Most of us barely remember what it was like to be 5 years old. Mara Wilson has the whole thing on film. The now 29-year-old former child star became famous for her roles in Mrs. Doubtfire, Matilda, and Miracle On 34th Street, all of which she starred in before her 9th birthday. Wilson’s career stuttered as she entered puberty, and Wilson ultimately decided to step away from the business, choosing instead to become a non-profit staffer, playwright, and occasional voice on Welcome To Night Vale. But she never really left childhood stardom behind—thanks in part, presumably, to the tens of thousands of people on the internet who won’t let her—and she’s now written about it in an excellent new book, Where Am I Now?: True Stories Of Girlhood And Accidental Fame. The A.V. Club talked to her about that book, and about how she learned to be okay with growing up.
The A.V. Club: Your childhood is on film, but you were pretty young. How much do you remember? And how much do people expect you to remember?
Mara Wilson: I’m surprised by how much I remember. I think it’s just because I had these interesting moments. Of course, you never know when they’re interesting moments, but there was a lot of stuff that I remember and have attached significance to later. I remember enough. I remember highlights.
It is strange to have everybody in the world still think of you as a child. That has definitely been something that is hard. I think that’s why a lot of child actors think they need to re-invent themselves, especially young women. Usually what they do is they adopt a sort of overt sexuality. It’s fine if they want to do that, but a lot of times I think they feel obliged to do that, and that is something that I don’t think anybody should feel obliged to express.
For me, it’s a bit like when you see your mom’s friends, and they’re like, “I remember when you were this big. You’ll always be that cute little kid to me.” It’s like that times a thousand. Well, times a couple thousand. Because that’s kind of what it is.
It’s a little bit annoying, because it feels like everybody’s taking the power away from you. Everybody’s taking your adult life away from you. On one level, I used to resent it. I did even two years ago.
It definitely is something that can get frustrating, because you want to live life on your own terms, and it feels for a while like you can’t. But I’ve come to understand that I got to have all these amazing experiences that other people don’t have. So this is the trade-off.
AVC: People aren’t even necessarily looking at you as Mara Wilson the person, but as Mara Wilson, this character that they watched a hundred times.
MW: People totally conflate me with Matilda, which in some ways serves me well because that means people think I’m smarter than I am. Sure, I love to read, and I love to learn, but I was always nerdy that way. But people imagined that I was her. We had things in common, but I was never a prodigy. I was never a child genius. Fortunately, it works to my benefit.
But also, I get a lot of “Shut up, Matilda.” I probably get as many “Shut up, Matildas” as Wil Wheaton gets “Shut up, Wesleys.” That was an actual line on his show, though.
A lot of it is shutting me down. Basically, what people are saying is, “You’re a little girl to me forever.” But at the same time, like I said, it’s nice. I love Matilda the character, I always will. I’ll always appreciate that.
For a while, it was like living in the shadow of an older sibling. I had three older brothers who were academically brilliant and talented and had tons of friends. So I had that in my actual life and with public school, and then I had that with Matilda, having this character who was smarter and stronger than I was [who was] overshadowing everything I did. So I had it literally and figuratively. It was definitely hard. It definitely caused some angst for a while.
I think that I’ve come to peace with it, though, because I just have to be grateful for it. It is annoying when people call me Matilda instead of my name when they actually know my name, because you know, we are two different people. But what can you do?
AVC: In your book, you talked about how early you had to come to terms with aging. Some of us don’t have to deal with it until we’re 30, or until we get gray hair, but you were worried about it when you were 10, 11, 12 years old. Is that still something you’re working on?
MW: I was very aware of my age. I was very aware of being younger than everybody on set. The original title for the book was (K) For Kid, which is what they put on a call sheet. They put a “K” in parentheses next to your name, because they had to differentiate you from everybody else there.
I did picture being a grown-up, but I wasn’t quite sure how I would get there. I worried about it sometimes. I had so many adults around me reminding me that I was a kid. I also had a lot of adults saying things to me like, “When I was your age…” and sort of idealizing it. I didn’t like that they idealized it. I would go to the craft services table and have Oreos or whatever, and a grown woman would come up to me and look at what I was eating and sigh and go, “I remember the days when I could eat like that.” And I never knew what to say that, because I was 9. Eventually, what I started doing—and I didn’t even know what I meant when I said this—but eventually what I started doing was just kind of sighing and going, “Yeah, me too.” The truth is that she can still eat like that if she so desires, but she doesn’t feel like she can, which is sad.
