Adele Oliveira | Longreads | Nov. 2014 | 15 minutes (3,798 words)
In 1994, when she was seven years old, Mara Wilson appeared on The Today Show with Katie Couric to promote a remake of Miracle on 34th Street, in which she starred.
Right away, it’s easy to see why Wilson, who’s also known for her work in Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda, is a successful and endearing child actor. She wears a red-checked gingham shirt underneath a wooly red cardigan, and her feet stick straight off the armchair on which she sits, too short to reach the ground. Wilson is missing teeth, and despite lisping, her diction is perfect and she’s polite and sincere with Couric, who mispronounces Wilson’s first name. Couric asks Wilson if she’d like to be like Natalie Wood someday—Wood played Wilson’s role in the original 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street. Wood started acting as a child, and in Couric’s words, grew up to be “a very famous, well-known, talented actress.”
Wilson hesitates, and you can see her thinking as she wrinkles her nose. “I don’t know,” she shrugs. “I might not want to be an actress all of my life.” Wilson says she wants to be a “script writer” and that while she hasn’t yet written down any of her stories, “I have a lot of them in my head.”
For a certain generation of Americans who grew up alongside her, Wilson remains perfectly preserved in memory, forever this guileless and articulate little girl. But at 27, Wilson is more compelling as an adult than she was a child. Her writing is sharp, funny, and critical of the film industry and expectations placed on women who live their lives in public. In October, Wilson signed a deal with Penguin Books for an essay collection, due in 2016.
The essays, many of which will focus on her childhood career and its aftermath, will illuminate Wilson’s uneasy relationship with fame and her decision to stop acting. It’s a question that’s followed her since Thomas and the Magic Railroad (her last major film) was released in 2000, so much so that Wilson has an FAQ section on her website, for queries like “Are You Still Acting?!” along with answers to other oft-posed questions like why her hairstyle hasn’t changed since the mid-’90s (it has), and whether or not she’ll be friends with you (probably not if you’re asking).
In conversation, Wilson is well-spoken, striking a balance between confidence and self-deprecation. She’s also astoundingly regular, and so unlike the public personas of other former child stars, likely because she got out of film early. Wilson’s recollections of her early career are largely positive: when Robin Williams died in August, she wrote movingly of working with him when she was five on the set of Mrs. Doubtfire.
Wilson is close to her family (three older brothers, one younger sister, and her dad) her mother was sick with cancer while she was shooting Matilda, and died soon after. She loves cats, and baking, and living in New York. Unique among the former child star set, Wilson has a day job at a non-profit, Publicolor, which repaints public schools in New York City. She’s a reader, like Matilda, but like any good millennial, also, “on the Internet way too much.”
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Is it weird to still be well-known for something you did when you were a child, and maybe don’t even remember in great detail?
It was a little strange when I was younger. There’s such a long time between when you film and when the film comes out, and that seems even longer when you’re a child. I couldn’t take much pride in it. When people would approach me, I didn’t feel like I deserved it; it didn’t feel like an accomplishment. Sometimes it even felt a little intrusive. My father would say, “They’re your fans! They like you! Appreciate it!” But I couldn’t until recently. Now I love doing signings and meeting people. There’s still a bit of a disconnect, because it was so long ago, but they’re always so nice, and I can finally appreciate that I made a difference.
Similarly, I imagine it’s frustrating when interviewers ask you about the same things over and over again, when you moved on a long time ago.
I’ve gotten used to it. People don’t see a lot of public figures speaking for themselves, which is one of the reasons I write. They have to build a narrative from what they know, what’s been filtered through the media. It’s still really hard for me to calibrate exactly how famous I was or am—every time I think I was no more than a minor figure, someone tells me I changed their life, and every time I think I made a difference, something happens that makes me deny it.
Our culture has such a dysfunctional, complicated relationship with celebrity. It has to be odd to have millions of people who feel like they know/knew you because they saw you on-screen as a kid. Were you at all similar to the characters you portrayed?
