Mara Wilson was one of the most recognizable child stars of the 1990s. Indeed, the youngster was barely off our screens thanks to roles in Matilda, Miracle on 34th Street and, of course, Mrs. Doubtfire. But following her appearance in Thomas and the Magic Railroad at the turn of the century, she appeared to disappear off the planet.
Yes, it would be another 15 years before Wilson would show up on the big screen again. And inevitably, the actress looked very different to the pre-teen that graced several family friendly classics. So what exactly did she get up to during her lengthy self-imposed hiatus away from the spotlight?
Well, it turns out that Wilson is still very much a presence in the media. But you’re more likely to hear her these days, rather than see her. More than a quarter of a century on from her breakout role in the Robin Williams classic, here’s a look at the changing career and face of the once-ubiquitous Mara Wilson.
Born in the Californian city of Burbank in 1987, Mara Wilson grew up with siblings Jon, Joel, Danny and Anna. Her mother Suzie was a homemaker but her father’s job was more connected to the field that she would later pursue. Indeed, Mike Wilson earned his keep working as a TV broadcast engineer.
But Mara wasn’t the first Wilson child to aim for a career in showbiz. Indeed, she only developed a passion for acting after seeing her elder sibling Danny in various TV ads. And despite her parents’ concerns, they eventually allowed her to chase her dream. By the time she was six she’d already showed up in commercials for Texaco, Bank of America and Marshall’s.
Of course, Wilson’s life would change forever in 1993 when she auditioned for a little film you might have heard of called Mrs. Doubtfire. The youngster immediately impressed studio bosses and she was subsequently given the part of Robin Williams’ youngest daughter Natalie Hillard. Incredibly, the movie racked up more than $441 million to become the year’s second highest-earning movie.
From there, Wilson didn’t waste any time in capitalizing on her new-found fame. In fact, just a year later she was starring opposite the legendary Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street. Wilson took on the role of Susan Young in the heartwarming fourth revival of the 1947 festive classic.
Continuing to strike while the iron was hot, Wilson then assumed the leading role of Barbara Barton in A Time to Heal, a TV movie about a stroke victim’s recovery. And she was also cast as Nikki Petrova in Melrose Place. Wilson showed up in five episodes of the soap opera.
Wilson was given the honor of performing at the Oscars in 1995, singing “Make ’Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain alongside Kathy Najimy and Tim Curry. That same year she got the chance to make an acceptance speech herself when she was crowned Young Star of the Year at the ShoWest Awards. However, 1996 would prove to be a year of professional highs and personal lows.
A little over 13 months after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, Wilson’s mother Suzie tragically passed away in April 1996. Understandably, this devastating loss had a profound impact on the youngster and her career. In fact, she later admitted that her interest in acting had suffered as a result of her loss.
However, by the summer of 1996 Wilson was back on our screens playing the titular character in Matilda. Directed by Danny DeVito, the Roald Dahl adaptation didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. But over the years, it’s gained a reputation as one of the best family films of the decade.
Wilson’s next venture, A Simple Wish, fared even worse with the cinema-going public and received dismal reviews across the board. Subsequently, her acting career appeared to start derailing before she’d even reached her teens. Indeed, the youngster later missed out on several parts she might well have bagged just a few years earlier.
Despite her previous work alongside Robin Williams, Wilson failed to secure a part in fantasy drama What Dreams May Come. A year later she lost out to Lindsay Lohan for the leading twin roles in The Parent Trap remake. Still only ten at the time, Wilson was considered too young to play the dual role of separated twins Annie James and Hallie Parker.
Of course, that wasn’t entirely the end of Wilson’s acting career. In 1999 she starred as Willow Johnson in Disney’s take on children’s book Balloon Farm. And a year later she appeared alongside Alec Baldwin in another adaptation, Thomas and the Magic Railroad. But by this point, Wilson had become entirely disenchanted by the industry.
Indeed, Wilson could have extended her career had she accepted the invitation to audition for Donnie Darko. The youngster was given the script for the head-scratching drama which would later become a cult classic. But she decided against going up for the part in a move that appeared to put a lid on her Hollywood ambitions.
Instead, Wilson concentrated on her schoolwork and, after graduating from Palm Springs’ Idyllwild Arts Academy, moved to the Big Apple. There, she studied at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where she appeared to pick up the performing bug again. Indeed, she went on to stage her very own one-woman show, Weren’t You That Girl?
Wilson made a screen comeback of sorts in 2012 when she briefly showed up in web series Missed Connection. She later became a regular on online review show That Guy with the Glasses. Memorably, she reprised her role of Matilda, but this time as an adult, during a review of the 1996 film.
Wilson continued to explore other avenues in the media. She appeared as a character known as the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Own Home on the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. She became a storyteller herself with a stage show called What Are You Afraid Of? And she went viral in 2013 with a piece for Cracked.com about various other child stars’ questionable behavior.
Impressively, Wilson then added playwright to her list of talents in 2013 when Sheeple debuted at the International Fringe Festival in New York. She also enjoyed a stint working for non-profit organization Publicolor. But she appeared to quash any rumors about a return to acting when she claimed that she had no desire to resume her Hollywood career.
However, Wilson’s stance didn’t last particularly long. In fact, just two years after declaring that her movie career was over, she showed up in Billie Bob Joe. Wilson played herself in the comedy about a pair of stepsisters who learn that everyone on Earth called Bob has a bitter rivalry with everyone called Joe.
