that barely lasted two seasons but launched the career of Hanks. He was married at the time, and has two children from that marriage, including the actor, Colin Hanks. But the two of them reconnected in 1985 when they were both cast in the film, Volunteers, and married in 1988. Since then, Wilson has made a name for herself as a successful producer (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mamma Mia!) and a reliable team player; it is always a pleasure to see her pop up in supporting roles in films such as Runaway Bride and Sleepless in Seattle, as well as classy TV shows including The Good Wife and Girls.
Last year, she produced and appeared in the film Boy Genius, “which probably people never saw,” Wilson says, alas, accurately. But something from that film stuck in her mind during her recovery: in the movie, her character performs Naughty by Nature’s legendary anthem, Hip Hop Hooray. After a couple of days in hospital, she and Hanks were allowed to return to their hotel to recover, where they played card games, watched the ubiquitous Netflix documentary Tiger King (“Yeah, pretty crazy, ha ha!”) and Ken Burns’s documentary about country music. But Wilson still felt “kind of foggy”, so to get her brain back in shape, she decided to re-learn Hip Hop Hooray. She then videoed herself performing it and posted it on Instagram from isolation in Australia, “to let people back home know I was OK, and maybe they could get a smile out of it.”
The video took off and currently has 2m likes with adoring comments from Barack Obama (“Drop the mic, Rita!”) to Kim Kardashian (“The best video EVER!!!!!!”). But the comment that thrilled Wilson the most came from Naughty by Nature themselves, who loved her version. Wilson and the group have now remixed the single and are releasing it to raise money for MusiCares Covid-19 Relief Fund, to support members of the music community.
“One of my fans inboxed me and was like: ‘Hey Vin! Have you seen this?’ And I was like: ‘What the, oh my Gahhhd,’” says NbN’s Vin Rock with, one suspects, some understatement.
Vin Rock was, he says, “aware of [Wilson] from her movies, and definitely her husband, Tom Hanks”. (His favourite Hanks movie, for the record, is Forrest Gump: “The way they put him in all those historic scenarios!”)
“For us to be able to take this song and this moment and turn it into something positive, I think it’s a beautiful thing,” he says.
So he didn’t mind one of his best-known songs being appropriated by an older, very wealthy white woman?
“Not at all! Hip-hop has always been inclusive. Rita’s son Chet is a big hip-hop fan and he gets a lot of kickback from the hip-hop community who want to call him a poseur or culture vulture. But it’s the multicultural people who participated in hip-hop who have made it the phenomenon it is today,” he says.
Chet Hanks – or Chet Haze, to use his rap name – has indeed been accused of those things and worse. In the past, he defended his frequent use of the n-word, although he has since put that down to his problems with drug addiction. He is clean now, but the 29-year-old got in trouble again earlier this year when he accompanied his parents to the Golden Globes and spoke in Jamaican patois on the red carpet. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Tom said of his children from his first marriage: “They remember when their dad was just a guy trying to, you know, make the rent. My other kids, they were born after I had established a beachhead in every way. And so their lives were just different.”
But Chet became a bit of a star during his parents’ illness. He posted endearingly sensible video updates on their condition (“They’re not tripping but they’re going through the necessary precautions, obviously”) and amusingly shot down the various conspiracy theories about Hanks being in the illuminati (“If somebody wrote it on the internet, you know it must be true”). Instead of being mocked by the media, as he had been so often, Chet was now getting headlines such as “How Tom Hanks’ Son Chet Haze Became a Soothing Voice Amid Covid-19”.
That must have made Wilson proud, I say.
“It was very sweet of him. Of course, our entire family was concerned about us,” she says, maintaining a protective discretion about her children.
I tell her that the last time I interviewed her husband, he did the rap that he and Dan Aykroyd performed in the 1987 film Dragnet for me. So now I imagine them as a hip-hop family, all rapping to one another in the evening.
“Oh my God, we make so much fun of that rap, that’s hilarious! People say to me: ‘Chet must have gotten his rapping from you.’ But we were introduced to it more from our son rather than him being introduced to it from me,” she says.
Wilson is an accomplished musician in her own right and, since 2012, has put out four albums, three of which feature songs she wrote herself.
“Writing and performing songs has become so much more satisfying, compared to what I was being offered in movies. How many times can you play the understanding, nurturing wife, mother, daughter, grandmother, best friend? I mean, I’ve exhausted the canon of those roles,” she says.
I tell her that part of what I loved about her Hip Hop Hooray Instagram post wasn’t how she sounded but how she looked – totally unstyled and un-tweaked. How has she avoided that pressure to look perfect and maintain the face of a 29-year-old while living such a high-profile life in Hollywood?
“Part of it is my mom rarely wore makeup and I loved seeing her face evolve over time with me. I want my kids to look at the face that they know and understand that it’s just me. Everyone has their vanity but I – I – hmmm. How to put this? I … just … don’t care that much!” she finishes with a laugh.
But did she ever feel the pressure?
“Oh yeah! When I was making Runaway Bride I had Botox, because Botox was new and everyone was getting Botox, and I got it in my forehead. But then I saw this movie, and there’s this emotional scene where I’m firing Richard Gere and my forehead didn’t move. I thought: ‘Well, that’s not working!’ I tried the lip-fillers around that same period of time, and one day I came home and my kids laughed at me, and I thought: ‘OK, that’s that!’”
Wilson has to go now – possibly to watch An Affair to Remember, probably not. “I’m just so thankful to be back to normal again,” she says. So be careful, OK?” After all, as she knows better than most, we’re all just other people now.
Culled from Guardian