Matilda's Mara Wilson Tells Us About "Prettygirls" & Power

Photo: Rockie Nolan for Refinery29.
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I do not recognize Mara Wilson when she arrives at an ice cream shop in Brooklyn, wearing a red dress and a sweep of black eyeliner. When she says hello, her voice is a deeper echo of something familiar. It only clicks in my brain when I realize that I've been keeping an eye out for the little girl who played the titular lead in Matilda. But of course, she is all grown up now.

That, in a nutshell, is the reason that Wilson — former child star, current debut author — wrote a book about her post-Hollywood life. She needed to reconcile, on the record, the little girl she once was with the person she is now. Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame is a treasure trove of nostalgia that will resonate for anyone who watched her movies in the '90s. It's also a beautifully written memoir about Wilson's actual life: how losing her mother plummeted her into a period of anxious unrest, what happens to a young girl when her cute factor has worn off, and how storytelling can be a saving grace.

Wilson is a sharp observer of the human condition who is also charmingly goofy and even a little geeky. Her book is relatable not because of who she was, but for the person she is now — insightful, slightly sardonic, and someone who is unafraid be vulnerable.

"My name is Mara Wilson, I have a mouthful of ice cream right now," Wilson says, as we're getting started. It's a hot day, and her cone is dripping onto her hands. For a second I get a flash of what she must have looked like as a child — not on the big screen — but in real life. But just as quickly, she gets the ice cream back under control. If that's not a sign of having grown up, I don't know what is.

So why did you write a book about your life so far?
"I tried writing a couple of different things: I tried writing a young adult book, I was writing plays, and then I started doing storytelling. I felt like that was where I had the most interest, telling stories about my life. So I pitched a couple of different book ideas, and people were saying to me: Well, why don’t you talk about your life first? And I was like: Maybe I will."

Did you feel at all like you needed to get the life story stuff out of the way?
"Yeah, it was definitely cathartic — I definitely did need to get that out of the way. I also wanted to prove to people that I could actually write, to show people like: Okay, yes I’ll answer this question first before I go into anything else. But this was also what I wanted to do. This was a balance between the two. Also if anyone is going to listen to me talk about myself I’m more than happy to."

Can you talk a little more about why you decided to put your acting career to bed?
"It was this cool novelty — this thing that I could do that I liked, and it was easier for me [then] because I didn’t feel self-conscious. I used to be able to cry on cue... I was a bad liar but a decent enough actor. I liked the challenge of it; there was something about it that felt satisfying to me. Then I didn’t have to audition anymore, [but] there aren’t very many good parts for girls at that age. Also, after my mother died — my mother was such a force. She never would have called herself my manager but unofficially she was.

I’m a firm believer that what girls want, more than anything, is power.

Mara Wilson
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"I think that it was harder to do without her. I was insecure about my body and the way that I looked eventually, and I felt nervous and vulnerable. You have to be emotionally open to be an actor, and when you are a preteen girl whose mother has just died and you’re going through puberty — sad, angry, and confused — you just can’t be. It just didn’t feel right anymore.

"Also I do think that even if my mom hadn’t died I would have outgrown it. The way I’ve explained it to kids who were like, ‘Why did you give up, you were famous?’ is ‘Did you ever play a sport when you were younger?' And they’re like ‘Yeah I used to play soccer.’ Do you want to be a professional soccer player? No, it’s too much work, that lifestyle is really exhausting."

Being famous now and knowing what that looks like in 2016, I should think it was terrifying.
“If I’m never any more famous then I am now, I think I would be okay with that. I like my cult following. I like that there are people out there that will probably buy my book and read it. I like that aspect of it — I don’t need to be on Beyoncé’s level. That’s not who I am and that doesn’t really appeal to me. I guess if you want to be famous that’s one thing, but that was never my goal. Although I guess you don’t really have that many goals when you’re five, you know? Other than to like lose teeth someday and be able to go on the big rides."

Part of surviving the fame game must be keeping some things close to your chest.
"There is power in having secrets. Secrets are a valuable resource now, because they’re so rare... That’s something that I do struggle with every day, as someone who tweets every day. I also try to think: Is this interesting to anybody but me?"
Photo: Rockie Nolan for Refinery29.
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You tweeted something that got a lot of attention after the Pulse shooting, where you talked about hetero, bi, and queer labels. Would you be willing to expand on that comment?
"I think there are things you can admit to yourself that you can’t admit to other people — I mean, that’s keeping secrets right there...I did not intend on coming out. That was definitely an emotional decision based on a lot of stressors in my life.

"I worried that I was going to live in fear: What if I was dating a girl and I kissed her in public and people tweeted about it? Or I thought it would be one of those things that everybody kind of assumes but there’s never any official statement? These things never happen the way you would like them to, but I can’t go back now. I’m okay with that, because now I’m not afraid. Once the shock wore off it’s been a lot easier, I would say."

You also managed to avoid being a young star who became a train wreck in the public eye.
"I suppose I’m a Goody Two-shoes [laughs]. Especially having played Matilda, I knew there were girls looking up to me and I didn’t want to disappoint them. And that’s a lot of pressure — it’s somebody’s eyes on you all the time and that was hard for me. I think I’ve generally lived like a good person. I think that it might just be the way that I’m wired. I’m a perfectionist. I feel responsible and — I just feel these things, I always have. I’ve never been a carefree person, even when I was a child. You know, you need some of those people in the world but you also need people to worry and obsess over every little thing."

