From Child Star to Hollywood Dropout: Mara Wilson

You may remember Mara Wilson as the sweet yet clever little girl who starred as Matilda and played one of Robin Williams’ three children in Mrs. Doubtfire. However, we haven’t heard much about the child star since the ‘90s. Wilson was one of the biggest stars, but she quit acting in 2000.

Mara Wilson / Danny DeVito and Mara Wilson / ALT Lisa Jakub, Robin Williams, Mara Wilson, and Matthew Lawrence / Mara Wilson.
Source: Getty Images

During her days in the spotlight, Wilson dealt with many hardships that affected her passion for acting. Instead of continuing her career in front of the camera, she turned her attention to writing. Everyone practically forgot about Wilson, but she is making sure her voice is heard.

She Started Her Career Early

Born in Burbank, California, to Suzie and Mike Wilson, Mara Wilson became interested in acting after watching her older brother, Danny, appear in television commercials. Wilson’s parents initially didn’t want her to get into acting but eventually agreed because they saw how passionate she was. Wilson just wanted one chance.

Mara Wilson poses with Lassie, the dog.
Photo by Denny Keeler/Getty Images

Some of Wilson’s first acting jobs were in commercials for Lunchables, Bank of America, Texaco, and Marshalls. She was only five at the time, but the young actress showed a lot of promise. Wilson’s commercial work was good enough to get her noticed by the producers of Mrs. Doubtfire.

Her Big-Screen Debut

Wilson was invited to audition for Mrs. Doubtfire, and her parents reluctantly agreed to let her go. Her talent impressed the producers, and she landed the role of Natalie Hillard. Soon after, Wilson was cast in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. But she didn’t understand why she was getting so much attention.

Lisa Jakub, Robin Williams, Mara Wilson, and Matthew Lawrence from Mrs. Doubtfire.
Source: Twentieth Century Fox

She saw acting as a hobby, so it didn’t feel like a job. Acting was like playing with friends or losing herself in a good book, so it was bizarre to suddenly have everyone talking about her. However, the attention worked to Wilson’s advantage, and her agent’s office was flooded with scripts and offers.

She Loved Matilda

Some of Wilson’s earliest memories are related to Roald Dahl’s Matilda. She remembered listening to her mom read the book to her brother’s fourth-grade class and being spellbound by the story. Wilson related to Matilda because they were both little girls, and she wanted to be her. She was obsessed with the book even though she couldn’t read.

Danny DeVito, Mara Wilson, Brian Levinson, and Rhea Perlman star in the movie
Source: Getty Images

When Wilson started to read, Matilda was the first book she reached for. The book became more powerful once she could read it. Wilson said someone in her family was always reading or rereading Matilda, and her mother would sometimes act it out.

Her Dream Came True

Wilson had a few other film and TV appearances before she caught Danny DeVito’s attention. Her agent, Bonnie Liedtke, called Wilson’s parents to tell them about a few opportunities, and when she mentioned Matilda, Wilson’s mom interrupted her. Suzie said, “Wait, back up. Did you say, Matilda? Send us that one.”

Danny DeVito and Mara Wilson talk on the set of Matilda.
Source: TriStar Pictures

Little did they know that DeVito wanted Wilson to play Matilda the second she walked into the audition. She said, “I’m not sure if this is true or if he was just being nice, but I was thrilled when I got it.” Everyone was excited when Wilson got the part.

She Didn’t Lose Herself

While filming Matilda, Wilson still felt like herself. She held the character in such high regard that she didn’t feel like she could do her justice. However, she had a fantastic time making the movie. DeVito wanted Wilson to feel involved and empowered like Roald Dahl.

Mara Wilson as Matilda Wormwood.
Source: TriStar Pictures

He asked her to design a doll Matilda would have created with household objects, and Wilson brought her to life. She was also nervous about the dancing scene, so DeVito had all the crew members dance with her to make Wilson feel more comfortable.

