We all know that growing up can be tough, but doing so in the public eye is a different matter entirely. And when it comes to children in Hollywood, 1990s child star Mara Wilson has seen it all. And two years before returning to acting in 2015, she revealed what it really means to spend your youth in the spotlight.
Mara Wilson was a big deal in the 1990s. After debuting in 1993’s Mrs Doubtfire, the actress became world-famous three years later after playing the title role in Matilda at the tender age of nine. And that film’s success gave her career a launching pad envied by kids the world over.
Athough she quickly became one of Hollywood’s most famous child stars, however, Wilson never saw her career as anything other than a hobby. “Acting was just something I liked to do,” she wrote on TheaterMania in 2013. “It didn’t feel like a job; it felt like playing with my friends, or losing myself in a book…”
But Wilson began to lose interest in her vocation. And following the death of her mother shortly after Matilda’s completion, the star became even more disillusioned with fame. “I found it kind of overwhelming,” she explained to The Huffington Post in 2013. “Most of the time, I just wanted to be a normal kid.”
Moreover, the problems continued as Wilson reached adolescence. “I was 13 and I was awkward, and I was gawky, and I was not a cute kid anymore,” she continued. The actress also began losing roles to other child stars like Lindsay Lohan, and after starring in Thomas and the Magic Railroad in 2000, she called it quits.
Unlike some of her contemporaries, Wilson never became a victim of the curse which has afflicted so many child actors. Instead of descending into a downward spiral like so many stars before her, the actress enrolled at New York University. There she began exploring her passion for writing. And during her studies, she even wrote a one-person show about her time in the spotlight.
Despite escaping the fame, however, Wilson still has regrets about her time on the big screen. “I wish that I had stopped after Matilda,” she confessed to The Huffington Post. “I wish that I had just focused on my own life for a while. Maybe gone to counselling or something and gotten some perspective on my life, because… when I was most famous, I was the most unhappy.”
Since graduating from NYU, Wilson has worked as a writer. Besides becoming an active blogger, she also penned the play Sheeple, which premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2013. That same year, she also wrote an article about childhood fame.
Writing for Cracked in 2013, Wilson opined on why some former child stars go off the rails. Beginning with the subject of parents, she explained how some children are pushed into it by their guardians. What’s more, she pointed out the difficulties well-meaning parents have protecting their children in the industry.
Wilson revealed being asked by a journalist about her opinion regarding actor Hugh Grant’s arrest for soliciting a prostitute, when she was aged just seven. When her father complained to the station, he was ignored. “Even then, as a kid, I knew that parental power was gone,” the former child star wrote.
Wilson went on to state that being showered with wealth and attention at a young age can have a big impact. “… Even people who have the best of everything quickly become used to it,” she wrote. “The thrill of new things and new experiences always wears off.”
Naturally, this can have a devastating effect on the mental health of a young person. Wilson went on to cite Lindsay Lohan, who continued her acting career after being a child star. “[She has] been acting all her life… and in her mind, there’s nothing else she could do. She’s likely to keep doing it even if she’s making herself… miserable,” she wrote.
Moreover, those who try to live a more normal life in adulthood often find themselves haunted by the fame of their youth, Wilson argued. She cited The Phantom Menace star Jake Lloyd, who has often claimed that this publicized role ruined his adult life. “It does kind of suck that years later he’s still seen as a punchline,” she opined.
And while the transition to adulthood can be difficult for child stars to overcome, it’s not the only hurdle they face. As the #MeToo movement has shown, Hollywood can be a dangerous place for people to work. And sadly, the same applies to kids working in the industry.
In recent years, many former child actors have revealed their own distressing experiences with predatory adults. In January 2018 Natalie Portman claimed she received rape fantasies addressed to her when she was only 13 years old. Moreover, 1980s child star Corey Feldman has claimed that he and fellow actor Corey Haim were sexually abused by figures in the industry.
In fact, Wilson herself has received her own fair share of unwanted sexual attention. Recounting how she once discovered her picture on a foot fetish website, the actress described the moment she realized she’d been exploited. “I was talking to a friend and casually mentioned the foot fetish thing. Her eyes went wide. ‘So, basically, you were on a child porn site?’” she wrote. “‘Uh … I guess so.’ I hadn’t thought about it like that. Suddenly it wasn’t as funny as I had once thought.”
Nevertheless, Wilson said there’s still hope for those growing uncomfortable under the spotlight. And in her case, studying at New York University has helped her develop a different outlook on life. “That’s my suggestion for kids who want to act,” she concluded. “Make sure it’s really your choice, get out of it when it stops being fun, and get an education.”
After so many years away from the spotlight, fans were pleased to see Wilson back in the public consciousness. Furthermore, they were delighted by her new career path and humble outlook. “So, Mara Wilson went from a clever, witty child actor to a clever, witty, well-adjusted adult,” wrote one reader on the Cracked website. “That’s kind of bad ass.”
And while she may have initially sworn off acting for good, Wilson has decided to give the profession another shot. Since writing her Cracked article, she has appeared in the likes of Broad City and Bojack Horseman. But having penned her autobiography in 2016, it seems that writing may remain her true calling.
Breaking free from their big-screen persona can be one of the hardest things for child stars to accomplish. But Wilson – with her brilliant wit and confessional honesty – has certainly escaped from underneath her childhood shadow. And thanks to the star sharing her experience and insights, it’s an example that hopefully more child actors will follow in the future.