It’s been 17 years since Danny DeVito directed one of the best adaptations of a young adult novel from beloved author Roald Dahl, but the appeal of Matilda seems to grow and grow despite starring a child actor who largely left acting behind during her high school years. A bit of a growing cult favourite, Matilda wasn’t a big hit when it was released in theatres back in 1996, but it certainly had ardent supporters and followers that found themselves drawn to a fantastical tale of a smart young girl from a screwed up family who used her growing telekinetic powers to better her own life. Today, it’s heralded as an unsung classic of young adult cinema from the latter part of the 20th century (or maybe it’s just me, because I think it’s one of the smartest movies of its kind and possibly even the best work DeVito has produced as an already talented director).
At the heart of the somewhat dark, but gleefully silly material was then 9 year old actress Mara Wilson. In her first leading role, Wilson went toe-to-toe with DeVito and Rhea Perlman as her on-screen loutish parents and Pam Ferris as the evil headmistress of her school. It was really only her third big screen appearance after appearing in Mrs. Doubtfire (as one of Robin Williams’ kids) and John Hughes co-written remake of Miracle of 34th Street. She would get another leading role in the kiddie comedy A Simple Wish immediately following Matilda, but after that, she largely stepped away from acting to – much like the role she’s best known for – better herself in more personally fulfilling ways.
Currently a playwright, essayist, comic, novelist, sometimes internet video go-to cameo person, and a highly sought after and admired blogger, Wilson has been living in New York and marching to the beat of her own drum for quite some time now and does quite well for herself. But it’s hardly a shock that Wilson would stay creative while not necessarily stick to acting. On the Special Edition Blu-Ray that she’s chatting with me on the phone to promote, she actually made her own making-of documentary on the set of Matilda that, while she might be embarrassed looking back on it now, actually feels pretty devoid of the bullshit that most behind-the-scenes looks suffer from. Younger Mara might have been on to something, but older Mara is definitely onto something greater in her own career.
Wilson talked with us late last week about how the film has found a way to endure and grow in popularity over the years, how she’s able to look back on the film with fondness after years away from thinking about it very much, what irks her about young adult writing, and how busy her life has been now that’s she’s out working for herself.
Dork Shelf: Matlida is a movie that I’ve really appreciated for years and years now, and I had always thought even when I was younger that it was kind of underrated, so it’s nice to see it having a bit of a renaissance now.
Mara Wilson: That’s so great to hear! You know, I think there are a lot of nerdy people out there now who grew up with the book and grew up being this kind of person, and they wanted to not focus on their appearance and always wanted to go out and do more, learn more, read more, and better themselves like that. When people talk to me about it, it seems like they have been the most interested in it these days, or at least that’s what I think. There’s a lot of nerdy women out there, which I have learned to be a bit more as I’ve grown (laughs), and I think that it’s really cool that this movie has been able to do that and that it spoke to so many people. I think there’s been a whole generation of young women and men – because it’s people of both genders, too – that can identify with children who don’t have much power in their lives as a whole actually having power. There are a lot of people out there who can identify with having to make a family for themselves, so there are messages in it that are empowering, but it’s always been more of a sleeper hit, I think. And it just grows and grows as it gets older.
DS: I think one of the things that picks up people who like it over time because when you’re younger you can get caught up in the fantasy aspect of the story, but when you get older – and this is something that Danny DeVito was always great at as a director – you realize that there’s a lot of dark comedic sensibility that can play better and be more appreciated when you’re older.
MW: Absolutely, and I think that fits Roald Dahl’s work very well, and I was always a huge fan of Dahl’s, and I know Danny was, which when you take those two similar sense of humour it just works well together. I think that it’s easier to be captivated by these powers of this girl when you’re young, and you don’t really understand the allegorical aspects of the story that will hit you when you’re older. It kind of catches you off guard, and it is definitely allegorical. There’s this layer of “Oh, hey! Magic powers! Cool!” And then there’s “Oh, hey, this actually gave her freedom,” and that’s cooler. It definitely works on multiple layers.