Afraid of the Chokey

Many of us were terrified after seeing “The Chokey” in Matilda. It was the scary closet filled with broken glass and nails where Miss Trunchbull would lock up naughty kids. It not only looked horrifying on-screen, but it was also scary on set.

The door to the Chokey.
Source: YouTube

Wilson revealed that the only time she was afraid while making the movie was when she was in the Chokey. She said it smelled terrible, and when they closed the door, DeVito jokingly said, “OK guys, we’re going to lunch,” and she started screaming and banging on the door.

She Spoke to Roald Dahl’s Daughter

Roald Dahl’s estate was hesitant to allow anyone to turn Matilda into a movie after past disappointments. However, the writers convinced them after writing the script. Before filming, Wilson got a chance to speak to Dahl’s daughter, Lucy, to understand the character better.

A still of Mara from the film Matilda.
Source: TriStar Pictures

During their conversation, Lucy revealed that real events inspired Miss Trunchbull. Wilson said that their discussion led her to suspect that Miss Trunchbull was based on Lucy’s boarding school headmistress. Even she was surprised to know someone as evil as Miss Trunchbull existed.

DeVito Was More Than a Co-Star

Although filming Matilda was a dream come true, Wilson was going through some personal struggles at the same time. The young actress found out her mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer while making the movie. DeVito stepped in to be Wilson’s dad on set.

Danny DeVito and Mara Wilson play games on the set of Matilda.
Source: Reddit

He tried to keep her distracted from what was happening at home by getting her a huge birthday cake with hundreds of balloons for her eighth birthday. DeVito wanted to make sure Wilson was happy, but he knew her mom was not getting better.

They Helped Her Get Through It

DeVito, Rhea Perlman, and the whole cast and crew were pillars of strength while Wilson dealt with her mother’s cancer. She was worried that her mom wouldn’t get to see the film, but DeVito brought an unfinished version to the hospital so she could watch it.

Mara Wilson, mother Suzie Shapiro, and father Michael Wilson attend a Premiere
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Sadly, Suzie Wilson passed away on April 26, 1996, just a few months before the premiere of Matilda. The producers decided to dedicate the film in Suzie’s honor, which meant the world to Wilson. Her mom’s death affected her passion for acting.

What Could Have Been

After Matilda, Wilson starred in A Simple Wish with Martin Short, but it received negative reviews. In 1997, Wilson auditioned for a few movies, including The Parent Trap and What Dreams May Come, but she didn’t get the roles. Instead, the part in The Parent Trap went to Lindsay Lohan.

Kathleen Turner, Martin Short and Mara Wilson in a scene from the film 'A Simple Wish'
Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images

Wilson was deemed too young for the role, but it worked out because she portrayed Willow Johnson in the 1999 film Balloon Farm. However, she was starting to feel like Hollywood wasn’t the place for her while she grieved the loss of her mom.

One Last Film

In 2000, Wilson appeared in Thomas and the Magic Railroad, her last film before she decided to retire from film acting. Although she was set up for a successful career, Wilson didn’t like the culture in Hollywood. She didn’t want to follow the path of teen actresses.

Mara Wilson and Peter Fonda in a still from Thomas and the Magic Railroad
Source: Destination Film

Wilson said she never wore anything more revealing than a knee-length sundress, but people still asked her if she had a boyfriend when she was six. Interviewers also asked her who she thought was the sexiest actor, and it made Wilson uncomfortable.

It Wasn’t an Easy Time

By the time she appeared in her final film, Wilson already felt ready to stop acting. She said, “I was very depressed, I was very anxious, I can barely even remember the premiere of Matilda.” Wilson revealed that going through puberty on film sets was awkward.

Mara Wilson, as Lily Stone, walks on the train tracks in a still from the film.
Source: Destination Film

She also was passed over for many roles because she wasn’t considered a “cute” child actress anymore. Wilson said that there wasn’t one big moment that made her want to quit, but “the rejection hurt because it had been a prominent part of my life.”