Puberty was definitely difficult for me. I remember my friends and I looking forward to puberty because it seemed exciting at first. You read Judy Blume and you think, “This is kind of cool.” But when it actually started happening to me, I was terrified. I didn’t want to whisper and giggle about it anymore. I felt incredibly self-conscious. I felt like I was losing myself, and I was losing who I was. And that really scared me. I felt like I had to be conscious of myself as a girl for the first time. I had to be more feminine. I had to look a certain way. And it’s something that you want to suffer in silence, but I would go onto movie sets and they would bring out bras that were basically binders, because there were continuity problems between months.
You always worry that everybody is secretly talking about you behind your back, everybody is secretly making fun of your voice, your figure, the way that you are during puberty, but it turned out, in real life, everybody was. On movie sets, they were all talking about these things, because they had to. Because when you’re an actor, your body isn’t your own. Your body is part of a tool that you use. Everybody else there is using you as a tool, so they have access to those things, too.
AVC: It can happen so quickly for child actors, too. With the success of Stranger Things, people have said, “Wow, they’re really rushing into this second season.” But they really have to if everyone wants these kids to still be kids on the screen.
MW: Yeah, they do. And those kids are at an age now where they’re sort of in between. That’s one of the great things about the show is that it shows kids who are in between.
Children change a lot in terms of personality. Camaraderie that you feel with somebody might not be there a year later. That group might not have the same chemistry. So I completely understand why they’re rushing into it, because they probably feel like they have to.
AVC: There’s a part in the book where you talk about how adults seem to love “hilariously” sexualizing kids, like asking you what actors you find sexy, or if you have a boyfriend. Why do you think that is?
MW: I think that happens because they find it amusing. David Sedaris wrote in one of his books that people like to make children into little grown-ups, which to him is about as funny as a dog in sunglasses. Honestly, I think a dog in sunglasses is kind of funny, but that’s what they like to do.
People seem to forget what it was like to be a child. I think it’s partly because they want to forget, because it usually wasn’t as good as you thought it was, and so you want to skip over those things, and not have to relate to that anymore. They want to bring kids to their level, and they want to make it seem like kids have this thing. It’s seen as funny to them.
I can’t even count how many times I did interviews with people and they asked me if I had a boyfriend. Keep in mind that I was, I guess, mild to moderately famous from ages 6 to 13. Of course I didn’t have a boyfriend then. I didn’t even have a camp boyfriend then. I was such a nerd. It just wasn’t something I would have wanted. And I didn’t want to act like an adult.
They do it because they think it’s funny—because it’s easier to see children as mini adults than it is to imagine or to remember what it is to be a child again. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I’ve always really loved stories told from the point of view of children. I remember reading To Kill A Mockingbird when I was 12. What I liked about it is that it was all seen through a child’s eyes. It was Harper Lee going back and writing it from the way a child would see those things. And that was something that really impressed me, because it felt like so often people just kind of grew up and discovered sex and that changed everything, which sounds a little C.S. Lewis when I’m talking about it, but that’s what I thought as a kid. I didn’t trust adults because I thought they were all kind of corrupted. I thought children were pure and innocent, and that was inherently better. I guess I was a philosophical child.
AVC: That’s certainly clear in the book.
MW: I’ve been accused of being pretentious and insufferable, and I don’t really know what I can say about that. I never got good grades in school, but I did read the dictionary for fun. That was just the kind of stuff that I liked to do. I can’t apologize for that. I’m not trying to be an asshole about it, and I’m not trying to get attention for it. It’s just the way that I am. It was something I was obsessed with as a child.
I remember doing that horrible thing that girls do where they call another girl a slut. Eventually, I got old enough that I realized that a slut is just somebody who has made out with or had sex with one more person than you have. That’s the thing. It’s always, “I’m not a slut.” Well, unless you’re reclaiming it, I suppose. But it’s something that you call somebody in opposition to yourself. It’s really about what you think about yourself. That’s really implied in that.
AVC: Did you feel any pressure when you wrote the book to be revealing or to be titillating? Did you think, “I have to tell juicy stories about other actors,” or, “I have to tell the story about the first time I had sex?”
MW: There were some things that I knew I wasn’t going to talk about, and not just because one or two of my exes have gone to law school. There were things that I knew that I was going to keep to myself. I knew I didn’t want to put anything down in writing about the first time that I had sex. I knew that I didn’t want to do that.
