Special Reports

Being Matilda

Mara Wilson, who played Matilda in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, talks about her experience in the role as well as her thoughts on the Broadway musical.

Mara Wilson, who played the title character in the film <i>Matilda</i>
Mara Wilson, who played the title character in the film Matilda
(© David Gordon)

In one of my earliest memories, I am maybe four years old, curled up in the back of a classroom, listening to my mother read out loud from a book called Matilda. I was not the intended audience: My mother, a natural actress, had been asked to read to my brother’s fourth grade class. Unable to find a babysitter willing to deal with a sick child on short notice, she brought me along and expected me to sleep off my fever while she read. But I stayed awake, spellbound. Matilda was a little girl like me, yet she had powers — both literal and figurative — and was off to right the great and small injustices in the world. I wanted to be her.

From then on, whenever I saw my brother reading the book on his own, I would quote it to him: “Joel, remember? ‘We always watch the telly!'” He had to know that I was in on it, too, that I knew the power this book had. When I learned to read a few months later and could actually pick out a few of the words on my own, it became more powerful. 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.

We believed in books. My copy of Matilda had once belonged to one of my three older brothers, because we also believed in hand-me-downs. When I inherited my oldest brother Danny’s hobby, acting, my parents insisted this was one hand-me-down I could do without. But I was a reasonably well-behaved child who loved performing and lived near Los Angeles, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood claimed me.

After several months of acting in commercials, my parents reluctantly allowed me to audition for a movie, Mrs. Doubtfire. I got the part, and soon after was cast in a remake of Miracle on 34th Street. The attention I was starting to get was bewildering: Acting was just something I liked to do. It didn’t feel like a job; it felt like playing with my friends, or losing myself in a book like Matilda.

The attention worked to my advantage when my agent, Bonnie Liedtke, called us to say her office had been flooded with scripts. “There’s this one, there’s this one, there’s Matilda, there’s this one…” My mother interrupted her and said, “Wait, back up. Did you say Matilda? Send us that one.” Danny DeVito later told me that he knew he wanted me for Matilda the second I walked in the door. I’m not sure if this is true, or if he was just being nice, but I was thrilled when I got it.

Mara Wilson in promo artwork for the film <i>Matilda</i>, 1996
Mara Wilson in promo artwork for the film Matilda, 1996
Chicago Sun-Times)

Yet when I looked in the mirror while in wardrobe, or watched the playback videos, I still saw Mara. I didn’t fully lose myself in the part as some actors do. Perhaps I held the character in such high regard I didn’t ever feel I could do her justice: It was almost as if Matilda existed somewhere, and I was only temporarily channeling her. Regardless, I had a great time filming Matilda. Danny DeVito understood, the same as Roald Dahl, that children like to be empowered. He asked me to design a doll Matilda would have made with household objects, and with the help of some gifted technicians, we made her a reality. When I was nervous about filming a scene where I had to dance, he insisted that every crew member on set that day had to dance, as well. When I turned eight, he had a giant cake shaped like a red ribbon — the Matilda of the film’s signature — delivered to the set with hundreds of balloons and an ice cream cart. There were plenty of kids around, and we came up with secret codes and handshakes. Matilda was my favorite movie to film and my favorite to watch, as well.

Like my brother, I grew out of acting. To this day, though, strangers will call me Matilda. It can be frustrating. The feeling that Matilda was somewhere out there in the ether, someone I was only paying tribute to, has never left. I don’t have a claim on the character: She was never mine to have. Indeed, such an intelligent, spirited character would never allow herself to be defined by one person’s interpretation — and it’s only fitting that in both the London and Broadway productions, Matilda is played by multiple young actresses.

Last week, I saw Matilda: The Musical on Broadway, and I loved it. Tim Minchin’s dark sense of humor and passion for knowledge made him a natural fit for the music. I was captivated from the very first song, “Miracle,” about children with a sense of entitlement and the adults who indulge them.

<i>Matilda: The Musical</i> marquee
Matilda: The Musical marquee
(© David Gordon)

Matilda, as Oona Laurence played her, was clearly intelligent and astute, but she also lent the role an underlying innocence and sweetness. By the time the first act ended, I found her so endearing I wanted to run onstage and give her a hug.

When the show was over, I gave a standing ovation, as did the rest of the house. Leaving the theater, I wondered, a bit self-consciously, if anyone would recognize me as a former incarnation of that character. Nobody did, and to my surprise, I felt a little sad. For so long I had been struggling to overcome being Matilda and had felt frustrated when people conflated me with the character that I had forgotten how much I loved being her. While Matilda will always be a part of my personal history, seeing the musical made me realize it was time to stop struggling and to let her go. She is, and always has been, a character to be shared, and I am glad to see she is in capable hands.

Matilda began as a tradition for me, and I am thrilled to see it become one for so many other young girls and families. If I ever have children of my own, they will read Matilda. They will watch the movie. And you can bet they will see Matilda: The Musical.

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Matilda The Musical

Closed: January 1, 2017