She Threw the Script Away

Working on her final film deprived Wilson of her childhood, and it was draining. She spent her 13th birthday stuck in a hotel room because she was promoting Thomas and the Magic Railroad in Toronto. Plus, the movie only made $700,000 against its $19 million budget.

Didi Conn, Mara Wilson, and Michael E Rodgers are at a press event.
Photo by William Conran – PA Images/PA Images/Getty Images

She had the chance to star as Samantha Darko in the 2001 hit Donnie Darko. The film had other Hollywood A-listers like Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, and Patrick Swayze. However, Wilson threw away the script because it was emotionally stressful for her.

They Twisted Her Words

Wilson never wanted to seem like a diva, so she was shocked when she read a newspaper headline calling her a complainer. While promoting her film in Canada, the then-13-year-old sat down for an interview and made one big mistake: she told the truth.

A headshot of Mara Wilson.
Source: Tumblr

She had just spent her 13th birthday alone, and Wilson was tired from jet lag. When the reporter asked how she was feeling, she answered honestly. The following day, Wilson read the article that described her as a “spoiled brat” who was now “at midlife.”

The Narrative

As a child actress, Wilson was aware that everyone assumed those who gained fame at a young age would meet some tragic end. She worked hard to be as normal as possible to avoid that downfall. Wilson shared a bedroom with her sister, went to public school, and joined the Girl Scouts.

ara Willson arrives at an event.
Photo by William Conran – PA Images/PA Images/Getty Images

She insisted on being called an actor instead of a star, but none of that mattered because this article ripped her apart. Wilson was barely a teenager, and she already hated her career. She wanted to avoid being part of “the narrative,” so she left Hollywood.

She Stayed Out of the Spotlight

After leaving the world of film, Wilson appeared on the stage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cinderella. However, she wanted to have a normal life out of the public eye. For almost a decade, Wilson practically fell off the face of the earth.

A portrait of Mara Wilson.
Source: People Magazine

During that time, Wilson finished her education. After graduating high school, she relocated to New York to continue her studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She made the most of her time at school, writing and starring in her one-woman show called Weren’t You That Girl.

Reintroducing Herself

Wilson spent a decade living a normal life before she decided to step back into the public eye. In 2012, she briefly appeared on a web series called Missed Connection and in a few review videos with the Nostalgic Critic’s Doug Walter.

Mara Wilson poses for a studio portrait.
Source: Twitter

She reviewed Matilda with Lindsey Ellis, praising DeVito for sticking to the original text as much as possible. Ellis and her followers were shocked to see the former child actress all grown up, but they were happy to hear some inside information from the movie’s lead actress.

Explaining Herself

After many years, Wilson finally explained why she quit acting. In a blog post, she addressed the topic, stating, “Film acting is not very fun. Doing the same thing over and over again until, in the director’s eyes, you ‘get it right’ does not allow much creative freedom.”

Mara Wilson speaks on stage.
Source: Flickr

Wilson explained that directors rarely let her express herself. She also felt that the auditioning process was “dehumanizing.” She has no regrets and doesn’t want to return to film acting. Wilson added that she would never be on Dancing With the Stars either.

She Offered Some Insight

In 2013, Wilson wrote an article offering her opinion on why child stars often go off the rails. She explained that many young actors are pushed into the business by their parents, and they have to act to support their families. She also said that parents can’t always protect their children.

Mara Wilson attends the Trevor Project's event.
Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

Wilson emphasized that many young actors get used to the love and attention and don’t know what to do when they lose it. She said child actors are often sexually exploited and don’t have the freedom to rebel like every other teenager.

People Are Always Surprised

Although she looks very different than her days in front of the camera, Wilson said people are always shocked to learn she is alive and has never been in rehab or prison. Sometimes people are disappointed that she is not “cooler” and just a regular adult.

