'Where Am I Now?' Mara Wilson Explains What Happened When Matilda Grew Up The former child actor says that the most complicated relationship she has ever had is with a fictional 6-year-old girl. "I wanted to be her so badly," Wilson says.

'Where Am I Now?' Mara Wilson Explains What Happened When Matilda Grew Up

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/493267233/493491989" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You might know her best as Roald Dahl's Matilda.


DANNY DEVITO: (As Harry Wormwood) Get in the car, Melinda.

MARA WILSON: (As Matilda Wormwood) Matilda.

DEVITO: (As Harry Wormwood) Whatever.

MARTIN: Or as Natalie Hillard in "Mrs. Doubtfire."


WILSON: (As Natalie Hillard) You can't go now.

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Daniel Hillard) Honey, I have to.

WILSON: (As Natalie Hillard) We're in the middle of "Charlotte's Web." Who's going to finish it?

MARTIN: Or maybe as Susan Walker in "Miracle On 34th Street."


WILSON: (As Susan Walker) Santa Claus - I've known for a long time. He's not real.

MARTIN: Mara Wilson was a successful child actor. That is not who she is anymore. Now she's an author. She's written a book. It is called "Where Am I Now?" And she joins us from our studios in New York. Mara, thanks for being with us.

WILSON: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So before we start talking about what's complicated about being a child actor, because a lot of things are...

WILSON: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...Let's talk about what is unequivocally great about it, because you did get to be in some amazing movies at a very young age.

WILSON: Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: Did you - did that dawn on you?

WILSON: I think it didn't really resonate with me until I got "Matilda." At that point, I was thrilled because "Matilda" was a book that I had loved, a character that I had loved. Beforehand, I think it didn't really dawn on me, and maybe it's just because I was too young. You know, I was 5, 6 years old. But, you know, it's something that I realized much later. Like, oh, wow, this is really cool.

You know, I remember I got to have, you know, the most amazing birthday party ever, courtesy of Danny DeVito and his family. I got to travel. And on a pragmatic level, it helped me pay for college. You know, I'm not a millionaire, but it was a cushion. And that is something that, you know, in this day and age, you need to think about.

MARTIN: So you were clearly good at it. What stood out to directors about you? What made you catch their eye in these auditions?

WILSON: Well, I think I had a good ear for dialogue from a young age. I think that was probably because I - that was probably because I spent a lot of times eavesdropping on my parents and my three older brothers (laughter). I loved to read from a young age, too. So because of that, I could read my lines which made things a lot easier. I don't think that I was a spectacularly cute kid. But I do think I have some of the, like, neoteny - you know, big eyes, big forehead kind of thing that indicate cuteness.


MARTIN: You do write a lot about your mom in this book.


MARTIN: She died of cancer when you were just 8.


MARTIN: Your mom had been so instrumental in your acting. How do you think her death changed your perception of that career - did it, at such a young age?

WILSON: I think - sometimes I wish that I had stopped after "Matilda" because I think that, you know, that was really the peak for me. I was already sort of starting to age out of acting. I wasn't sure if I wanted to keep going. You know, I think it would have been a good time to re-evaluate things. But I think that after my mother died, I felt like I had to keep going because film was the only constant in my life.

MARTIN: You also weren't getting the roles that you wanted.

WILSON: No, I was not. I - the thing is, they always want child actors to play parts that are a few years younger than they are. But, you know, when you're a 12-, 13-year-old girl and your body's changing and your voice is changing, you can't, you know. I couldn't play 10 anymore. I didn't look 10 anymore. And I wasn't as cute anymore because I looked halfway between a child and an adult, which was what puberty is. And people didn't know what to do with me. I knew it. And I felt it. And it really hurt.

MARTIN: There's a heartbreaking moment in the book when you were 11, 12, going through puberty.


MARTIN: And a producer came up to you and said, your body's changing.


MARTIN: Can you tell that story?

WILSON: Well, yeah. I was on the set of a movie called "Thomas And The Magic Railroad," which was, you know, it was it was a kids' movie. It was fun to make. And I came to set one day after a few months away, and people were kind of giving each other worried looks, you know, the director and the costume designers. And I had to have the director come and sit with me and explain to me that, you know, my body was changing.

And they brought out these sports bras that were basically, you know, binders. They were meant to bind my chest. I was horrified. I felt embarrassed. I felt like I'd done something wrong. You know, when you're in middle school, when you're a preteen, you always worry - is everybody talking about me behind my back, the way that I look, and everybody was.

MARTIN: You finally decided that you could let acting go. Did it sit with you OK?

WILSON: I think it was - it was kind of - there wasn't, like, one big moment where I knew I was done. There were a lot of moments where I was like, should I, should I not, should I rekindle this, should I not, you know. You know, I talked to agents, thought about going on auditions. But I don't feel like my heart was in it. And I remember, you know, in college, I would sleep through my acting classes. I would self-sabotage because I was so afraid to let people see, you know, to see me as an actor. I was at NYU, and I knew there were a lot of good actors there.

And that's when I started focusing more on writing. Now, writing I had always loved, even, you know, on the sets of the various movies. I would always be in my trailer writing stories. You know, usually very similar to whatever Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary or Bruce Coville book I was reading at the time.

And I started writing dialogue. And I started doing, like, performance pieces, you know, like, 10-minute solo performance pieces. And eventually I did a one-woman show. And that felt so much more real than being on a set every day. There's that saying, I think Uta Hagen or somebody, you know, along those lines said, if you can live without it, you should. And I found that I could.

MARTIN: You wrote an entire chapter devoted to "Matilda" in the book...


MARTIN: ...In the form of a letter.


MARTIN: How do you think of her - Matilda? What's your relationship to her?

WILSON: Well, you know, it's - I had a teacher in college who said, I think it would help you if you wrote a letter to her. Because - I like to say that the most complicated relationship I'll ever have is one with a fictional 6-year-old girl, you know, because I wanted to be her so badly. And I - it helps me, in a way, to almost imagine that she does exist. It helped when I was feeling like everybody liked her more than they liked me and that, you know, I was going to be her for the rest of my life. I was going to be in her shadow for the rest of my life.

And it really helped me to go back to the book, to think about it and realize what a privilege that was because she is this sort of archetype of a young girl who gained power through knowledge, a young girl who wasn't afraid to, you know, cause mischief and rebel against authority and a young girl who was intelligent and thoughtful and considerate of her friends. And there are a lot of girls out there like that. I think it helps to think of her as a person because then it does feel like I honored her, you know.

MARTIN: So how do you feel now about who you are and who you are independent from these characters that have been so important to you in the past?

WILSON: I feel good. I feel good about myself. And I feel like I'm sort of in control of my own story and my own narrative which is a really good feeling to have because I don't think I had that when I was a child. I felt like somebody else was always telling my story or making up stories about me. And, as I have explained, making up stories and telling true stories has always been what I wanted to do. And it is what I'm still doing.

MARTIN: Mara Wilson. Her new memoir is called "Where Am I Now?" Thanks so much, Mara.

WILSON: Thank you so much for having me.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.