According to the author of Mara Wilson Writes Stuff, this is the one question she’s asked most frequently: “Are you Matilda?” The answer: “No, but I played her in a movie.”
That movie, of course, is the 1996 kid cinema classic Matilda, which stars Wilson as a neglected child genius who channels her intellectual frustration into telekinesis. But while Matilda Wormwood will always be a six-year-old prodigy – not only in the film, but also in Roald Dahl’s original novel and a smash hit Tony-winning musical – Wilson herself is all grown up.
The onetime child star quit acting in her early teens – “I like to think of it as a mutual break-up: Hollywood didn’t really want me anymore, and I was over it, too,” she explains on her site – and chose instead to live a relatively normal life, attending a regular high school followed by New York University. She currently lives in New York City, where she juggles a day job at a nonprofit with various writing and storytelling gigs – as well as a very popular Twitter account. (Her profile got a major boost last May, when Wilson weighed in on Amanda Bynes’s struggles with an article explaining why child stars tend to go nuts.)
In honor of Matilda’s new Blu-ray release, Wilson called up EW to chat about the making of the movie, her weird connection to Blake Lively, and awkward encounters with other child stars – as well as what she’s working on now. (Hint: Think memoir.)
Roald Dahl had a twisted sense of humor that can be hard to replicate onscreen. Looking back, do you think that Matilda is true to the book?
I do. I know a lot of British fans in particular will object because it wasn’t British, and I can understand their frustration – Roald Dahl is something of a national treasure there. [And] I know some people are also a bit frustrated because Matilda keeps her powers at the end, which is a little bit different from the book. But I do think that it stayed true to the heart of the book, which is that knowledge is power, and you can find yourself in books and learning and reading.
You were a fan of the book before you did the movie, correct?
Oh yeah. I was a huge fan. My whole family were fans. My mother used to read Matilda out loud at the elementary school. I remember once when I was home sick from preschool, she took me along with her, and I just sat in the back and listened and was entranced. I would quote it at my older brothers. It was a family tradition. And then we got the script – my agent almost passed on it at first, because there were so many scripts coming in at the time. I remember just falling in love with the script, and laughing out loud, and thinking, “This is perfect. I want this. I really, really want to do this.” And then going in to audition for Danny and just feeling an instant connection with him.
What did you do in your audition?
I watched the video later on, and a lot of it is just me sitting and talking with Danny. I’m talking to him about, you know, my adventures in first grade. [Laughs] He told me later, “I knew I wanted you for Matilda from the moment you walked in.” And I don’t know if he’s just being nice, but I do definitely feel like there was a rapport there from the beginning.
What was the best advice he gave you while you were filming the movie?
Umm, I’m not sure. There was so much! One of them was, if people are giving you negative reviews or something like that, just don’t pay attention to it. Another thing was, take everything seriously, but have a sense of humor about what’s happening on set. There’s always going to be some technical things going wrong. Always do one more take for safety. One thing that I loved about Danny was that he really knew how to tell a story. He was very expressive. Rhea [Perlman] and Danny, they felt like an aunt and uncle [to me]. They felt familial by the end.
How scary was it inside The Chokey?
Oh, God. That was, like, the only time on set I was actually afraid. I wasn’t afraid of The Trunchbull because [actress] Pam Ferris is just the nicest woman ever. But the small spaces – I was not a fan of small spaces at the time. Also, it smelled really bad in there because of the smoke machine they were using. When I get pulled out of The Chokey, I’m holding my hands over my face; that’s because it smelled really bad. And I remember once they put me in there and closed the door, and then Danny said, “Okay guys, we’re going to lunch!” And I started banging on the door like, “Guys, let me out!”
We would play pranks on each other – there was a great sense of fun on that set. I remember Embeth [Davidtz, who played Miss Honey] showed me one where we took a plate and we covered it with water, and then we put a hair on the plate, and we’d say, “Come look at this hair! It’s growing! Isn’t that unbelievable?” And then we would hit the plate, and the water would go flying. We did something that we used to do on [Mrs.] Doubtfire, where we would write things on clothespins and pin them to people. There were so many kids there – we had our own little school set up, and we had our own classroom, and we even had this old filing cabinet that we called The Chokey.