Mara Wilson arrives at the Premiere of Lionsgate's 'Knives Out'.
Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

No one really talks about Wilson anymore, so when people realize who she is, it’s surprising to find out that she doesn’t look or act like a celebrity anymore. Who would have thought that a former child actress could turn into a normal adult?!

She Is a Writer

Since graduating college, Wilson has focused on writing. She wrote the play Sheeple, produced for the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival. Wilson also released a book in 2016 titled Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame.

Mara Wilson signs copies of her new book.
Photo by Suzi Pratt/WireImage/Getty Images

Her book discussed everything from what it was like to be the only child on a film set full of adults, to how she learned about sex on the set of Melrose Place, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood.

Not Completely Obscure

Over the years, Wilson has done more than just writing. She had a recurring role on the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, and she hosts her own storytelling show called What Are You Afraid Of? Surprisingly, Wilson has also done some on-screen acting.

Mara Wilson accepts an award onstage at the 9th Annual Shorty Awards
Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

No, Wilson hasn’t changed her mind about film acting, but she has done some on-screen work. Wilson guest-starred in a Mrs. Doubtfire-inspired episode of Broad City. She played a waitress in the “Heimlich” scene re-enacted from the film. Wilson also did voice work for BoJack Horseman.

Open About Her Mental Health

By the time Wilson was 12, she was diagnosed with OCD. She has been open about her mental health, discussing her history of mental illness on Paul Gilmartin’s podcast The Mental Illness Happy Hour. Wilson’s started to deal with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks when her mom died.

Mara Wilson poses for a photo with two dogs.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

She is an advocate for mental health and collaborated with Project UROK, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to aid teens with mental illness. Wilson said, “I wish somebody had told me that it’s OK to be anxious.” She wants to help others overcome their battles.

She Defended Millie Bobby Brown

In 2017, Wilson wrote a piece for Elle magazine, defending Millie Bobby Brown after commentators sexualized the then-13-year-old’s image. In her powerful essay, she recalled the uncomfortable attention she received as a young actress. She didn’t sit silently as it happened to someone else.

Mara Wilson / Millie Bobby Brown
Photo by Jason Kempin, Getty Images / Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Wilson wrote, “It would be unacceptable for an adult to comment on the body of a 13-year-old girl they knew. So, why do these adults make pronouncements about the body of a 13-year-old girl they have never met.” She couldn’t believe people spoke about MBB like that.

Using Her Voice

MBB wasn’t the only celebrity Wilson defended. In 2021, Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed, commenting on the documentary Framing Britney Spears. She recalled being asked about an 18-year-old Spears when she was 13. Apparently, she told a reporter she “hated” Spears.

Mara Wilson / Britney Spears.
Photo by Jon Kopaloff, Getty Images / Steve Granitz, WireImage,Getty Images

Wilson wrote that she didn’t really hate Spears, but she wouldn’t have admitted that she liked her. Her op-ed discussed the parallels between their lives as child stars, but she escaped the over-sexualization of her public image, unlike Spears. She was terrified by the way people talked about Spears.

Criticizing Hollywood

In her op-ed, Wilson went on to criticize Hollywood for failing to resolve harassment within the industry. She said she was never sexually harassed on a film set, but was by the media and public. Wilson discussed how the media thinks famous kids deserve it.

Mara Wilson attends the 63rd Annual Hollywood Christmas Parade.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

She explained that “the narrative” about child stars doesn’t happen because of the child but because of the people around them. Wilson felt lucky to have always had her family’s support, but no one protected Spears. Wilson was disappointed.

She Loved the Broadway Rendition

As the one who brought Matilda to life on screen, Wilson was excited to see Matilda on Broadway. Starring Oona Laurence as Matilda, she was impressed by her performance. Wilson said she wanted to run on stage and hug Laurence at the end of the show.