My parents tried to give me the most normal childhood they could. I was the fourth child out of five (three older brothers, one younger sister) in a Jewish-Catholic lower-middle class home: I shared a room until I was 13, went to public school until I was 16, and still went to Girl Scouts and temple on the High Holy Days. Growing up in Burbank, California, a lot of other kids were actors, too. It was just like taking dance classes or being on a softball team.
I think out of all my characters, the most I had in common with was Matilda. I’ve learned she’s an archetype in a lot of young women’s lives, one of the few young girls who loved reading and learning and was celebrated for it. I’ve been reading since I was four and I’ve always loved learning. I was never as smart or well-read as Matilda, but I did find a lot of strength in books like she did, especially in harder times, like when my mother died. I also have a rebellious, outspoken streak, as anyone who follows me on Twitter knows.
Though you’ve been working creatively since you stopped making movies, many people probably still know you best from your film career. Why did you decide to leave film, and what have you done since then?
I unofficially stopped acting when I was in my early teens and I went away to [Idyllwild Arts Academy] a boarding school for the visual and performing arts. I really liked doing theater, and found that it was a lot more forgiving and exciting than film. I realized that I liked working behind the scenes, as well, and I went to NYU for an interdisciplinary theater program. While I was there I learned what I was good at and what I was not—I wasn’t a very good director; I can’t draw a straight line so I wasn’t a good designer, but what I did very well in was playwriting and a class we had called “creating original work” where we had ten minutes to go up on stage and do whatever we wanted. You could tell stories, you could do comedy, burlesque, whatever. I told a lot of autobiographical stories, and I always wanted to be a writer. I made up stories even when I was on film sets; in between shots I would go back to my room and write a story down. While I was at NYU, I performed a one-woman show called, Weren’t You That Girl about my childhood acting. It sold out every night, and I thought, ‘OK, maybe this is what I want to do.’ And after college, I got into live storytelling.
Right, like this summer, you did a show called What Are You Afraid Of.
I’ve always been a really anxious person, and I thought to myself one day, I could do a show just about all the things I’m afraid of. I thought about calling it The Chicken Shit Show, but What Are You Afraid Of was more marketing-friendly. I ended up pitching it to Union Hall in Brooklyn, where [we perform] the third Sunday of every month. We’ve also done a couple shows at Joe’s Pub.
Do you interview people, or tell your own stories?
It’s a little bit of both, actually, and comedy. In the opening, we talk about somebody’s fears, usually mine. Sometimes I do other people’s—like for example, one time I talked about my sister, who has a fear of getting water in her ears. I think it’s important to laugh at your fears, but also to understand them, because we fear what we don’t understand. So what I do is I talk to an expert on the subject. For the one about the ears, I talked to my friend’s dad, who’s an ear nose and throat doctor. Or I just did one about Ebola, and I talked to a friend of mine who’s a virologist.
Timely. Do people always come up on stage?
Sometimes we have people come up on stage if they feel comfortable with it. Once, I talked to a nurse about food poisoning, which I worry about a lot, because I bake all the time and I eat lots of raw dough. We did a show about a fear of nudity, and I had my friend who’s a burlesque performer and sex educator talk about nudity in public and do one of her acts. But a lot of times, the people are a little nervous, so we’ll record an interview. And then we’ll have storytellers and comedians tell a story about a time they were scared. Everyone has something they’re afraid of.
Do any of those fears show up in your memoir? Would you even call it a memoir?
It’s memoir-ish, or personal essays through the lens of memoir. I’ve always been a very anxious person, so that’s undoubtedly going to come up. I’m going to talk about my OCD and my anxiety growing up. It’s very hard to be a perfectionist growing up in the film world. It reinforces all of your worst fears about perfection and doing things right. It got me into what I think is a pretty toxic mental pattern for a kid, and it’s taken me years to break out of that. I think that even if I didn’t want to write about it, it’s been such a big part of my life that I almost feel like I have to. Fortunately, I do like doing that, helping people by sharing what I’ve learned about anxiety.