Wilson may have only been playing herself, but the film appeared to reignite her passion for acting. Indeed, just a year later she showed up in a Broad City episode influenced by none other than Mrs. Doubtfire. Wilson appeared as a waitress during a recreation of the comedy classic’s memorable Heimlich maneuver scene.
Shortly after, Wilson lent her voice to anthropomorphic spider Jill Pill in satirical animation Bojack Horseman. And her voice skills must have impressed, as two years later she landed a role in Big Hero 6: The Series. Wilson played Liv Amara in the small screen version of the hit Disney movie.
Wilson continued to pursue her writing ambitions during this period, too. In 2016 she published her memoir, Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame. As its title suggests, the book saw Wilson ruminate on her early child star career and how she coped with being in the spotlight at such a young age.
And it turns out that Wilson had a number of struggles as a kid. In fact, she was officially diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at just the age of 12. And she later found out she also had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This was at a time when Wilson’s career was starting to veer away from acting.
Admirably, Wilson hasn’t been afraid to talk in-depth about her various battles with mental illness. In 2015 she teamed up with non-profit group Project UROK for a video in which she openly addressed her experiences of OCD. Wilson also revealed that she’d suffered from depression and anxiety over the years.
In 2018 Wilson told The Independent that she was thrilled when her condition was eventually diagnosed. “The day I got [a diagnosis] was one of the best days of my life, because I knew that I was not alone anymore,” she said. “I knew that there were people out there that had what I had. And I knew that there was treatment for it.”
And Wilson is encouraged by the way in which the stigma of mental health issues is now slowly being eradicated. She told The Independent, “I definitely think it’s changed since I was first diagnosed. We still have a while to go, we still have disorders that we don’t understand. We’ll talk about mental health but maybe not take action on it, but I am feeling optimistic about it.”
Of course, another major change that’s occurred since Wilson first left the showbiz world behind is her appearance. Indeed, when she returned to the limelight, Wilson was a twenty-something woman. But when most of us last saw her in Thomas and the Magic Railroad she was still very much a cutesy tween. However, Wilson wrote in her memoir that she didn’t see herself like that at the time.
Wilson said, “It hadn’t occurred to me that I was cute. My family told me I was beautiful, but I had never been one of the prettier girls in my class. The pretty girls were a different breed. It was probably as much of a shock to them as it was to me when I was cast in a movie, but at that time, casting directors wanted kids who looked ‘normal.’”
“As long as we could memorize our lines and say them with some feeling, no one cared how symmetrical our faces were,” Wilson continued. “And it had worked. I had tricked entire countries into thinking I was cute.” And yet this particular label soon became an albatross around Wilson’s neck.
“My mother smiled whenever people told her I was cute, but I could sense she was forcing it,” Wilson revealed in her autobiography. “She didn’t care for cuteness, and her disapproval was contagious. After that, anytime someone said it, I would wince. Something about it made me feel smaller.”
Wilson later struggled to deal with puberty and became desperately unhappy about her appearance. In fact, she once asked her boyfriend at university whether she should undergo plastic surgery. She writes in her book, “Sometimes I secretly wished for an accident where I’d injure my nose and jaw so I could get guilt-free reconstruction.”
In 2016 Wilson told NPR how her changing appearance negatively impacted on her career. She said, “They always want child actors to play parts that are a few years younger than they are, but when you’re a 12-13-year-old girl and your body’s changing and your voice is changing, you can’t. I couldn’t play 10 anymore. I didn’t look 10 anymore. People didn’t know what to do with me, and I knew it, and I felt it, and it really hurt.”
Wilson can also recall one particularly traumatic experience while filming Thomas and the Magic Railroad. She told NPR, “I came to set one day after a few months away, and people were kind of giving each other worried looks. And I had to have the director come and sit with me and explain to me that my body was changing.”
Understandably, Wilson was mortified at the time. She said, “I felt like I had done something wrong even though I hadn’t. They brought out these sports bras that were basically binders – they were meant to bind my chest. I felt completely humiliated. When you’re in middle school, when you’re a preteen, you always worry: Is everybody talking about me behind my back? And everybody was.”
Thankfully, Wilson has learned to accept herself over the years, although she still has insecurities. She wrote in her memoir, “There are things I like about the way I look: my eyes are a pretty mix of green, blue and grey. It takes a long time to break an old habit, though, and I’m still critical of my appearance, still halfway convinced I’m irredeemably ugly.”
Sadly, Wilson has still continually had to deal with comments about her appearance since her showbiz return. Referring to various internet trolls, she wrote, “My image belongs to them and they aren’t happy that I don’t match up to what they pictured. This type is the most likely to give advice: I should color my hair, lose weight, go die in a hole somewhere.”
“I understand that celebrities have a contract with the public,” Wilson continued. “They get to be the target of jealousy and criticism, and sometimes admiration, in exchange for money and recognition. But I let that contract run out a while ago. It is not my job to be pretty, or cute, or anything that someone else wants me to be.” She also revealed her novel idea of dealing with such abuse.
“The next time someone hiding behind a username decides to tell me what would make me prettier, I’m going to propose the following,” Wilson wrote. “I will meet them in person and ask them to listen. I will tell them about going through puberty in the public eye after my mother died of cancer. I will tell them how it feels to find a website advertising nude photos of yourself as a 12-year-old.”
“I will tell them I’ve looked at ‘cute’ from both sides now, and in both cases it just made me miserable,” continued Wilson. “I will tell them how fitting it is that the only real acting I do these days is voiceover, where no one can see me. I will tell them how my mother wanted me to prove myself through my actions and skills, rather than my looks. Now I believe I have, and I am happier than ever.”