Mara Wilson and Oona Laurence pose for a photo backstage.
Source: Twitter

Watching the Broadway rendition made Wilson realize she needed to stop struggling to overcome being Matilda. Although the character will always be a part of her history, it was time to let go of Matilda and just enjoy that she got to play the character.

Her Children Will Watch It

While it might seem weird to have your children watch the movie you starred in as a child, Wilson is not opposed to it. Matilda started as a tradition for her, and Wilson loves that it has become a tradition for so many other young girls.

Danny DeVito, Mara Wilson, and Rhea Perlman.
Source: TriStar Pictures

She said if she ever has children, they will read Matilda, watch the movie, and see the Broadway show if it is still running. Wilson has so many happy memories surrounding the story and wants to pass the tradition on to her children.

Opening Up

Wilson has made it clear that she wants to keep her private life private, but she has opened up about a few things. In 2016, she announced that she identifies as “bi/queer.” That is the only information she gave on the subject but hasn’t shared if she has a partner or not.

A selfie of Mara Wilson.
Source: Twitter

She discussed her sexuality in a series of tweets, stating, “The LGBTQ community has always felt like home.” Wilson thanked everyone for their support but stated she wasn’t going to discuss her relationships online or in public. She was actually surprised that people cared to know.

Famous Family Member

Few people know that Wilson isn’t the only famous person in her family. Her cousin is Ben Shapiro, a well-known political commentator. Although they are family, Wilson is not close with Shapiro. She disavowed him due to their differences in political views.

Ben Shapiro speaks at a convention.
Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

The two don’t speak to each other, and that’s OK with Wilson. She knows that she can’t choose her family, but she can choose how she associates with them. Wilson also said that most of her immediate family has no relationship with Shapiro.

She Hasn’t Completely Abandoned Acting

In recent years, Wilson has taken on roles here and there. In 2021, she lent her voice to a part in the animated series Helluva Boss. Wilson also had a recurring role as Liv Amara in 2018’s Big Hero 6: The Series. However, writing is her career, while acting has always been a hobby.

Mara Wilson sits in the recording studio.
Source: Facebook

Based on the numerous child stars who have dealt with financial, social, and sexual abuse, many people think Wilson was smart to get out of Hollywood when she was still young. She was lucky to have a family that didn’t push her to continue.

How Much Is Mara Wilson Worth?

As of 2022, Wilson is worth an estimated $500,000. It is not much compared to most actors, but she is happy with her “normal” life. Although Matilda grossed over $33 million, Wilson probably didn’t make that much based on her net worth today.

Mara Wilson poses on the red carpet.
Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Most actors weren’t making much in the ‘90s unless they were the top actors. Therefore, most of Wilson’s money probably came from her later writing and acting appearances. Her net worth might not be much for Hollywood standards, but it’s impressive for a normal person.

Reuniting With the Cast

Seventeen years after the release of Matilda, the cast reunited for a tea party and read iconic lines from the film. Most of the cast hadn’t seen each other in years, and it looked like a fun time to take a walk down memory lane.

The cast of Matilda reunites for a backyard party.
Source: Twitter

Wilson got to hang out with the people who helped her through the most difficult time in her life. In attendance were Pam Ferris (Miss Truchbull), Embeth Davidtz (Miss Honey), Rhea Perlman (Mrs. Wormwood), DeVito, and many of the actors who played the school children.

A New Matilda

Although we will always think of Wilson as the original Matilda, the story will soon be reimagined on the big screen. A new version of Matilda is currently in the works based on Roald Dahl’s book and the Broadway musical adaptation.

The poster for Matilda.
Source: TriStar Pictures

Few details have been revealed, but fans can expect Emma Thompson to play Miss Trunchbull, Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey, Andrea Riseborough as Mrs. Wormwood, Stephen Graham as Mr. Wormwood, and Alisha Weir as Matilda. The new version will have a more diverse cast that will give the story a new life.