At the age of six, Hollywood became a constant in Mara Wilson’s life. From starring in Mrs Doubtfire to her iconic role in Matilda, the former child star’s body of work went from strength to strength. That was until she abruptly broke-up with Hollywood at the age of 13, and never looked back.
Today, Mara is an astute writer and passionate activist who uses her voice to speak up about life with OCD, and the realities of childhood fame. When we meet, Mara is in London with the Texas-based charity Okay to Say to tackle mental health stigma with talks and events. So that’s where we start...
Hi Mara, how’s your stay in the UK going?
It’s great! I’m drinking Yorkshire Tea and watching a lot on BBC.
Do you think attitudes to mental health are different in the US to the UK?
American culture is very much focused on this idea of a “just world”. You get what you give. The saying is “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, everyone has to help themselves. There, the stigma works so that you can talk about depression, as long as it’s something in the past that you got over. People see it as a weakness if you choose to get help for it.
Did that stigma affect you growing up?
Well, I got help when I was very young. But I struggled because I was afraid to tell people. I was eight years old and I was worried about germs, I was washing my hands all the time, I couldn't step on certain places on the ground and I had lucky and unlucky numbers. I felt that if I told anyone, they would say that I was “crazy” – and I didn’t know what happened to people who were labelled crazy.
So what led you to ask for help?
I was 12 when I read a book called Kissing Doorknobs about a girl who had OCD. I found this book and I remember crying when I read it, because I suddenly wasn’t alone. I think it was quite hard to get the adults around me to accept that, because I think they don’t want to damn a child with a diagnosis.
But, for you, that diagnosis was helpful?
Oh yes, it was the best day of my life. It was such a relief. I was so happy that there was a name. Some people don’t like labels, but I did. My OCD doesn't come out in very stereotypical ways, but I do like labelling things. That makes me feel safer. I could then make a plan.
What was the plan?
I went to therapy and I went on medication. I was at a school and I was very depressed there, and so I left and went to a boarding school for visual and performing arts. We had a wonderful psychiatrist who we could talk openly about our mental health with. It was a very warm and welcoming place.
Did that continue throughout your education?
I do remember there was a time in college where I started having bad panic attacks again, and I had to go back and get treatment for that. I encountered a lot of hostility there. People were like: “Well we weren’t told that our million dollar smiles were going to get us through everything.” I think that a lot of people felt like they could have been in the same position that I had been as a kid.
Your memoir, 'Where am I Now?', harks back to gossip articles about ‘where child-stars are now’. Why do you think people are so interested in that?
I think that when someone is famous and then they’re not any more, people like to construct a narrative around it. Child stars are people that others like to feel sorry for, though I’m not sure why.
Also, I think that when you leave Hollywood people either want to see you as a failure, or as a saint who’s walking away from all the pleasures of life. I think it’s human nature to want to make up a story about things.
And people have a problem separating the character from the actor?
Exactly, they do. When you affect someone’s childhood, you affect it forever. And that is incredibly important and incredibly interesting. People will remember you. I had a great time being a child actor, but there were also times when it was extremely difficult. You can feel very judged and it can be unhealthy as you’re growing up. So, of course, you see people who are struggling with these things, and who are dealing with issues as they get older.
Does more need to be done to protect child actors’ emotional wellbeing?
I think there is probably more now. But a lot of it depends on the family and the team behind the kid. Sometimes I feel like a big sister to child actors; I’m very protective of them. Obviously, I don’t want to say what’s best for them, but I know the struggles that I went through, and there are things that you should and shouldn't say, and there are things that I think are and aren’t helpful to draw attention to.
Things you would do differently?
Well, I don’t regret the things that I did. But sometimes I think that I should have stopped after Matilda. Being in films was such a constant in my life after my mother died. I think it’s extremely important to know that acting isn’t the be all and end all.
There was a period where you weren’t comfortable with your association with the character of Matilda. How did you come back to her?
Honestly, writing about it helped. For a long time, I had severe imposter syndrome; I didn’t feel like I deserved any of the acclaims. I didn’t make the movie, I didn’t write the book. It’s not that I’m bitter about being associated with her, it’s that I don’t feel worthy.
Worthy of the fame?
Worthy of the association with her, I think. She is such a remarkable character, and I always felt like I was living in the shadow of a much cooler, much smarter older sister. I felt like people liked her more than they liked me, and I think that it was hard for me to take the compliment for a long time. I didn’t feel like I deserved that and I was insecure about that, and my place in the world, and whether that was all I was going to be to people. At this point, it very well might be, but I’m OK with that and I am proud of it.
Matilda recently turned 30. Why do you think we still love the character all these years later?
There aren’t that many female protagonists that are as strong and intellectual as she is. And it gives a very important lesson that even if you are unhappy in your present situation, it’s not always going to be like that. That’s very empowering for people who are struggling and who are in different family situations, or who have mental illnesses.
Also, it’s cool to see things fly and a television explode. Children want to be empowered. They have very little control over their lives, and so that’s always going to appeal to them.
In your book you instruct the reader to: "Live your fear". Do you follow your own advice?
I try to. When you’re a very fearful person, you don’t have much of a choice! I don’t think it necessarily means putting yourself in positions where you feel fearful or uncomfortable, but I also think that sometimes you can’t help but live your fear.