I think public vulnerability is very much something that people who came of age with social media see as the norm. Can you talk about what you choose to reveal in your work and why?
There’s a lot of exposing oneself and exhibitionism in humor and in writing these days, and there’s something strong it that, in taking a stand and putting yourself out there, but I think at some point it’s not so much owning your vulnerability and it can be kind of dangerous. It’s about control. There are things that I definitely want to keep to myself. The thing is though, I’ve grown up in the kind of world where I didn’t think that anything was private, I assumed that somebody was going to find out about everything at some point. So I’m not that private of a person, and I don’t think certain things are a big deal, but the things that I do keep private are very special to me. When you do talk about yourself, it’s really about how you frame it. A lot of the things I talk about in What Are You Afraid Of have had some time, even if it’s just a week, for me to sit around and think about them. Sometimes it’s more raw than others, but the way I’ve always put it is that for something to be art, it needs to be filtered. Coffee grounds plus water doesn’t automatically equal coffee.
Your mother passed away shortly after filming Matilda. That must have been so hard. Are you going to write about this time in the book?
My mother’s death affects me every single day. It’s something I didn’t want to talk about for a long time, but I think I’m finally in a good enough place to be able to write about it.
So many former child stars like Amanda Bynes or Lindsay Lohan, have a difficult time with things like addiction and mental illness when their careers wane. How did you avoid the “dark side” of fame?
Some of it, I think, is just luck. But I had a good family, which helped. My parents protected me from a lot, and weren’t stage parents. It was my choice to act, and it was my choice to get out of it. A lot of other child actors don’t have that choice. They also weren’t dependent upon me for money, which is never a good idea, in my opinion: It shifts the power dynamic in the family. My parents weren’t my best friends, they were my parents. They said I would be using that money to get an education, and I did. I also was just never into partying or anything extravagant, which saved money and sanity. Therapy was also a good idea!
Do you have an audience in mind for this book? Fans of your films?
Young women, specifically those who grew up watching Matilda, though I don’t want the book to be just for people who saw my movies as a kid. A lot of young women related to Matilda because she was the bookish girl who was powerful. That’s something you don’t see a lot. You see a lot of ignored bookish girls, like Meg on Family Guy, who’s ignored over and over. Or you see Lisa Simpson get up on her soapbox, but everyone rolls their eyes at her. I’m sure some young men will like the book, as well, but I do see this becoming a favorite of like, 20-year-old girls.
The latest post on your website, is structured as a bunch of answers to questions your younger self is posing to your older self. I really liked it; I thought it was funny and sweet. You’re kind to your younger self, and while the answers to the questions that aren’t explicit, the reader can infer that your younger self is asking things like, ‘so, have you lost your virginity yet?’ Are you going to play with form like that in the book, like using lists or letters?
Thanks, it was fun to write. Playing with form can be fun, and I might in the book. I’m definitely going to write little vignettes about being different ages. The good thing about essays, my editor says, is that everyone’s essays are different.
You’re active on Twitter, which is very different than sitting in your room, alone, writing. Is Twitter an important way for you to communicate?
Twitter is a really good platform for connecting with people. I’ve met friends, authors, and comedians on Twitter that I would haven’t met otherwise. I’ve gotten roommates through Twitter. I got my cat through Twitter. And it’s partly about instant gratification. I can be funny on Twitter and get a reaction right away, which you don’t get when you’re writing a book. I can be political or philosophical. Recently, my number of Twitter followers surpassed the population of my hometown. Sometimes I think about standing on top of a building in Burbank with a megaphone telling everyone what I think. Is it something I really want to say? There are a lot of problems with it, and they’re not good of taking care of harassment. It’s imperfect, but it’s my favorite social media platform.
You’ve also written about voiceover work as a creative outlet. And I have to say, I’m surprised by your voice, which is kind of silly, because of course you don’t sound the way you did when you were a little girl. Anyway, you have a nice voice, and it’s deeper than I was expecting.
