When Mara Wilson was a little girl, Hollywood couldn’t get enough of her.–
She was one of those child actors who seemed preternaturally mature. Her vocabulary was surprisingly expansive. She could carry on full-blown conversations with adults. And she appeared to be in full control of her emotions, bringing out the puppy dog eyes at just the right moment.
Interviewing Wilson on the Today TV magazine show in 1994, Katie Couric declared: “Every time I see you in a movie, I just want to put you in my pocket and take you home with me.”
Wilson was just seven then, but she’d already had memorable roles in a remake of Miracle On 34Th Street (1994) and opposite Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). A couple of years later she’d score her biggest part yet: Playing Matilda in a film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic about the precocious book lover.
Then the offers stopped coming. As she hit her teenage years – a dreaded period of change for any child star – it seemed studio executives didn’t find her all that cute anymore. Wilson started looking at her peers – Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley – and she knew.
“I knew that wasn’t me,” says Wilson, now 29. “I would look at Keira – who is two years older than me – in magazines and think, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be as hot as her in two years. Things will have barely changed.’ I felt – and sometimes I still feel this way – I felt upset when I would meet people, because they seemed disappointed that I wasn’t cute.”
It’s a struggle she details in her new memoir, Where Am I Now?: True Stories Of Girlhood And Accidental Fame (PenguinRandomHouse).
Wilson has been writing for years: She studied playwriting at New York University; her website is named marawilsonwritesstuff.com; and her witty commentary on Twitter has earned her 300,000 followers. But when lit agents began approaching her with the idea of writing a book about her days in the movie business, she sparked at the idea of being able to explain herself in more than 140 characters.
“When you see that somebody’s last credit is Thomas And The Magic Railroad when they’re an awkward 12-year-old, you’re, like, ‘Oh, how sad,’” she says. “You don’t know what happens between those IMDB (Internet Movie Batabase) entries. I knew there were people who felt sorry for me and people who were making up stories about me. I think I wanted to reclaim that narrative.”
Wilson is sitting in the Tea Rose Garden in Old Town Pasadena, California, a quaint cafe she went to with her Matilda castmates when she was a girl. Though she now calls New York City home, Wilson is a native of Burbank in Los Angeles, and most of her family still lives here. But as soon as she got the chance to move out of LA, she jumped. At 18, she felt like everyone there was too focused on looks. Plus, she sunburned easily. And all the driving made her carsick.
But even almost 5,000km away, she found it difficult to escape her reputation. At NYU, she was “a thousand percent” known as the girl who used to be a child star, says Rachel Bloom, star of sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Wilson’s former uni classmate.
“I remember the first time she brought ‘it’ up. I was, like, ‘Wait! Wait! You’re Matilda! I was such a fan,’” says Bloom, who met Wilson while hanging lights in a theatre tech class freshman year. “I’d heard a couple people be, like, ‘She’s not that friendly. She’s kind of cynical and dark.’ She was a child star, so people expect her to be bubbly and happy. But she was this dark and neurotic Jew from Los Angeles, and I thought she was awesome.”
That Wilson even went to college is a rarity for a kid actor. Most young stars decide to strike while the iron is hot – meaning keep acting while they still look fresh-faced – instead of pursuing higher education. Wilson credits her interest in education to her parents, both of whom attended Northwestern University on scholarships. Her mother, who served as her manager, died from cancer when Wilson was just eight.
“Her mum treated her so differently than most of these kids’ mums,” says Bonnie Liedtke, who was Wilson’s agent for 10 years and also represented Leonardo DiCaprio and Zac Efron when they were kids.
“We were on a set in Chicago once, and she needed to go to the ladies room. They radioed in two ADs (assistant directors) to escort her, and Mara’s mother screamed at them. ‘She’s just going to the restroom! She needs to be a normal kid!’ She made sure she kept it as humble and normal as possible, and Mara was able to hold on to that.”
“The only stars are in the sky.” That was the credo in the Wilson home. Any money she made on film sets was put far away in saving accounts that she wasn’t allowed to touch.
Once, when she was shopping for dorm room supplies at Target, Wilson got into a fight with her father because she wanted to buy some slightly pricier items. She was paying her own tuition, she argued, so why shouldn’t she be able to get whatever she wanted at Target?
“And he said, ‘Do you understand how much sacrifice it took on our part to get you those places?’” she says, taking a bite out of a miniature cucumber sandwich. “‘You wanted to keep acting, and we were the ones driving you everywhere and with you on set the whole time. That was work for us too, but we never got paid for it and we’re never going to get paid for it.’ That was sort of this reality check for me, like, ‘Oh, right, this actually did take a lot of sacrifice.’”
Her ability to step outside herself is evident in Where Am I Now?, in which she talks about the harsh realities of the movie business without letting emotion overwhelm her. Of those awkward post-puberty years, she writes: “As I saw it, when it came to careers, I had three choices: get cosmetic surgery and go out on auditions for the cute and funny best friend characters, stay the way I was and go out for the meagre character actor roles for young women, or accept myself and give up the idea of a Hollywood film acting career.”
She went with the last option, primarily as a means of self-protection: “If I was going to break up with Hollywood,” she writes, “I wanted it to be mutual.”
Wilson still acts occasionally – just not on the big screen. She does a lot of voice work, most recently on adult animated TV series BoJack Horseman. And she hosts a show at New York’s Public Theater, What Are You Afraid Of?, about people’s phobias.
Sometimes, she says, she misses being on film sets, of which she has plenty of warm memories.
“One thing I always loved was the rolling chorus – when they’d call ‘speed, marker, background, action,’” she remembers.
“The sound of it was comforting to me. I took note of the different ways directors said action. Chris Columbus (who directed Mrs. Doutbfire) would kind of stretch it out. And Danny DeVito (Matilda) would yell ‘cut’ just by making weird noises.”
But writing has brought her a different kind of fulfilment. She’s working on a couple of pilots and a graphic novel. And she’s still very active on Twitter, where last month she revealed to her followers that she identifies as “bi/queer”.
“It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I was, like, I’m going to need to face the fact that I definitely had a crush on Lucy Liu when I was on a sitcom with her,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not just attracted to one gender. I’m attracted to men, women – some people who don’t really consider themselves either.
“I think that it kind of explains some things about me – just puts them into perspective. That I used to pretend to be a carpenter in kindergarten. That one day I was really sad that Lucy Liu didn’t show up on set because she had food poisoning.”
For someone who has lived her life with an audience since she was a girl, it makes sense that Wilson is most comfortable finding herself in public. But in a way, it seems that she’s always known how her story would play out.
“I might not want to be an actress all of my life,” the seven-year-old told Couric in that Today interview.
“I understand you’re thinking about becoming a screenwriter,” Couric replied. “Have you written any scripts yet?”
“No,” Wilson answered. “I have a lot of them in my head.”
“Well, good,” Couric said. “I think you’ve got a lot of stuff in your head, Mara.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service/Amy Kaufman