When she was five years old, Mara Wilson played the painfully cute, precocious youngster from “Mrs. Doubtfire” (and later “Matilda”), her pale face and big eyes framed by a brown bob with bangs. Twenty years after her film debut as Natalie Hillard in “Doubtfire,” which premiered November 24, 1993, Wilson has grown up and is now a writer living (and tweeting) in New York City. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” we caught up with Wilson and picked her brain for her memories of shooting, the time she thought she would be smited for saying her lines and the kindness of Canadian tourists.
On How It All Began:
I remember doing a screen test. I auditioned a lot for it, probably more than I did for any other part. And that might have been because I was so young. But I remember doing a screen test with a couple other actors, and they wanted to see which kids would make the best family. And I remember going in and thinking that I really connected with this boy named Matt and this girl named Lisa. I felt like they could really be my brother and sister. And I remember secretly wishing and hoping that I would get the part, but that they would get the part, too. And that’s what happened. I guess they must have picked up on the camaraderie. Matt [Lawrence] played my brother, and Lisa Jakub played my sister. Lisa actually used to come over to our house all the time, my mom loved her. There was some flirtation with my older brother for a while.
On What It’s Like To Have Robin Williams As Your Dad:
Robin did feel very fatherly in a way. You know, people say, “Oh, he must have been wild and crazy.” And he could be, but the thing is, he can turn it on and turn it off. And when he’s not in his performance mode, he’s actually very sort of quiet and, you know, a little shy, almost. He speaks very softly, he looks down at his shoes while he’s talking to you, he’ll come down to your level. Then something will get him excited, and he’ll just light up and start riffing on it, and you can see the change in him.
On Worrying That Her Most Famous Line Might Lead To Divine Retribution:
My most infamous line was “We’re his g–damn kids, too.” I remember being very afraid to say that line. I was afraid I would get in trouble. I was a conscientious little kid. You know, we were a Jewish family, but we weren’t, you know, orthodox or extremely religious, but still I was worried that God would be upset with me. [laughs] Which is funny because I’m an atheist now. My mom had to tell me, “No, God knows it’s just acting. You won’t get in trouble with us.”
On Being Queen Of Two Truths And A Lie:
[laughing] I do play that a lot. When I play it, people usually can’t tell what’s true. I have a lot of interesting stories, and that’s why I’m trying to write them down right now. If something seems so outrageous, they’re obvious. A lot of times I’ll pick some really mundane ones and I’ll just sabotage myself like that. I’ll be like, “I could talk about the time I saw Malcolm McDowell start to do backflips on a trampoline at night, but that’s way too specific, so I’m just going to say, like, ‘I’m the shortest person in my family!’” and people, yeah, they pick up on that.
On How Modesty Can Backfire:
It’s something I try not to bring up. It’s very funny for me, the sort of delicate balance of, “Do I talk about the cool things I’ve done?” I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging. Sometimes I’ll try to do it like, “Oh, yeah, I went to [Danny] DeVito’s New Year’s Eve party one time…” and I thought if I did that, it would make it seem a bit more modest, but my friend told me that she actually thought that I was more snobby for doing that because I wasn’t making a big deal out of it. I was like, “Well, I can’t win, can I?”
On the lasting power of ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’:
My first serious boyfriend told me that he saw it when he was six, and he really didn’t like it because he found it really sad that the parents didn’t get back together at the end. I remember him saying that it, like, traumatized him. And I was like, “It’s not ‘Dancer in the Dark’” But I think that’s important, because that usually doesn’t happen in real life. They stay divorced, they find other people eventually, they continue on in their lives and the parents are on good terms with each other at the end, but they’re not in love and married. A lot of children have dealt with that. For all its absurdity, and all its ridiculousness, it does deal with the truth of human life, and of American life, that half the country has dealt with at this point.
On Whether Williams’ Improvisation Freaked Her Out:
I would do a few takes that went with the script, and then we would do a few that were just Robin improvising, and a good portion of what you see onscreen is what Robin made up himself. I don’t think I sat down and read the whole script in its entirety. I could read when I was five, but I think I really only read the parts that I was in. I don’t think I sat down and read it cover to cover, because I was five and I had other things to worry about. [laughing] It was what I thought film was.
On Being Kid-Famous:
It’s unfortunate, in a way, that this film was so big. For most people, their first film isn’t very successful, but this sort of snowballed. Overnight, people knew my name and they would see me on the street and say, “Oh, you look like that girl from Mrs. Doubtfire.” It was a little hard to adjust to, and it was especially hard to adjust to when I did movies later on that weren’t as big. I was sort of spoiled throughout this process. Later on, I realized, “Oh, this is something that doesn’t happen to most people. This is something I’ve been lucky to have.”
