At the age of 6, Mara Wilson landed the role of a lifetime as Matilda, the plucky heroine from the Roald Dahl novel that was adapted into a popular film in 1996. Even though Wilson was very young, she still remembers her time as Matilda, who uses her powers (and brains!) to defeat the despicable school headmistress, the evil Mrs. Trunchbull. The shoot took place during an innocent summer in Los Angeles. There was an endless supply of Popsicles to keep the child actors cool between takes. The late author’s wife, Felicity Dahl, and daughter, Lucy, visited the set. Danny DeVito, who played Matilda’s crooked car salesman dad, performed double duty as the director.
All these years later, Mara is still mistaken for Matilda or called Matilda by fans. She’ll tell them, “That’s not who I am!” Still, the two share some similarities. Mara’s parents, who met at Northwestern University, raised all their children to be voracious readers like Matilda. “I loved the book,” Wilson, now 25, says. “It was strange to me, because this was something I used to go around quoting to my brother.” Nevertheless, she almost lost the part. Her agent was on the phone one day with her mother, talking about all the scripts they had passed on, including Matilda. “Send us that one,” Suzie Wilson said
In the book, Matilda overcame her neglectful parents by teaching herself how to read Dickens and perform complicated math. Wilson was a prodigy too. She was one of the most prominent child actors of the ’90s, having appeared in Mrs. Doubtfire and Miracle on 34th Street, but Matilda elevated her career.
On a recent spring night, Mara and I are having dinner at Joe Allen’s, the renowned Manhattan-theater-district restaurant. We’re on our way to see Matilda the Musical, based on Dahl’s 1988 story that enchanted a generation of girls before Hermione Granger or Katniss Everdeen. The stage production made its debut on London’s West End in 2011, sweeping the Olivier Awards (the English Tony Awards), and opened last week on Broadway to rave reviews that compared it with The Lion King. Onstage, four different young actresses play our heroine, but they all owe a debt to Wilson. It’s impossible to reread Dahl’s book and not see her face or hear her determined, steady voice from the film. In both the book and movie, Matilda saves her peers from Mrs. Trunchbull, a towering villainess who likes to chuck small kids over the school fence like a shot put. Matilda wins through her intelligence and a blossoming superpower to levitate objects with her mind. “As a character, I love her,” Wilson says. “She makes the best of being smart, and she’s eternally curious and down to earth about her intelligence. It’s about the actual pursuit of learning. As literary as it is, I feel like she’s a scientist.”
At the movies, Matilda’s box-office grosses were modest at $33.4 million, but the film became a cult hit. Many millennials grew up with the image of Wilson smiling at them from the VHS box. “I’m really proud of the movie,” Wilson says. “I’m proud of what I did, and I’m proud of what it was. It took me a while to get there, because for a while everybody was calling me Matilda.” She made two other children’s films, A Simple Wish and Thomas and the Magic Railroad, before she quit Hollywood in 2000 because she thought movie acting had become monotonous. She studied interdisciplinary drama at NYU to learn how to create and produce theater.
Wilson now writes on different platforms and genres. Her witty sense of humor is perfectly suited for Twitter. (Her feed was recently featured on BuzzFeed: “Yesterday I was recognized on 34th Street. The Irony was not lost on me.”) The theme of adolescence seems to touch all her work. She writes funny short stories, vignettes about her childhood and family that are David Sedaris-like on her blog, MaraWilsonWritesStuff.com. She’s working on a screenplay set in college, a stage play about teenagers, and a young adult novel. She’s also a staff member at the nonprofit PubliColor, which paints New York schools.
It’s almost as if being a child actor for so long has made Wilson an ambassador to the adolescent world. She's still figuring out how much she should publicly talk about her acting career. “It’s something I’m still coming to terms with,” she says. “It was generally a good experience.” But at the same time “it was very limiting to me and felt frustrating to me. It was also hard because it meant I had to keep living up to that, I’d have to surpass it. I wanted to be myself. How could you be yourself when you spent most of your life being someone else?” She believes this is why so many child actors revert to childlike behavior. They feel like their own childhoods were snatched away from them.
