Previously Known For: Mrs. Doubtfire, Matilda and Miracle on 34th Street
|Currently Known For: Writer and New York University Alum|
“Being cute just made me miserable… anytime someone said I was cute, I would wince. Something about it made me feel smaller.” A darling on the silver screen throughout the 1990s, Mara Wilson was certainly charming as a young star but her talent was undeniable as she earned her place in Hollywood with stellar performances in Mrs. Doubtfire, Miracle on 34th Street and Matilda. Despite her success, however, Wilson didn’t think twice about stepping out of the spotlight after her mother’s death in 1996 when her passion for acting dwindled and she focused on living the normal life of a nine-year-old girl. Officially retiring in 2000, let’s take a look at Wilson’s venture away from acting as the 30-year-old has now proven she’s just as talented with pen and paper as a published author and playwright.
With her father working as an electronics engineer with NBC and CBS, not to mention her older brother’s foray into acting with a handful of commercials, Mara Elizabeth Wilson knew from an early age that she wanted to take the stage. Born on July 24, 1987 in Burbank, California, Wilson was a toddler as she watched her older brother take the stage and, by the time she was in elementary school, was already at work persuading her parents to let her audition. “My mother hadn’t pushed me into acting,” Wilson said. “We lived in Burbank, 20 minutes from Hollywood, and lots of people I knew were involved in the industry one way or another… I begged my mother to let me do the same.”
Wilson won parts in commercials for Lunchables, Marshalls and Bank of America before she was invited to audition for the part of Natalie Hillard in the 1993 family comedy, Mrs. Doubtfire. Winning the part and starring alongside the late Robin Williams, Wilson was only five years old when she skyrocketed to stardom and snagged her second starring role in Miracle on 34th Street. “John Hughes had been assigned to write the script of the Miracle remake and the part of Susan, the young girl played by Natalie Wood in the original, had been rewritten as a boy named Jonathan,” Wilson recalled. “Christopher Columbus, who directed Mrs. Doubtfire, must have put in a good word for me because the script ended up in my mother’s hands. I liked Jonathan/Susan right away; she seemed smart. A few days later I read my lines for the production team and told them I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, but I did believe in the tooth fairy and had named mine after Sally Field. They laughed, thanked me for my audition, and within a few weeks had changed Jonathan back to Susan. I had the part.”
After a recurring role on Melrose Place, Wilson was thrilled when Danny DeVito cast her in his 1996 children’s film, Matilda. Although the opportunity was huge, the experience itself was devastating when Wilson’s mother lost her battle with breast cancer shortly after filming and passed away on April 26, 1996. Even with Matilda dedicated to her mother, Wilson’s passion for acting had dwindled as she quickly realized the charm of her childhood was waning as she entered her pre-teen and teen years. “My father became so overprotective he wouldn’t even let me cross the street by myself,” Wilson recalls of losing her mother. “For a few years after that, I ended up passing on most scripts that came my way. The characters were too young. At 11, I had a visceral reaction to a script titled Thomas and the Magical Railroad. Ugh, I thought, ‘How cute.’”
Despite her father’s encouragement to accept a few projects to stay in the game especially after earning a Young Star Award for her performance in Matilda, Wilson knew the lure of Hollywood was slowly wearing off as she accepted the gig in Thomas and the Magic Railroad before officially retiring from acting in 2000. Part of her reasoning behind her early retirement was a lack of passion; another part was her fear of growing up with the world watching.
“When I was alone, I could admit to myself that acting wasn’t as fun as it had once been. But I had to keep doing it, didn’t I? It was the constant in my life. My family had changed, my body had changed, my life had changed. Sometimes it felt like acting was all I had…” Wilson recalled. “At 13, being pretty mattered—and not just in the world of movies and TV. The pretty girls at school always had an air of superiority, but once we hit puberty, they seemed to matter more. My career was the only thing I had over them. Now that it was waning, I was just another weird, nerdy, loud girl with bad teeth and bad hair, whose bra strap was always showing.”
Although her farewell with Hollywood felt mutual at the time, the choice was incredibly difficult for Wilson as she returned to school and passed on offers to star in comedy series like Arrested Development. However, looking back, Wilson agrees that she made the right choice because the freedom led her to New York University where she pursued a variety of interests before discovering her passion for writing. Coincidentally, she also experienced a new wave of confidence that she’d long lost after years of being described as “cute” in Tinsel Town.
“Plenty of boys were interested in me and it got easier at New York University where I fell in love with Sam, a film student with curly dark hair and warm brown eyes,” Wilson said. “But my appearance anxieties were always there and my past was never gone… I’d pass newsstands on my way to class wearing pajamas and see my former friends and peers—Hilary Duff, Scarlett Johansson and Kristen Stewart—on magazine covers, looking immaculate… I didn’t know what I wanted, but whatever it was, I wanted it to be my choice. I didn’t want to stop acting because I was too ugly.”
Only returning to the spotlight on her own terms (and rightly so), the now 30-year-old Wilson has settled down in the Big Apple where she works as a writer and playwright. Having appeared in her one-woman show—Weren’t You That Girl?—while at NYU, she made a brief cameo in an episode of Broad City in 2016 and turned heads later in the year when she came out as bisexual after the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. And, while she doesn’t rule out acting entirely, she’s certainly found her voice as a writer and, for that, we’re incredibly grateful!