Anyone who grew up in the ‘90s probably recognizes the name Mara Wilson. After all, the actor starred in a few memorable and influential films from that decade, including Mrs. Doubtfire, A Simple Wish, and the remake of Miracle on 34th Street.
Wilson’s most prominent role, of course, was as the precocious and magical 6-and-a-half-year-old heroine of Matilda, the 1996 cinematic adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s book.
The film was beloved by a generation of kids and is still considered to be one of the best children’s movies ever. So influential was the role that it still looms large in Wilson’s life.
“It's something I've been amazed and thrilled at how long it's gone on,” Wilson told Phoenix New Times during a recent interview. “And now there are people showing their children it and this other generation is coming to love it as well. And I'm really proud of that.”
With all that said, her role as Matilda isn’t Wilson’s only claim to fame.
In the two decades since, Wilson became a writer and humorist who’s penned articles for Cracked and McSweeney's, as well as several hilarious piece for female-oriented satire site Reductress. Last year, her thoughtful and touching memoir, Where Am I Now?, earned rave reviews from critics.
Wilson has also appeared on numerous podcasts over the last five years, including I Don't Even Own a Television, Gilmore Guys, The Storytime Hour, and CTRL, ALT, DELETE. (She also may or may not have a podcast of her own in the works.)
She still acts occasionally in smaller roles, playing Jill Pill on BoJack Horseman and a waitress on Broad City.
Wilson has also appeared at geek conventions recently, which she says is an enjoyable experience. “I think that they're really fun,” she says. “You get to meet so many interesting people and it's really nice.”
Wilson will be a special guest at this year’s Phoenix Fan Fest. Phoenix New Times got a chance to chat with Wilson in honor of the occasion and we discussed the legacy of Matilda, her writings, how she overcame depression, and her love of Carrie Fisher.
As you mentioned in your book, you got a lot of joy out of playing Matilda.
There's been some vague talk about remaking the film. Would you be interested in participating if that ever happens?
Well, I feel like that is something I've not heard too much about. I think it would definitely depend on the circumstances. If it's, say, an adaptation of the musical – that's a completely different interpretation of the book – and so I probably would not be involved with that. [chuckles] They probably would not ask me to be involved with that, because it's very separate. It would really depend.
I'm very proud of the movie and I'm very proud at what I did in it. And it would definitely depend on the situation. But if they were interested in having me be a part of it, that might be a thing I would consider.
I think — fortunately for me, because I have trouble making decisions, I suppose — that seems to still be a few years off. I haven’t heard of any definite plans to do it. But it's a story that a lot of people love. I can completely understand wanting to make something more of it.
It still appears on a lot "best children's movies" lists and has a 90 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It's still really beloved 21 years after its release.
Oh, you know it's funny, but I've never checked its Rotten Tomatoes status, but I do think it speaks to people and it's something I've been amazed and thrilled at how long it's gone on. And now there are people showing their children it and this other generation is coming to love it as well. And I'm really proud of that. It's really incredible that you can create something or participate in something that affects multiple generations. That is really an honor.
You mentioned on your Twitter recently that you enjoy doing cons. How many do you do a year?
It really depends. I haven't done that many...I've done two or three so far this year, because I think it provides a safe place for fans and artists and celebrities and whatnot to meet.
I think that they're really fun. You get to meet so many interesting people and it's really nice. People just coming up to you, telling you all day long how much they like your stuff. It's fun, it's exciting. So I definitely do enjoy doing them.
I'm sure it's good for the ego.
It's very flattering, you know? It is very flattering. Every now and then you will have people come up and give you rather backhanded compliments, like "I didn't like your movie but my sister does." And you just kinda have to laugh those off. I think everybody there means well.
What's the most touching thing a fan has done for you at a con?
People have given me all kinds of things. People have given me presents. People have given me notes talking about their family relationships. A lot of times I've had people tell me the reason they became a teacher or librarian is because of Matilda, which is incredible to me. I've had people name people after me.
You know, it's just this incredible feeling to know that you've affected people's lives. I just can't pick one moment, honestly.
You mentioned the idea of cons as a safe or friendly space. Are there less of those places these days?
I just feel like for people who are actors or are in the public eye, I think that everyone has a camera. Everybody can report on anything at any time. So you never really know when you're being watched or when you are going to be approached by someone, which can be nice.
It's nice to be greeted by fans, but there are also people who I think don't understand that celebrity people in the public eye are people like the rest of us, too, and maybe they don’t want to be embarassed or don't want to be bothered sometimes.
And I think that there's a thing now that nobody's really off the clock. Nobody really has any private time because everything is public now. Everything is posted to social media now.
So I definitely think for actors and performers and people in the public eye, cons can be nice for that because it gives them [a friendly space]. I know I'm always when I'm in the public eye and I'm recognized when I'm feeling or looking terrible, which always seems to happen to me. It happens when I have a cold, when my makeup is smeared … it always seems to happen at those times. But this is nice because we get to meet people in this great context.
From the perspective of fans, it's really nice that they have a place they can go and they can dress up and they can be themselves and they can talk to other people about the things they are interested in. And they might not be able to do that. There might not be people around who are interested in the same things they are. So it's really nice that they have that place.