I’ve always loved doing voice-over work. I did some when I was a kid: I was on Batman Beyond, and did commercials and such. I was always pretty good at the ADR/dubbing parts of post-production on film and TV; in fact, Danny DeVito had me do some background voices and dubbing for other characters in Matilda. As I got older, people always told me I didn’t have a voice like a teenage girl, and it’s true, my voice is very deep. (It suits me a little more now.) Now I do some commercial work and have a recurring role on [the podcast] Welcome to Night Vale.
What is it that you love about voice-over work?
Voice-over is so imaginative—I’ve heard it called “a theater of the mind.” Any character you come up with, you have to do on your own, with the text and your imagination. I’ve found I can build an entire character off of their voice. When my sister and I were little, we’d always come up with all sorts of weird voices and base characters on them. There isn’t the focus on looks like there is in film. No one cares what I look like, and I appreciate that. There are so many actresses and models who get paid to look pretty, and one of the reasons I left Hollywood is that it’s really hung up on appearances. One of my mottos is that it’s not my job to be pretty for you. I like to get dressed up; I like to look nice, but I don’t want to do it for a living. When I’m doing a voice, I can be an old woman, a little girl, a man, all these things I am not in real life, and I love that.
You identify as a feminist, yes?
Yes, I do.
It’s still difficult, sometimes, to be a feminist. Which is crazy to me—we live in 2014; most of the women I know identify as feminists. And yet there’s still so much vitriol and sexism levied against women, online and in person. How do you contend with that?
It definitely does, but I think calling yourself a feminist is one of the most badass things you can do. It’s very empowering. What you’re saying is, ‘I don’t want to be judged for my gender; I want to be judged for what I do and who I am.’ That’s something that has always appealed to me. There are still so many misconceptions about feminism. It’s nice when I can surprise someone: They’ll say, oh, Mara, you’re really nice, you bake us cookies, and you’re a feminist. Fortunately, I don’t come into contact with too many people who are anti-feminist, but I’ve had friends and family say that they’ve looked at feminism in a new way, reexamined things that they’ve taken for granted. I’ve also seen that happen with male comedians and writers I know. When you say that you’re a feminist, you have access to so many other awesome, powerful women.
It’s disturbing when stars like Bynes and Lohan are discarded, how quickly they’re torn apart in the public sphere—their looks, their career choices, their love lives/sexuality—it’s open season on all of that from the self-appointed commentariat, and there’s a lot of misogyny in it. As someone with a similar background, is this difficult to see? What can or should be done about it?
The most important thing to do, I think, is not give in to it. I see so many women who are smart, compassionate, even considering themselves feminists, who will still tear other women down for their appearances. Tearing down men is awful, too, but I think women have it so much harder. Just don’t do it. It isn’t anything they can do much about, and it makes you look shallow.
People assume the nastiness of celebrity culture is perpetuated by people less kind and intelligent than they are, but it’s perpetuated by anyone and everyone. I’m not going to say “stop judging celebrities” altogether, because I know it’s part of the contract they have with the world, that people can judge them in exchange for their power and status. But I will say, if you judge them and tear them down all the time, maybe ask yourself why you do.
Now that you’re writing a book and fulfilling a major life goal, what else do you still want to do?
Oh God, there’s so much. In the past few years with writing, I’ve been, as my dad would say, throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. You were asking me earlier how I go about deciding what’s going to go in the book, I think another thing is figuring out what’s interesting to people? A lot of writers don’t really consider the audience; it’s just catharsis. And that’s fine, but like I said, I think art needs to be filtered if it’s going to be put out there as a literary piece or a work of art.
I have a lot that I want to do. I want to turn What Are You Afraid Of into a podcast. I was talking about possibly doing something educational on YouTube. I had two young adult books that I was working on for a while that I put aside. I love playwriting, and I miss it. I have many ideas, and they’re not a finite resource. I’m a generalist.
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Adele Oliveira is a former newspaper writer turned freelance writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has contributed to Salon.com, The Kirkus Review, and Bitch Magazine.
Photo courtesy Mara Wilson.
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