She may have only been six years old when she landed her first movie role, but 1990s child actress Mara Wilson took to acting with aplomb despite her very tender age. Born in Burbank, California, on July 24, 1987, as a tot Wilson would watch her elder brother Danny perform. And soon enough, the younger Wilson felt like she was more than capable of acting too – and she was right.
After starring in some television commercials, it wasn’t long before Wilson had Hollywood movers and shakers beating a path to her Burbank door. With a cute but mischievous demeanor, Wilson proved to be one of the most requested child actors of the decade. And it all began with her debut role in a Robin Williams box-office smash.
Yes, it was of course the hilarious, yet poignant 1993 flick Mrs. Doubtfire, and Wilson played the memorably precocious youngest daughter of William’s “Mrs. Doubtfire.” The instant success of the film helped propel Wilson into the movie stratosphere, quickly leading to her next big role the following year in a remake of the festive favorite Miracle on 34th Street.
By the time 1996 rolled around, it seemed like Wilson the child star could do no wrong in Hollywood. That year saw her land the biggest and most important part of her career – both professionally and personally. As Matilda in the fantasy film comedy of the same name, Wilson played what was in effect a dream role in her budding acting life.
Wilson later discussed her love for the original Roald Dahl novel in an article for the website Theater Mania in 2013. She wrote, “Someone in my family was always reading or rereading it, and my mother would sometimes act it out for us as well. Matilda became a family affair.” Needless to say, that when she landed the part of the lead character in the movie adaptation, she was ecstatic.
Nevertheless, serious health issues in Wilson’s family at that time understandably cast a cloud over her joy at working on the movie. During filming, Wilson’s mother, Suzie, was sadly diagnosed with breast cancer. This led to her being hospitalized for a considerable amount of time while her daughter was actually on set. It is a testament to Wilson’s strength of character that she managed to carry on as Matilda despite everything that was going on.
She eventually opened up about the bittersweet experience in her 2016 autobiography, entitled Where Am I Now? Amid the turmoil in her life at that time, Wilson wrote that it was in fact her movie co-stars who rose to the occasion. The adult actors who were playing Matilda’s horrible parents proved to be anything but in real life. The couple took on a semi-parental role in Wilson’s time of need – something she hasn’t forgotten to this day.
In the autobiography, Wilson credits the then husband-and-wife team of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman of making a huge difference. Wilson recalled, “While my mom was sick and in the hospital, they would invite me over and take care of me and get my mind off things.” She went on to add, “I felt very familial. Danny and Rhea were like my favorite aunt and uncle.”
Tragically for Wilson, however, her desperately ill mother passed away six months after Matilda had been completed. Suzie’s lengthy battle with cancer and subsequent death proved to be devastating for her young daughter emotionally. Wilson ultimately shunned the acting profession not long after the death of her mom. The child star seemed to have lost her passion for the limelight. She later said that she had grown out of the acting bug.
A source of hurt for the young actress was the thought that her mother would never get to see the hit movie that she starred in. The title role of the book that had meant so much to the family. But it turns out she didn’t have to worry on that score, thanks to a heartwarming secret between Suzie and DeVito. Wilson only found out what happened between them years after the event.
Incredibly, DeVito – who was also a producer of the film – brought an early version of Matilda to the medical facility where Suzie was being treated. Wilson told the TV magazine show Good Morning America in 2016, “I thought that my mother had never gotten a chance to see the movie, but [DeVito] said he actually brought a print of the movie while she was sick, while she was dying.”
A grateful Wilson went on to pay tribute to the small comedian’s big heart, but she didn’t forget his wife’s generosity of spirit either. Wilson said, “They were incredibly kind people. He and Rhea were just like fun uncle, fun aunt and the kindest, most wonderful people, and I really owe them forever for all the good things they did for me while my mother was sick.”
The events behind the touching revelation clearly meant a lot to Wilson, and she elaborated further on British TV. Speaking in an interview with Scottish television presenter Lorraine Kelly in 2017, the former child star revealed what she had learned about Suzie’s reaction to the film. Wilson said, “She loved it. My mother always loved the book as well and used to read it to the children at my brother’s school.”
However, it is fair to say that Wilson, now 30, does look back on her thespian past with some regret. She told Kelly, “Sometimes I feel I should have stopped acting after Matilda and gone out on a high – plus I didn’t have my mother around…” Sadly, Wilson was unable to continue with her thoughts as the interview was cut short due to a technical hiccup.
She had been referring to the movie parts she played following the release of Matilda in 1996. Perhaps any project would be an anti-climax after a role which meant so much. But Wilson was clearly insinuating that her heart wasn’t really in it anymore. Following some TV work, the critically lampooned 2000 children’s fantasy film Thomas and the Magic Railroad would prove to be the end of the line for Wilson’s big-time acting career.
Since then, however, Wilson has been making waves in other professions – most notably in the world of writing. Although she still pops up from time to time in stage shows, doing voice work and appearing in online broadcasts, Wilson is more content with a pen in her hand than she is dealing with the arduous moviemaking process.
She spoke to Parade magazine about her feelings on the subject in 2013. She said, “It is actually a hobby for me now. I do still love stage acting, but the day-to-day process of being an actor is so exhausting and so taxing. There are parts here and there that I’d like to play, but they’re not as interesting to me as writing.”
Between fiction, non-fiction, and opinion pieces – Wilson is more entrenched in scribing books and articles these days than in acting. Yet, despite her change in career, Wilson still appears to look back fondly on her roles in smash-hit movies that lit up the 1990s.
She even got together with the old gang from Matilda in 2013. This is the opposite of an actress who is shying away from her past. But, although the film was a fantastic thing for her professionally, arguably, it went deeper than that. The relationship she built with her co-stars, DeVito and Perlman, is what has really stuck with Wilson throughout the years.
Undoubtedly, DeVito gave Wilson a great gift when he delivered a copy of Matilda to her sick mother’s bedside. The two actors surely have a bond that goes far beyond simply appearing alongside each other in a movie. It is a personal connection that seems pretty unbreakable.