Sleepless in Seattle: Rita Wilson improvised part of her Affair to Remember monologue
“And they know…”
Sleepless in Seattle famously owes a heavy debt to An Affair to Remember, borrowing the 1957 film’s plot point of a romantic meeting atop the Empire State Building. Sleepless even pays homage to this connection with an unforgettable monologue delivered by Rita Wilson’s Suzy that fans are still referencing a quarter-century later. (Today marks the 25th anniversary of Sleepless in Seattle.)
As Suzy explains to Sam (Tom Hanks) how Annie’s (Meg Ryan) offer to meet him on the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day is “just like that movie,” she describes the plot of An Affair to Remember and breaks down in tears as she struggles to recount the tragic story of Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant’s romance in the film.
It’s classic Nora Ephron: a woman passionately describing an emotional connection to a film while the men look on in confusion and horror. But really, have you ever tried to explain An Affair to Remember to someone and done it without crying? While the moment itself was penned by Ephron and her sister Delia, Wilson tells EW she brought her own spin to the scene, improvising the very end of the monologue about how Grant looks at the painting and looks at Kerr and “they know! And then they hug.”
“Nora was very, very particular about everyone saying her and Delia’s lines exactly as written,” Wilson tells EW. “I said, ‘Can I try something at the end of this scene?’ And she said, ‘Sure.’ She was really adamant that everything was said and spoken as written, so I didn’t know how she was going to feel about any improv. But she said, ‘Okay, try something.’ I remember watching the movie, An Affair to Remember, a couple of times before shooting, and I noticed that Cary Grant goes into the room and he sees [Kerr] on the couch, and then he looks at her and she looks at him, so I just went in and I did that bit, ‘He looks at her, and they just know.’
“I didn’t tell Nora I was going to do that, but I had in my mind that I wanted to complete that story,” she adds. “When somebody tells something about a movie, they always want to go into more detail than you want to know, so I thought that would’ve been a funny sort of thing.… I love that that stayed in the movie, that Nora kept it.”
Wilson says she’s also incredibly proud that her moment of inspiration led Tom Hanks and Victor Garber to do a little improv of their own, riffing on The Dirty Dozen and having a similarly emotional reaction to Trini Lopez’s onscreen death. “You don’t know what’s going to come out of that improvisation because it effects that actors in the scene with you,” Wilson says. “So I love that Nora kept that in the script because she was picky about that stuff.”
Ephron was also a superb director throughout the project, Wilson remembers. While they were filming the monologue, she says it was Ephron who gave her the suggestion to use her table napkin as Deborah Kerr’s blanket. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love that, I love that.’ She gave me that great note.”
But Ephron’s gifts as a director came as no surprise to Wilson. In fact, they are what pushed her to lobby for a role in the film. “I saw When Harry Met Sally and This is Your Life, and I saw that Nora wrote women really, really well,” Wilson says. “I loved that she cast Carrie Fisher in those really vocal, fun roles. When Tom [Hanks, Wilson’s husband] was offered the script for Sleepless in Seattle, I read it and I fell in love with the character that Rosie O’Donnell played in the movie. I ran into [Ephron] at a party at [producer] Linda Obst’s house, and I said, ‘Nora if you don’t cast Carrie Fisher in that role, I would love to audition for you.’”
Wilson’s plan worked and she landed the audition, but the role ultimately went to O’Donnell and Wilson was offered the part of Suzy, a close friend of Hanks’ character. When first offered the job, Wilson says she got “really excited” because she remembered the role had an “amazing monologue in the script.”
The role led Wilson to discover An Affair to Remember for the first time. “I had never seen An Affair to Remember. I knew nothing about it. So I watched it just in preparation for this woman who clearly was very familiar with this movie,” she explains. “I felt that I was the steward of this really wonderful monologue and I wanted to deliver for [Nora]. I looked up to her so much as a person and a director and a writer, and then obviously, as a friend. You want to do your best for someone.”
Wilson recalls that she knew she’d succeeded in delivering what Ephron wanted for several reasons. “[The crew] clapped at the end of the day, and that was a new experience, I’d never had that on a set before,” she remembers. But even more memorably, Wilson recounts a story of how Ephron invited her to come to early test screenings of the film to witness how well audiences were reacting to the monologue and her improvisation. “I think it was Nora’s gift to me in some way,” she says. “I think she really wanted to share that moment that people are really laughing at your scene. She wanted to celebrate that and give me that gift and see it before anyone else. It was really, really fun. It was an amazing experience. In some ways Nora and I were similarly minded in terms of how we approached comedy. And she loved women.”
The scene and experience endure as one of Wilson’s career highlights, both on a personal level and for her fans. The actress says she thinks Sleepless in Seattle attracted so much favorable attention, including an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, because of Ephron’s approach. “Nora really wanted to accomplish in Sleepless in Seattle a movie that was classic. She wanted all the wardrobe and costumes to look like in 100 years they wouldn’t stand out as something being really trendy or specific to that period of time,” she says. “She also chose music that was music from another era, so it felt familiar. We know those songs. We associate movies with a certain kind of score, the Gershwins and that sort of music.”
As Sleepless in Seattle turns 25, it endures as a hallmark of its genre. Asked why she thinks the film (and her infamous scene) have stood the test of time, Wilson replies, “The story is just great. People really want to see a good love story. I remember asking [Ephron] once, ‘What do you think it is? Why don’t they make more romantic comedies?’ And she said, ‘Because they’re really hard to do well.’ And I think that’s absolutely true. It’s very hard to pull that off — to have it be funny, intelligent, and still have the classic good story along with it.”
It may be difficult to pull off, but with Sleepless in Seattle, by way of An Affair to Remember, Ephron proved she and rom-coms were MFEO (made for each other).
Sleepless in Seattle is being released as a special Blu-ray tomorrow in honor of its 25th anniversary.