On Her Celebrity Doppelganger:
I would sometimes be recognized as that girl who was in “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Tina Majorino. People would always think I was her. They just got the names wrong. They knew I was a little girl who looked familiar and they were like, “Oh, you look like that girl…” That happened to me a lot. It became sort of a running joke in our family, “Oh, you’re Tina Majorino, right?” I don’t think I [ever met her]. I remember seeing her in things, and liking her as an actress. I wonder if she was ever mistaken for me.
On How You Can Go Movie-Home Again…Sorta:
I was actually in San Francisco a few years ago, and I went by the “Doubtfire” house, and, apparently, people have been coming by so often that the current owners got really annoyed and remodeled it, so it doesn’t look like the house anymore. I went by there, and saw people taking a picture, and I walked across San Francisco that day and my feet were so tired, and these people said, “Oh, did you live here?” and I said, “Sort of.” And they were like, “Wait a minute.” I ended up telling them I was in a movie that took place here. They ended up giving me a ride to my sister’s place. They were from Canada, seeing the sights, and apparently that’s one of the sights now. [The "Full House" house] was probably their next stop.
Her Theory Of What The ‘Doubtfire’ Characters Would Be Doing 20 Years Later:
Lydia, as intellectual and as wordy as she was, I feel like she went to law school, or she’s definitely doing something academic. Matt’s character, I think he’s a little bit more of a party animal. Chris worked hard and played hard. I think that he’s probably doing something where he can balance out both. Natalie I remember being very into animals and very into art, like a lot of little girls are. She probably went to art school or became a veterinarian.
On Buying Her Own Movies:
I used to have all kinds of “Mrs. Doubtfire” stuff. I did have it on VHS for a while. Eventually, I had to buy it for myself on Amazon, years ago. I mean, I probably could have called up 20th Century Fox and asked them for it, but there was a clip that I wanted to show from the screen test. So I had to order it from Amazon for myself, and it’s like, “Shipping to: Mara Wilson” and I was like, “Are they gonna know?” Someone in the Amazon warehouse is like, “What the hell?” But I feel a little shy about calling up Fox and being like, “Hey, give this to me.” It’d be like calling up an ex that you’re not on bad terms with, but it’s still kind of awkward because it was so long ago.
On Watching Herself In ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ And Hating It:
It’s on a lot. So, I remember when I first came home from college, my brother and I were watching something on TV, and a commercial for one of the movies came up and I said, “Welp, that’s my NYU tuition.” “Mrs. Doubtfire” is still a fun movie, and it’s still fun to watch, but it is hard to watch myself sometimes. I get very critical. And people will say, “Mara, you were five.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but I still should have known better!” I’m a lifelong perfectionist, what can I say?
…Except For The One Time She Loved It:
I remember watching it once, when I had the flu, I think on Mother’s Day, and that was the only time I thought my performance was brilliant. [laughs] While I was running a 103 degree fever, I was like, “Wow, I was awesome in this.”
On Whether She Talks To Her Movie Family Still:
I haven’t talked to some people in a while. I would love to reconnect. I saw Robin while he was filming a movie in Washington Square Park a few years ago, because I was going to NYU, and I stopped him and said hi, and the crowd of people were like, “Wait, what’s going on?” I would love to talk to him more. I’ve recently reconnected with Lisa Jakub, who played my sister, and it’s funny, because we haven’t seen each other in maybe 10 years, but as soon as we saw each other, we just gave each other a hug, and she really does feel like my sister.
On The ‘Doubtfire’ Curse:
I actually met somebody who worked at Bridges, the restaurant where the big climax of the film happens, and they said that they feel like that cursed them, in a way. Now there are sightseers in Bridges almost every night. I knew somebody who worked there as a waiter, and he was like, “You guys cursed us!” And I was like, “Sorry! Didn’t mean to.”
On THE PATRIARCHY:
I know it’s mentioned in a Le Tigre song as, like, an anti-feminist movie, and I feel guilty every time I listen to that song, because I love Le Tigre and I do consider myself a feminist. So, I’m like, “Oh, I’m sorry Kathleen Hanna. I didn’t mean to offend you.” It’s a tangled web that “Mrs. Doubtfire” has woven.
What She’s Up To Now:
I consider my relationship with acting in Hollywood as sort of a mutual breakup. Through puberty, Hollywood didn’t really want me anymore, and I was like, “Yeah, I don’t really want you, either.” Now, I still appear in films, or I’ll do a comedy skit for little performances here and there, just as a hobby, or as a favor to a friend, as it often turns out. Now I’m just focusing on writing and I’m a lot happier that way. Hopefully someday soon, if this all goes well, you’ll be able to read more about my “Mrs. Doubtfire” adventures in book format. I’m just sort of throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks as a writer. And I work with a non-profit organization called Publicolor that’s really cool, too.