“Apparently, I was famous once,” says Mara Wilson, evoking giggles and Matilda-era reminiscing from the audience at her one woman show, “Weren’t You That Girl?” Having starred in films like “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Miracle on 34th St,” and of course, the childhood favorite, “Matilda,” Mara was more than just famous Labyrinth download. She was like the poster-child for kiddie stardom in the mid 1990’s.
Regardless of her atypical past, Mara’s a normal college senior now. Excepting that her childhood stories are actually worth retelling. While you and I were making macaroni art, Mara, wanting to be professional, was finishing her lines before bursting into tears when her on-screen “Mom” accidentally kicked a soccer ball into her chest.
During the three day run of “Weren’t You That Girl?” a small TV screen overheard played clips from some of Mara’s films and appearances, nicely supplementing stories like these. And then there were the more raw moments in the show, when Mara talked about the real human her, not Mara the child star.
By the end of the performance, it becomes pretty clear that what you think you know about “child star” Mara Wilson is far off the mark. Former child stars tend to end up more like Lindsay Lohan or the Olsen twins, in rehab and without real careers, not graduating college. “I’m just not like them,” she says. “I’m not very glamorous; I’m a nerd.”
So here’s what the self-proclaimed nerd had to say when I interviewed her after the show:
Q: It seemed like you wanted to maintain your privacy while here at NYU, and then, you do a show in which you really open up. I think it’s interesting to ask, ‘Why’?
I’ve never really thought of myself as a big famous person. It just never appealed to me. And I’ve been out of the public eye for so long that when I came here, I didn’t really think people thought I was that interesting anymore. I didn’t send out a press release. I don’t like to draw unnecessary attention to myself for what I did as a child; there was a time when I wouldn’t bring it up. When people brought it up, it was a little like when someone brings up an embarrassing memory, like, ‘Remember that time when you were at the water park and your top fell off?’
It was just not what I wanted to be known for. And I really tried to play it down: when people asked me [about my past film career] I’d acknowledge it but then move on. I really don’t think I fit the stereotype of a former child actor: if anything, I fit more of the stereotype of the former high school drama nerd. I don’t want to be forever riding on the accomplishments of my six year old self. This was something that I didn’t think I could do.
Q: The piece? Why?
It was hard for me to talk about this for a long time—not because it was a traumatic experience, but there was just a lot of baggage associated with it and I wasn’t clear headed about it yet. I started writing a lot more in college—I’ve been writing plays, mostly—but when I started to write autobiographical stories, people were saying, “You know, you’ve had a really interesting life”. And I thought, “Oh, well, maybe I have. Maybe I should tell more people about it.” And I got a little more comfortable sharing my stories. This was sort of an experiment; I wanted to open up about these things and also to explain myself, because I don’t talk about it that often. I’m not what I was. Obviously, I’ve grown up since then. But it is still a part of who I am, and this is me coming to embrace it.
Q: So up until now, you didn’t feel like you had really embraced your past?
I think it was just that I was a little embarrassed about it. I’ve always felt very separate from it, even when I was young and living it. It always scared me when I would have a brush with fame, like when I’d be walking down the street and people would know my name. It was like I was watching myself from the outside. And I feel like the rest of the world knew a Mara that wasn’t really me.
Q: When you first came to NYU, was that hard? Were people recognizing you?
I remember cringing a bit and thinking, “Oh no, they’re going to lump me with the Olsen twins”. I’m not an Olsen twin. And the thing is, I have nothing against the Olsen twins. I’m just not like them. I’m not very glamorous; I’m a nerd. I came to NYU for academic purposes and it was strange to me when I lived in Weinstein and I would find people knocking on my door late at night, like Thursday night at 12 am. I would open the door in my pajamas and there’d be a crowd of freshman girls, saying ‘Are you Mara?’ ‘Uhhh, yeah’. And they’d say “Well, we just really wanted to meet you.” And then they’d look really disappointed, because they probably expected at least for me to be wearing more than my pajamas. I felt bad, like I was letting them down because I wasn’t being glamorous, because I wasn’t the exciting person they thought I would be. And then they would often ask me to party with them…
Q: Just to be like… “Oh, I partied with Matilda?!”
I guess so. And I never did, I mean, I am really not a partier, and second of all, would you party with people you didn’t know who showed up at your door late at night on a school night? Would they have done that? No. There were safety issues.
Q: It wasn’t flattering at all? Any of it?
It was flattering, just a little strange. As a child I didn’t really take it as a compliment when people would say these things to me. I never really took pride in my acting. I never knew the magnitude of it. It didn’t even register with me. Part of that was because my parents tried to make sure I had a level head, but also, I was just so stubborn with myself. I couldn’t stand watching myself act because I’d always think I did so badly. I remember a couple of years ago, I saw “Matilda” on and I called my father and said, ‘Dad, I really wasn’t that good of an actress as a kid. I was really pretty bad.’ And he said, ‘Oh Mara, you were just a tiny kid then.’ It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize that, wow! I really did make an impact on these peoples’ lives, and wow, I really did mean something to these girls. And it touches me now and I’m sorry that I didn’t understand it then.
Q: But then, that whole privacy thing… do you still keep people at bay, or do you feel like you’ve let your guard down?
I would like people to know me for who I am, especially since I think people have a very skewed image of me. I was playing a lot of cute characters, a lot of little girls, I was objectified. And I don’t want people to think of me as that because it’s not who I am, and because I’ve seen a lot of hostility towards that image. It’s a version of Mara Wilson that doesn’t exist. And I’d rather be known for my accomplishments and for things that I really do take pride in, rather than known for this doll-like image I had when I was a child.
Q: So how do people at school treat you?
A lot of people don’t know; they don’t put 2 and 2 together. And then there are people who do; they make a big deal out of it for two minutes and then get to know me as a person. Then, it’s like they have this split view of me, like there’s the Mara that the world knows and then there’s the Mara that they know. When I say I want privacy, I mean I don’t want celebrity. I’ve never enjoyed being a celebrity. I’m not really celebrity material.
Q: Have you ever thought about returning to film acting?
I’ve thought about it. In film, you’re so scrutinized. I think I might like to try film again just as an experiment but I know that I could never do the mainstream thing again. I just wouldn’t be able to do that.