That's something you deal with from your own life in the book, anxiety and control issues. Do you think any of that stems from losing a parent so young?
"I think that I couldn’t deal with it head-on. I think that, subconsciously, I knew that my mother was sick and was dying. But I couldn’t accept it. My mother and I hadn’t had that kind of split yet, that you get when you’re a teenager. So it was hard, it was really hard for me to even imagine this person who I felt knew me better than anybody else — because she did — to imagine her gone.

"So I think I started worrying about other things instead — things that were less likely to happen, or things that would hurt me. Although I do think that I was born an anxious kid, and I definitely would have developed some obsessive compulsive traits even if she hadn’t gotten sick. There’s no question that her loss shaped me. The only thing that makes me sad is how for so long I was focused on her loss, and not her. That is another reason I wanted to write this book is: There’s a lot of her in this."

Changing tacks a little bit: I wanted to talk to you about body-positivity...
"That reminds me I need to put on more lipstick. [laughs]"

But do you ever find it hard to be a woman in the world today?
"Oh yeah, all the time. I always thought of myself as not very good at being a girl — that I was never naturally good at being pretty [or] glamorous. It’s one of the big reasons why I don’t want to be acting. The beauty standard there is just — it’s scary. It’s intense. It’s much more than I would want to deal with. The thing about Hollywood is that it’s not immoral, it’s amoral, you know? You are a pawn in the game and you can’t take it personally when they say, ‘You don’t look this way, you don’t weigh the right weight, you don’t do this, we don’t want these people.’ They see you as someone to fill in as part of a grander vision. So your life isn’t really your own, and you kind of have to accept that to be a part of it. I didn’t want to accept it."

I worried that I was going to live in fear. What if I was dating a girl and I kissed her in public and people tweeted about it?

Mara Wilson
You used this word in your book that I thought was great, prettygirls, as one word for a particular kind of girl.
“Pretty privilege is a thing... I think that girls who grew up truly pretty, a lot of them just don’t really understand that they have that. I mean, I didn’t understand really that I was cute until I wasn’t cute anymore. I didn’t understand that I’d lost a superpower. It was one I didn’t particularly want, I felt it kind of boxed me in. But it was this power that I had and then I lost it.”

As you've gotten older, do you ever find that people are almost reticent to see you as an adult because they have you fixed in their mind as a child star?
"It was hard for me to figure out I [thought]: Okay, if I talk about it then everybody thinks that I’m throwing my weight around. If I didn’t talk about it people were like ‘You’re so ungrateful, why are you hiding from it...’ Eventually I found a happy medium. The thing that bothers me now is when people take the wrong messages from things that I did. They’re like, ‘Oh Matilda had magic powers.’ and I’m like, 'guys it was an allegory.' Or when people are just like, ‘You’ll always be little Matilda to me.’ It’s like when you meet your mom's friends and they [say], ‘I remember when you were this big’ — it’s forever pushing you down. Or when people say that I ruined their childhoods. I get that a lot: that they’re sad that their childhoods are over now. I’m like: Yeah, that’s how that works. Now you can grow up. There are fringe benefits to growing up."

What don't you want people to take away from your book?
"I don’t want them to think that I am ungrateful for the opportunities that I had. I don’t want them to think that I’m unhappy with where I am. I think that that’s the thing generally with my life: I’m pretty content. My childhood — I’m not going to say it was bad, because it wasn’t, but it was tumultuous at times. It was unsteady and there were times that I was sad and lonely and even when people [say], ‘The 90’s were awesome’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but they were also the time that my mom died. They were also the time I was having panic attacks every day. I can’t look at them through rose-colored glasses.

"Even when Matilda came out I was severely depressed, and I would have changed places with another person in a heartbeat. Not because of Matilda, but just because I was sad because of everything else happening in my life. I will say that my 20s, relatively speaking, have been much calmer and much happier. Chasing happiness, people realize eventually, is a futile pursuit because it’s meant to happen in small doses so you don’t choke on it. It’s like holidays: If a holiday is every single day, it gets boring."

Looking back, how do you feel about Matilda now?
"I think that it’s empowering without being cloying [or] facile — without being like, 'You’re a star, you’re perfect, you can do anything,’ which is you know a nice message but not entirely true... A lot of people were mad because at the end Matilda keeps her powers, whereas in the book she loses them because she is expending mental energy on studying. But I think that it’s also interesting that she keeps them and she chooses to do good with them [in the movie]. I think that that’s why it has prevailed. It shows how starved we are for empowered — and particularly — female characters. These characters that are young and intelligent and have power.

"I’m a firm believer that what girls want, more than anything, is power. I think that it’s hard to tell because it doesn’t look like what typical male power structures look like — it’s a different kind of power. It means so much to me that I was able to do that, that I was able to be a part of that: to show that it’s okay to be smart, and it’s okay to read, and it’s okay to work hard, and be yourself. I had no idea at the time that I was participating in something so great. But I think that I have come to appreciate it and it’s why it was my favorite movie that I was part of."

Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson was released on September 13, 2016.
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