When British author Roald Dahl’s beloved 1988 novel Matilda was transformed into a fantasy comedy movie a decade later, the film became hugely popular. It remains an enjoyable family movie to watch with children and grandchildren today, 25 years after its release in the summer of 1996.
Filled with memorable characters—including the members of a callous and dishonest family as well as a tyrannical school principal—Matilda was portrayed by adorable child actor Mara Wilson. It was one of four films in the ʼ90s that made Wilson famous. Matilda, she says, was a role she was thrilled to play, a girl who battles and eventually overcomes adversity.
“It was my first favorite book,” she told me. “The film became a touchstone for girls who grew up feeling a little awkward and out of place and could relate to the Matilda character. When I was little and people would recognize me at the airport, park, or mall, I used to think ‘Why do they care?’ But I’ve come to realize how important some films can be to people.”
Despite the popularity of the spirited little actress in the ʼ90s hits Mrs. Doubtfire, the remake of Miracle on 34th Street, and A Simple Wish, Wilson had slipped from the public spotlight by the decade’s end. It was an exile that was largely self-imposed. But in 2016, Wilson published her autobiography, Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame.
As Wilson thinks back, she acknowledges that the transition from child actor to adult was not easy, as many have experienced. “I grew out of that cute stage and didn’t develop into the classic Hollywood beauty as I got older,” she explained. “I didn’t like being reduced to adjectives—“you’re thin or short or tall or blonde”—and I was no longer comfortable going to auditions. I still do some fun TV or web projects for friends, and I love voice-over work because no one is judging how I look or how many times a week I work out!”
One actor she fondly remembers during her early career was Robin Williams, during the filming of Mrs. Doubtfire. She says he was “kind and gentle, but rather shy, which is not uncommon for actors.” Not surprisingly, he was usually hilarious on the set and responded in typical Williams’ style when she told him of her fondness for musicals such as The Sound of Music and South Pacific.
“So, he started singing ‘Nothing Like a Dame,’ which was funny because there he was, a man dressed like a woman singing there was nothing like being a woman!”
While her films from the ʼ90s were largely comedic or sentimental, Wilson remains proud that her Matilda character has helped kids overcome abuse.
There were children in the audience who “were living in abusive families or with parents who didn’t care about them, and the movie showed them there was a way out and that they could find people who cared. So, it’s a comforting movie about feeling powerless, then finding power. People write to me all the time about the impact it had on their lives, and I love that.”
For more information, Mara Wilson’s autobiography, Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, can be ordered online or through bookstores.