I saw a video of you discussing how you dealt with depression and anxiety. Are you still battling both?
I would think that I am. I think that it's a lifelong thing, but I would say that I have much better ways of taking care of them now. It's not something that I can just get rid of once and for all; I'm always going to be an anxious person. But I definitely have good coping skills with them now. I've developed that through therapy and medication and help with friends and community and family. Through a bunch of different things and a bunch of different ways over the years, I have found ways to make it so that the anxiety and depression is manageable.
And it's something that I'm very open about because I feel like a lot of people feel like they really can't talk about these things and I want it to be okay to do it. I would like it to be as normal to say "I have bipolar disorder" or "I have OCD" as it is to say, "I have a broken leg" or "I have a migraine," or something like that. I think mental health should be taken as seriously as physical health.
But I'm lucky. I was able to get treatment and I ended up having a supportive community to help me as well, and not everybody has that. So one of my hopes and I suppose goals that I want to work towards is that everybody is able to have what I've had as well.
I've had issues with depression and anxiety, too, and found it's hard to break yourself out of it sometimes. I’ve found it helps to stop being idle and just do something.
That is definitely a problem and that's something that's hard to get through. I mean, I've been there as well, it's been hard for me in the past as well. But I do think that I'm in a place in my life where … well, there's a Carrie Fisher saying where she says, "I feel I'm very sane about how crazy I am," which I really love. [Laughs] I think accepting it and facing it is one of the most important things we can do.
You seem like you'd be a huge Carrie Fisher fan, both for her writings and her wit.
Of course, yes. I love her.
Any particular project of hers you love the most?
Wishful Drinking is probably my favorite. I have read and re-read more times than I can count. I love it so much. I think that she was one of the funniest writers around, as well as a great actress and in person. I've always loved and admired her work so much.
This might be a big question, but are female satirists not as accepted as male satirists?
I think that's interesting. I think there's a lot of confusion in the world right now as to what satire is. I do think that also the topic of conversation the things you were talking about, the things you were satirizing, might not always be understood.
My friends at Reductress, like when they first started pitching ideas, those ideas were seen as more for a woman's audience. And it's funny because I've seen through writing for Reductress and writing for a few other places, there are much more people who are interested in [satire] even if you are writing about typically women's issues.
People of all genders have found my Reductress articles really funny. But, I think that's an interesting question. I think that satire is in a weird place right now anyway, because people aren't really sure what is and what is not satire right now.
I do think that women comedians in the past have had a hard time of it. You have to try to convince others that you were even funny at all. And I also think that people don't take into account the relative nature of comedy and the subjective nature of comedy. because obviously what is funny to one person is not going to be funny to others because of their experiences.
But that is definitely an interesting question. I think that people like Carrie Fisher were writing about their lives in the best way that they possibly could. And I think that's something I've always admired about her is that saying, “If it weren't funny, it would just be true.” She was able to kind of humor a lot of really horrific and sad things and that is a skill that not everyone has, that is a skill that not very many funny people actually have, I would say. Not all of them. So that's something that I admire as well.
So were people surprised when they would see "Mara Wilson" as the author of the Reductress piece they were reading and not know it was the Mara Wilson?
That actually happened to me when I wrote a piece for McSweeney's. When they published a piece of mine about men who love musicals, a breed that I have met in my life, being a musical theater nerd myself. And when I told them what my website and Twitter were, they said, "Oh, we didn't realize you were that Mara Wilson." So that's happened a couple of times; people will look at something and do a double take. And that I like, as much as I love being appreciated for Matilda and for the work I did as a child, I do think that it's really nice to surprise people with what I can do as an adult as well.
Any designs on writing for The Onion someday?
You know, I love The Onion, but I know so many wonderful people that work there right now and it's an extremely competitive world. I definitely want to write more comedy but who knows what exactly it would be. I've actually helped out with things for The Onion before. One of my cats was in a Clickhole video. But yeah, I think there's a lot of really talented writers out there as well that perhaps do it better than I do.
There are so many satire sites out there right now, like Above Average or The Hard Times.
Yeah, I think The Hard Times is great. They're really funny.
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What is your take on all these alleged sexual predators in Hollywood being outed?
My statement about Hollywood has always been that Hollywood is not necessarily immoral but it is amoral. I don't know if Hollywood is necessarily more corrupt than any other industry, although oftentimes I do feel that it is. I do think there are very strange power dynamics in Hollywood that make it so people who are predators can very easily work there and very easily take advantage of people.
I was fortunate not to have experience such things at the hands of powerful Hollywood men when I was young, but I do know there are other people out there and I fully believe this happens to them. And there are predatory people in Hollywood. And as upsetting and sad as it is to hear about these things, I'm hoping that people can finally find some justice and some relief in these things.
I was fortunate that I had a safe Hollywood experience and it is very sad and troubling to see that that is not the case for a lot of people.
Phoenix Fan Fest takes place on Saturday, November 11, and Sunday, November 12, at the Phoenix Convention Center. Daily admission is $15 to $20 and a full event pass is $30.