DS: Do you think now that you look back on it as an adult who has done a lot of writing herself you’re more attuned to what the film means to people now than you were when you made the film as a child?
MW: I think it has changed for me in a lot of ways. For a long time, I actually really just wanted nothing to do with it. I had been Matilda for so long that I just wanted to be Mara for a while. But after high school and the end of college, then I started to realize that this film did mean a lot to people and that in some cases it really helped to change their lives. That’s when I started to appreciate it more. And for the first time in my life I was actually able to look at it objectively. I wasn’t quite sure about how I felt about all of my movies at that point. But looking back I felt, “You know what? I am really, really proud of Matilda.” I was just so tired of acting in general and I wanted to be myself, but that will always be one thing that I can look back on and say with no hesitation that I’m proud of.
DS: You’ve done several films that people recognize you from, but at least you have that one starring role that is extremely memorable to a lot of people. Most people don’t even get that.
MW: Yeah! I know! (laughs) It’s really kind of strange to even think about. I never expected this kind of thing to happen. When I was acting as a kid I never expected that to be recognized or to be remembered for something like that. It was just at first, like, “Well, let’s go on a few auditions and see what happens and maybe you’ll be in a commercial or something.” Then the next thing I know, I’m getting cast in a movie, and then another movie, and then it just kept going.
DS: And I guess that speaks to how we see child stars, in a lot of ways. We either remember them for one specific thing that they did or they just sort of fade away and never really get heard from again.
MW: And the latter ones are generally the ones who were the most successful, actually: those who just did one thing and then really quickly disappeared from the public eye. Or as long as you can take some time off and do your thing and maybe study somewhere or get married or have a family or something, those people generally can come back and do really well. Nine times out of ten when you look at a child star who didn’t do well, it’s because they didn’t keep doing it because they wanted to do it, but because they were forced into it. I mean, every now and then you have someone like Brooke Shields who was put into the industry as a baby and she turned out alright, but most times that’s not what happens. If you force your kid to act, they will resent you at some point.
DS: I read somewhere that right now you’re working on a Young Adult story now as one of the projects you have been working on, is that correct?
MW: Yeah! (laughs) I actually have three things I’m working on for the most part, and I don’t even know how many books I’m working on anymore. (laughs) I do have one non-fiction and short essay kind of thing. There are a couple of Young Adult novels that I’ve been working on. I put those kind of off to the side for a bit because I was more into the non-fiction and I was off promoting a play that I had written. And I also have a storytelling and comedy show titled What Are You Afraid Of? starting in January. So there’s a lot of stuff out there! (laughs)
But Young Adult is something I would love to come back for. I was working with teenagers for a while, and I always feel like people treat them too much like kids. It always bothered me when people talked down to kids. There’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of forgetting what it was like to be a kid. People forget what it’s like, and they write as if they are miniaturizing adults. They all sound like Dr. Phil and it’s like a bunch of adult problems being foisted on kids, and while they might have many of those same problems, they don’t deal with them and process them in the same way. It’s really only cool when it’s a movie like Brick and that’s kind of the point, but when it’s supposed to be something that depicts high school as scandalous, it’s never scandalous in a way that high school or being a teenager ever feels like. That’s my opinion, but I guess I was more from the Judy Blume school of it all. (laughs) If you’re going to attempt to be realistic, just be realistic.
DS: Do you feel busier now doing everything that you want to work on and doing things more on your own than you were as a young actor who had a span where you were making films pretty much back to back to back for a few years?
MW: I guess in some ways. I definitely feel like I have a bit more free time, but that’s because I have more control over what I do now to a degree. Back then I didn’t, and I was always answering to somebody else. I’m certainly doing a lot of work now, but at least I feel like I have a certain degree of freedom. I can mostly choose what I want to work on, and that leads to a lot more opportunities. And I really understand what it means to work that hard and I never take things for granted anymore.