Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the 1994 version of Miracle on 34th Street. What do these three classics have in common? Mara Wilson. She skyrocketed to child stardom in the 90, but by 2000 she chose to leave Hollywood. Now 20 years later, Mara takes part in the new HBO Documentary Showbiz Kids about children in show business. Mara, in an interview over email, told me about the new documentary, childhood stardom, and her writing career.
You take part in the new HBO Documentary Showbiz Kids. Can you tell me what it’s about? Why did you want to be a part of this project?
Showbiz Kids is an honest look at child actors, their lives, and their experiences. I wanted to be part of it as soon as I learned Alex Winter was making it; I don’t think I would have said yes if it had been someone who didn’t have personal experience as a child actor.
What is the main takeaway you want viewers to have from this film?
There are just so many misconceptions about us out there, and I feel as if often we are seen as objects of pity or objects of derision, and our life experiences are shaped into a particular narrative. I would like people to watch this documentary and try to understand where most of us were coming from, and to really listen to us, instead of forcing a particular narrative upon us.
As a psychology and journalism major at your alma mater (NYU), I find your mental health advocacy extremely important. What do you think is something adults, in general, should know if they are going to have their child pursue a career in Hollywood and about childhood fame? Are there certain issues that you find are common for many child actors? Is there a specific lesson you want people to take away from your own experiences with childhood fame and your journey to today?
For example, many of us (including me) really loved to perform, and were not pushed into it by our parents. I do also want them to recognize how child stardom can reinforce tendencies toward perfectionism and social anxiety, as those of us in the public eye as children spent so much time trying to get the perfect performance on sets, and having to be well-behaved in public all the time. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure.
Now to lighter topics, You’ve played iconic roles in movies like Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire. Do you have a favorite? Why? I love Matilda! I’ve watched it more times than I can count!
I’m so glad you like it!
I would say Matilda is probably my favorite, it was a lot of fun to film, and I do really love that character. The pressure from having played that character, though, could be difficult. For a long time, I felt like everybody thought I was Matilda, and I knew I wasn’t. They were disappointed when they found out I was not as smart, cool, and powerful as her. It was almost like living in the shadow of a more talented older sister.
But I think as I grew up and got a better sense of myself, I realized just how much she meant to people. It had been hard for me to grasp the magnitude of that as a child. So now I consider myself extremely lucky to have played her. And she is still something of a role model for me! I try to be as literary, resourceful, and resilient as her.
You took a huge break from acting and the industry, what brought you back to TV acting and voiceover work? I also know you do a lot more writing. I’ve read your writing on Substack. It’s great! What is it about writing that you like so much more than other mediums?
I’m so happy you like my writing!
I never imagined acting as my primary career. Even as a child, I thought acting was fun, but wanted to be a writer. I loved making up stories and even writing scripts. I liked writing because I was more in control, I think, and got to explore and explain things on my terms. Acting felt like a hobby, like Girl Scouts or soccer.
I think film acting felt exhausting and frustrating after a while: it was tedious when there were other things in life I wanted to be doing, and I was at an age where most actors don’t get a lot of roles anyway (i.e., puberty). I decided to focus more on theater acting, which felt more exciting: when you’re onstage in theater, there’s no editing, no director, no studio or producers, there’s just you and the audience. That’s thrilling! It felt much more real to me than film. And I never really stopped doing voice-over, which felt more like theater to me, because there was so much imagination involved. I’ve heard it called “a theater of the mind,” you have to imagine everything! And you can be anything. I’ve played a little boy, a little girl, an old woman, a spider, a demon, someone’s girlfriend, someone’s worst enemy, and so many more. There’s so much you can do, and unlike film acting, you’re not limited by your looks.
Is there a specific goal you have for your writing career?
As for goals, I have a lot! I wrote a lot of plays in college, and would be so happy to write more for the stage. Screenplays, too! Writing dialogue is one of my favorite things.
Do you have a favorite book that you think everyone should check out?
I have so many favorite books! Some of the last great ones I read were N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and Tara Westover’s Educated. Rae Earl’s My Mad Fat Teenage Diary and My Madder, Fatter Teenage Diary have become my comfort books, she writes so well and so hilariously about mental illness. Elyn Saks’s The Center Cannot Hold is also a brilliant book about living with mental illness. I think Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth is massively underrated.
Where can people find you on social media?
I’m on @MaraWilson on Twitter and Instagram, and Mara.substack.com!
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