Wilson doesn’t feel that way—she says that when she was little it was her decision to act. She did, however, always feel like an adult, even when she was a child. “Maybe I was jealous of the adults,” she says. “Maybe I was around adults so much, I felt left out. I wanted to be that.” One of her favorite memories at a red carpet was meeting Jodie Foster, who knelt down to speak at her level. She eventually had to navigate some tricky adult topics. She got glimpses of sex while playing a kid on the original Melrose Place and when she Googled herself. “Ten years ago, on the Internet, there were things I had to deal with that were just awful,” she says. “I was on foot-fetish websites when I was 12, which is a great thing to tell parents if you don’t want them to get their kids acting.” Some of her Twitter followers will tell her, “It’s really depressing you have boobs.” They want her to stay in a metaphorical Neverland.
At the theater Wilson tells me about how she once auditioned for the new Parent Trap but lost the role to Lindsay Lohan because she wasn't old enough. None of the fans in the audience of Matilda the Musical realize there’s another Matilda in their midst. The musical includes the infectious number “When I Grow Up,” choreographed to schoolchildren on swings, daydreaming about what they’ll do as adults. Like in the book, Matilda finds comfort in her teacher Miss Honey, although Trunchbull tries to destroy them both. “I thought it brought Roald Dahl’s vision to life,” Wilson later tells me over a glass of wine. “The exaggeration is all there. I think the sweetness of Matilda is there too. They did make it so the Wormwoods [Matilda’s parents] were vile people in a way that people today are vile. Like, Mrs. Wormwood very much wants to be the center of attention. She’s a reality-TV star. She wants to be Kardashian-esque.” (When asked if she watches Keeping Up With the Kardashians, she replies, "I don't have cable.")
Wilson says that as she watched the musical, she remembered how it felt to read the book and make the movie. During the scene where Matilda shows Miss Honey she can move a glass of water with her eyes, Wilson flashed back to her own day on set many years ago. “There was a feeling of power when I did that,” she says. “It really did feel like I was doing something, like I was accomplishing something.” Wilson believes this is the key to the appeal of Matilda. “It’s a feeling of being able to have power despite being ostensibly powerless, a feeling of being understood by somebody after not being understood for a long time,” she explains. “I think a lot of people could relate to Matilda. I know that I could.”
But why did she ever feel powerless? Wilson takes a moment to answer. When she started filming Matilda, her mom was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer. Suzie Wilson underwent chemotherapy and a mastectomy, but she still bravely accompanied her daughter to set on most days like nothing was wrong. “My mom was sick for about a year, and in a child’s terms, that was a very long time,” Wilson says. “After a while, it didn’t seem like she had a life-threatening illness. It seemed just like a chronic condition, like having a mom who had asthma or diabetes that was under control. I guess I never knew how serious it was. Being Matilda allowed me to escape.” Her mom died in 1996, right before Matilda was released in theaters. Looking back, Wilson says she wishes that she had taken some time off to deal with her grief. But she was young, and she used work as a defense mechanism.
“Matilda was the last time I felt like a kid,” she says. “I just remember being exhausted and frustrated and confused and sad and scared.” She concedes that her mother’s death played some role in her eventual decision to leave the business. “My father had a job and other children to raise,” she says. “I think that after that, I did a lot of whatever movie I was offered, whereas before I felt like we were a little more choosy. And it was harder after that—for all of us. Everybody in the family was juggling different things.”
“It felt tedious,” she says of her later film roles. “It wasn’t until I started doing theater productions in school that I felt the passion again. It was just me on stage. I felt like I was in control of it.” Even though she doesn’t act in movies, she does storytelling at places like the People’s Improv Theater and Union Hall. Unlike most child stars, she’s happy with her transition to adulthood, and she’s managed to let Matilda go. “It almost feels sometimes that Matilda is out in the ether,” she says. “I was channeling her, and it’s like she exists somewhere.” And there are other Matildas now. “I feel like I’ve passed the torch,” Wilson says.