Matilda’s Mara Wilson: ‘I don’t think you can be a child star without there being some kind of lasting damage’

The actor, who has turned to writing, on dealing with fame and grief at the age of nine

Mara Wilson: 'I’m at an age where I’m reflecting on a lot of my life.' Photograph: Jerod Harris/Getty Images

It never made sense to her, Mara Wilson writes in Good Girls Don’t, that the enduring image of a child actor is of a spoilt brat. “A bratty child is one who won’t do what they’re told; child actors only do what they’re told. Brats are selfish and greedy; child actors often support their families. A spoilt and misbehaving child will not get very far in the entertainment industry.” Wilson, the star of some of the biggest family films of the 90s, including Mrs Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street and Matilda, only wanted to please.

She wrote the short-form memoir – an ebook and audiobook for the digital platform Scribd – after thinking a lot about what a “good girl” she had been and the impact it has had on her life. It opens at a teen disco on a cruise with her family; Wilson, then about 16, was made to feel she had to dance with a boy, just because he was a fan (he didn’t really speak, just grinded on her). Rather than think of herself, she was worried about what everyone else would think when they saw: “Matilda’s a slut!” What she felt, or wanted, didn’t come into it. Eventually, in her later teens and 20s, Wilson rebelled against all this pressure and became, she says, angry and “a bitch”.

Wilson, now 35, has been thinking about this a lot. “I’m at an age where I’m reflecting on a lot of my life and thinking, ‘I wish I could apologise for this, I wish I could explain’,” she says (we’re talking over video call; she’s at home in LA, sitting beneath a big canvas painted by her sister, an artist). “I never thought of myself as a people-pleaser because I thought they were laid-back happy-go-lucky types, and that’s not what I was. I was more emotional, angry, easily frustrated and overwhelmed.” But it was, she realised, in response to the people-pleasing she had done all her life. “This was something that a lot of people, particularly women, told me they dealt with. They felt obliged to be the good girl. You end up acting out because you don’t really feel there’s any other way to live.”

Mara Wilson: 'People don’t realise how much constantly talking to the press as a child weighs on you.' Photograph: Elizabeth Weinberg/The New York Times

For Wilson, the expectations started at birth – she was a longed-for girl after three boys. What would have happened had she been another boy, she wonders: “How much sooner would I have had to face my greatest fear of disappointing someone?” She was loved, she says, but not spoiled. Her mother, Suzie, was Jewish; her own parents had escaped persecution in eastern Europe and went to the United States. “She was also, in her way, a people-pleaser,” says Wilson. “She had to please her parents, to take care of her family. Both her parents were severely mentally ill, and often had physical problems too.” It meant Suzie looked after them, as well as her younger siblings. “Her way of rebelling was to move away and try to reject everything they had done.”

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Suzie’s family was competitive. “She had a mother who was very into keeping up appearances. We were constantly pitted against each other when we went to see my aunts and uncles,” says Wilson. “They all thought they were the smartest, the most talented. My mother couldn’t stand that.” She loved her daughter, and was proud of her, but she was determined to instil in her the idea that she wasn’t better than anyone else. “I was an earnest, very literal child, so I think I took that too far – I took confidence to mean conceitedness, and modesty to mean self-denial and self-loathing.” It was probably what helped her get the roles in the first place; she wasn’t a smiles-and-jazz-hands theatre kid. “I think they saw my earnestness and eagerness to please.”

The family lived in Burbank, California. “It was a company town,” says Wilson (it had several production studios and the headquarters of some of the biggest entertainment companies). Her father was an engineer for the TV network NBC, and it wasn’t uncommon to see their schoolfriends in an advert or Nickelodeon show. One of Wilson’s older brothers had done a few adverts, and she wanted to have a go. It was never about becoming a star, she says – like other children in their town, it was a way to put a bit of money away for college.

I really believed that she would never die and as I’ve gotten older, she’s taken on even more of a mythical quality in my mind. To lose her felt like this incredible upheaval. I didn’t really know who I was

She did a few commercials, then went to her first audition for a film, Mrs Doubtfire, and got it. Even then, the family didn’t really think of it as a career – her mother made a scrapbook of Wilson’s time on set, including photos with the film’s star Robin Williams, as something she would probably look back on as a funny thing she had done as a six-year-old. But, she says, “it kind of snowballed”. She was cast in the Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street, then Matilda, which was released in 1996 and became a huge and enduring hit. Wilson, then nine, was famous.

This newfound fame all happened around the same time that her mother died from breast cancer. “I felt completely lost, completely unmoored,” says Wilson. “There was who I was before that, and who I was after that. She was like this omnipresent thing in my life. I really believed that she would never die and as I’ve gotten older, she’s taken on even more of a mythical quality in my mind. To lose her felt like this incredible upheaval. I didn’t really know who I was.”

Dealing with grief, and fame, felt doubly unsteady. “I don’t think you can be a child star without there being some kind of lasting damage,” she says. “The thing that people assume is that Hollywood is inherently corrupt, and there’s something about being on film sets that destroys you. For me, that was not necessarily true. I always felt safe on film sets. There were definitely some sketchy, questionable things that happened at times – adults that told dirty jokes, or sexually harassed people in front of me. People who did things like ask me if it was okay if I worked overtime, instead of asking my parents, but I never felt unsafe. I think that’s because I worked with a lot of really wonderful directors, who were used to working with children.”