The Hollywood stuff in the book tended to come later. I think it was because I was worried about leading with that stuff. I wanted to try to make sure that the other stories in the book were as interesting. I wanted to spend more time on them and craft them. The thing is, with writing, it’s form or content. You need to write about something interesting or you need to write about it in an interesting way. So I really wanted to make sure that that was good, that those things could stand on their own next to Hollywood stories. Because there is something inherently funny about accidentally elbowing Jonathan Taylor Thomas in the groin.
There was actually one story that we ended up scrapping, and it was basically just an introduction to how I got into acting. In it, I talked about my first commercials and the things my agents told me, and how I didn’t even realize this at the time, but I was in my first commercial when I was a baby, and I had no idea. I thought I started acting at 5 or 6, it was really when they were interviewing real families for a toothpaste commercial. They interviewed our family. I watched the video when I was 20, and in the video, there are two families. The first family is this smiling blond Partridge family, a Californian/Aryan kind of thing, all playing guitars, all singing together and harmonizing. And then, there’s my family—and in my family, it starts with my mom saying that she feels like a drill sergeant sometimes, and she’s yelling at one of my brothers to stop hitting another one of my brothers. It’s just like, “Great, we’re that family.” It felt a little Simpsons versus Flanders.
But yeah, I’m a baby on my mom’s hip there. Then my oldest brother started acting. From there, I wanted to act myself. That’s the long story short. But I had this whole essay about it, and it was very much based on this one-woman show I had done in college that was all about it. That was me explaining to everybody else at NYU why I wasn’t acting anymore. But my editor said to me, “You know, I don’t think we need it.” And I looked at the rest of what we had, and I said, “Yeah, you know, I think you’re right.” We took one or two excerpts from it for the first couple of essays, and for the prologue, but it didn’t feel that it was necessary. I was thinking to myself, “Do I really need to justify this? Do I need to explain this? Do I need to have the beginning, middle, and end of when I started acting, and when I finished? Or is there stuff that I could just leave for people to think about on their own?” And that’s what I did. I wrote about my life in these bits and pieces, and people can get a clear picture of me from that.
AVC: You said in the book that fame never seemed to work in your favor when you were in school. What about now, as an adult?
MW: It doesn’t, really. Every now and then, something really nice will happen. I was getting keys for my apartment, and I asked if I could get doubles, because I’m forgetful, and the woman there said, “Yeah, but it costs $5.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” But then she said, “Actually, you know what, I’m just going to give it to you for free. You were in that movie Mrs. Doubtfire, and that movie really helped me out in a time when I needed it. It got me through something, and it made me laugh when I needed to laugh. So thank you so much for that.” And I was just amazed. That said, nobody’s going to let Matilda into a club, even if I did go clubbing. Nobody cares about that. I do have guys every now and then who say—it’s always guys by the way, it’s never women—who say, “You were my childhood crush, can we date?” And I’m like, “There’s something kind of creepy about that. Do you hear yourself?”
I think in some ways, it did work in my favor. My grades in high school were not very good. I was that kind of perfectionist that figured if you can’t do it perfectly, why do it at all? So my grades weren’t great, but I feel like, is there any other way that I could have gotten into NYU? I don’t know. I think that it definitely worked in my favor in some ways. Do people think I’m cool because I was in a movie when I was a child? No. Well, maybe a little bit more than they used to. There’s definitely a nostalgia factor. Whereas when I was a teenager, other teenagers didn’t want anything to do with me. It was even like that in college to a degree. People of that age don’t want anything to do with their childhood, because they had put away childish things, and they’re trying to distance themselves.
People view child actors the same way that girls treat their Barbie dolls. There’s a reason that girls cut off all their Barbie doll’s hair and dye it and do things like that. I destroyed my Barbie dolls, and I know other girls did as well. And that’s kind of the way they see kids movies and child actors in kids movies, as something that you’ve moved on from. It’s babyish. But now, I’m in my late 20s, and people are coming around to it again. I think they’re realizing how much this stuff affects them. I think all the time about how much Judy Blume affected me, or Beverly Cleary. And I think that now some people are starting to come around and get more of an appreciation for [my stuff].
As for being cool, I don’t know. I’ve never considered myself cool, and I don’t think I ever will be. Honestly, it’s better that way. It’s much less pressure.