It’s funny what you said about Pam Ferris – I know IMDB isn’t always the most reliable source, but their trivia page says that she’d stay in character after Danny called cut and try to scare the kids.
You know, I think she tried. She was telling me actually that she tried so hard during Matilda to do that. But the kids – I don’t know if they maybe saw me interacting with her, because I remember meeting her in pre-production and her just being so sweet, showing us pictures of her cats. She said that for the first few weeks, she was trying to stay in character, but then one of the little girls on the set came up and talked to her just like she was a friend. And she’s like, “Okay, they know my secret. They know I’m a big softie.”
You mentioned Mrs. Doubtfire, which turns 20 years old this fall. I was looking through your Twitter, and I saw something about how Blake Lively also auditioned for the part you ended up getting in that movie.
Yeah, I heard that. I don’t know how true that is. And it’s funny, because Blake Lively and I could not be more different. But the thing is, there were so many actors and actresses who grew up in southern California. You know? Everybody took their kids out for pilot season. I only acted because my older brother had done a few little things. It was remarkable to me that someone would uproot their entire family because they believed in their kids, whereas my parents didn’t really want me to go into acting. They were anti-stage parents. But anyway, what were you saying?
I just thought that piece of trivia was pretty cool, if it is actually true.
Yeah, I mean – I think she does the celebrity thing way better than I do. She’s very stylish, and beautiful, and I do like her. I’ve seen her in a couple movies. But my life could not be any more different than hers.
Although you have become something of an Internet celebrity.
Yeah, I do have an Internet celebrity. I think I’m becoming – not as well known as him – but kind of a female Wil Wheaton. Wil Wheaton has a big internet following, and he’s a big nerd, and I’m a big nerd – which is fitting, considering Matilda. But I am getting a bit of a cult following. And that’s nice. Every now and then I’ll get people following me saying, “Oh, I just thought you were funny. I had no idea you played Matilda.” And I appreciate my fans, but that can also be heartening. Like, “Oh, okay, people appreciate me as an adult too.”
Have you ever considered getting rid of the bangs, so you’re less recognizable?
[Laughs] No – I have what gossip columnists call a “fivehead.” Sometimes, if I wear my hair differently, people won’t recognize me, but I guess that [hairstyle] is my signature.
In your Cracked article about kid actors, you call NYU “where child stars come to die.”
I didn’t actually call it that – there was a Facebook group called that. And I remember finding it really funny, because the person who [created it] – he was really bitter. He’s like, “Well, we didn’t pay our way through being cute.” I remember looking at his Facebook profile, and he was, like, the WASPiest thing you could ever imagine – the wealthiest prep school kid.
Oh, so his life was really hard.
Exactly! He had like, three surnames. His name was like, Frasier Simpson Something IV. And I was just like, “Dude, I actually worked for my money. I sold out in advance.”
Did you have any funny encounters with other child stars in college?
Oh, yeah. There were times when Haley Joel Osment and I would be in the dining hall together. I remember we would kind of eye each other and then look away. It’s like, a law of physics that two former child stars can’t spend that much time in the same area or something will explode.
Have you considered writing a memoir about your time as an actor?
Oh yeah, definitely. I am working on a book right now. It’s not all about those experiences, but a part of it is. It made me, as much as growing up Jewish, growing up with three older brothers, my mother dying [shortly after Wilson filmed Matilda] – it’s a big part of my life.
Are you going to call it Mara Wilson Writes a Book?
My working title right now is actually K for Kid, because when I was on the Melrose Place set, they would put a (K) next to my name. They needed to differentiate me from the rest of the cast, because I was the only child. And I think that’s sort of a theme in my life: being a child surrounded by adults, being a girl surrounded by boys. Being places that maybe I shouldn’t have been or I didn’t feel like I belonged – and getting to be an insider but still being an outsider.
Matilda is out on Blu-ray today.