I made the mistake of Googling myself when I was 12 and saw things that I couldn’t unsee

Her mother had been protective. “If she didn’t like the way that something was going, she would not hesitate to make her concerns known.” Her parents thought she would be safe if she only worked on children’s movies, “but I was still sexualised,” she says – not by the people she was working with, but by the world at large. Adult men would try to contact her. “I had people sending me inappropriate letters and posting things about me online,” she says. “I made the mistake of Googling myself when I was 12 and saw things that I couldn’t unsee.” Her photo was on porn sites, her head superimposed on to other girls’ bodies.

“People don’t realise how much constantly talking to the press as a child weighs on you,” she says. When she was seven, journalists would ask her if she knew what french kissing was, or which actor she found “sexiest”. The idea of having a fanbase came with pressure. She was grateful, she says – and aware that gratitude was non-negotiable – but also, “when you have fans, you can no longer be yourself when you’re out in public, and there were times that I was having a bad day, because I was an emotional teenager, or because my mother had just died.”

Wilson was aware, she says, that in real life she didn’t measure up. “I saw that they were disappointed that I wasn’t as smart, pretty, nice, as they expect you to be. I think they were expecting me to be Matilda, and she’s wonderful, but she’s not real. She’s brilliant in every single way. She’s smart, and kind and powerful. Then they met me, this nerdy, awkward teenager who got angry sometimes, but couldn’t even channel her anger into powers.” While Matilda uses her anger for telekinesis, Wilson’s anger just lost her friends. “I was never going to live up to that,” she says, adding that she felt she lived in Matilda’s shadow, “the way you would with a fabulous older brother or sister”.

Mara Wilson: 'There is always part of me that thinks are people going to feel sorry for me.' Photograph: Ari Scott

The pressure of expectations lasted well into her 20s. “There’s still this fear I have: if [fans] actually knew who I was, would they really like me?” She smiles. “The answer to that is some would and some wouldn’t.” She writes about being in awe of the girls at school who misbehaved and didn’t care what people thought. “I couldn’t stand to disappoint people.” She remembers reading about the toll the constant requirement to be cheerful and friendly takes on airline cabin crew, and realised it was the same for child actors – and it lasts long after their films are released. “They have to perform this cheerfulness, and this don’t-be-a-brat-iness their entire lives.”

She was also aware of what she calls “the narrative” – that child stars go off the rails. “If you put that much pressure on somebody, how do you expect them not to fail? If you let them know you’re watching their every move, they rebel, and try to form their own identity.” Her parents had put her money away and she couldn’t touch it. “But there were a lot of children whose parents didn’t do that. If you have a lot of pressure and a lot of money, it’s no surprise that so many of us get into drinking, partying, drugs. I definitely had a self-destructive streak, but it took a different mode. For me, it was a lot of hating myself and saying, like, you’re a loser, you’re a failure, you’re ugly.” Outwardly, she was easily frustrated and quick to anger. “I wasn’t a brat,” she writes, “I was a bitch.”

Her career had been slowing because she had hit puberty. Hollywood, she says, “was kind of done with me”. Earlier, on one film when she was 12, her body changed between stints of filming and she was asked by the director to wear a sports bra, ostensibly to flatten her developing breasts. Wilson was no longer considered “cute”. “It affected me for a very long time because I had this Hollywood idea that if you’re not cute any more, if you’re not beautiful, then you are worthless. Because I directly tied that to the demise of my career. Even though I was sort of burned out on it, and Hollywood was burned out on me, it still doesn’t feel good to be rejected. For a long time, I had this kind of dysmorphia about the way that I looked and I obsessed about it too much.”

I don’t know if they really know what to do with a short, curvy, Jewish brunette. I don’t want anybody telling me, ‘You need to lose 30lb and get a nose job’

At one of the last auditions she went to, the job went to a young Kristen Stewart. “You think, ‘I’m ugly, I’m fat’ – and there were actual websites and newspapers and movie reviewers saying that about me. It got to the point where I became much more guarded, more anxious and depressed and cynical, and when you’re like that, it’s very hard to land a role, because in an audition, you have to be open and honest. It took a toll on me.”

Wilson was eventually diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) by a psychiatrist, who also mentioned she could have post-traumatic stress disorder. “I was starting to realise stuff about my sexuality [she came out as bisexual in 2016] that I tried to ignore, because I thought, ‘There’s already too much going on with me – I can’t have this as a problem, too.’ I had obsessions and compulsions that were driving me crazy. I worried all the time about God and religion, and the world. I was angry and stressed out, and my dad said, ‘You can always take time off acting.’ So I did.”

The first stage of Wilson’s career was over. She went to a performing arts boarding school, paid for with her own earnings, where she discovered a love of writing – she wrote about her mother’s death for the first time – and theatre, then to New York University. She wrote, and appeared at spoken word clubs, while working as a barista or nanny and worried she would be recognised and end up in one of those where-are-they-now? articles on the internet. A couple of years ago, she considered going for a job at a shop in LA, but decided that in a place like that, people would recognise her. “That is also part of ‘the narrative’ – feeling sad for child actors. I was just like, ‘Get over your ego – people don’t care about you that much.’ But there is always part of me that thinks are people going to feel sorry for me.”

Wilson mainly writes now – there was a previous memoir in 2016 – and does voice acting work including audiobooks and the fiction podcast Welcome to Night Vale. She’s not sure she would want to return to TV or film. “I don’t know if they really know what to do with a short, curvy, Jewish brunette. I don’t want anybody telling me, ‘You need to lose 30lb and get a nose job.’” At last, she’s not interested in changing herself. “I defined myself for so long by the media’s terms, by Hollywood’s terms,” she says, “instead of defining myself by my own goals, my own relationships, my own life.” – Guardian

Good Girls Don’t is available exclusively on Scribd in audio and ebook formats