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Mara Wilson: How being a child actor is a lot like being an adult on Twitter

The new author talks about her book, public grief, and how fans help her fight online harassment.


Lyz Lenz


Posted on Sep 14, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 12:46 am CDT

Mara Wilson is all grown up and she’s not afraid to wreck your childhood with the woman she is today. The 29-year-old writer and former actress came of age in the public eye (you’ll remember her as the adorable kid from Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire), but these days you may know her best as the clever woman who gets constantly RT’d for her dark wit and pop culture takes on Twitter. 

In her new book of essays, Where Am I Now?, Wilson writes honestly about the ups and downs of being a child star, but also what it’s like to just live through puberty, OCD, and the losses of her mother and former co-star Robin Williams.

“My greatest fear was that someone, part of the amorphous public, people who’d never met me, would discover I had any kind of sexuality,” Wilson writes in the essay “The Matilda-Whore Complex.” “I had been part of many people’s childhoods, and there felt I had to at least pretend to be a Good Girl for the rest of my life if I wanted to stay in their good graces.”

She eventually shakes off that fear by writing a play about a couple having sex in a theater. This foray into real, honest writing allows Wilson to find her voice, and—along with a run-in with a very sexy man—gives her the confidence to own who she is. She writes, “But what if someone sees it? And knows that the girl from Matilda wrote this? To my own surprise, I realized I didn’t care. If anything, I wanted them to see it.”

Wilson’s confidence and humor are part of what make her so popular in her writing and online. She has over 300,0000 followers on Twitter and more than 115,000 fans of her Facebook page. Many who adore her say she can be funny, charming, and poignant all in a single sentence.

She recently spoke with the Daily Dot about her new book, living a public life online, and the fraught nature of Twitter.

You grew up in the public eye—in what way does that compare to living publicly on Twitter? Is it even harder to be a public persona online?

Wilson: I think it’s very similar in some ways. I worry a lot when I see young kids on the internet because I feel like there’s a difference between being raised by Hollywood and being raised on the internet. Television can’t talk back to you, it can’t target you for anything. It can’t give you any more than general messages about yourself. It’s much easier to become famous now, but I don’t know if it’s easier to be famous now. 

[In both instances] there are a lot of expectations that you’re going to interact with your fans. There are some people out there who feel like you should be there for your fans every minute of every day. But you have to make them realize you’re only human. I think that’s something that’s very hard to do when you are a child. It’s hard to maintain that boundary there.

In one of your essays, you write about people asking you questions about sex and judging your looks at age 5. And as the mom of a 5-year-old that made me very angry on your behalf. But it never seems to quit for you. Even in your later essays, in which you write about people putting you on awful lists, there is this expectation that because you performed once as a child, that you always perform for the public. Do you think internet culture exacerbates this demand?

I think it does. I’ve also gotten a lot of really great stuff out of being online, too. You have to be a part of the internet these days. But what happened to me as a child…most of it, not all of it, but most of it, I could kind of take in stride [at the time] because it just didn’t seem like that big of a deal, something like, “OK, this is a strange, weird thing that happened to me, but who cares?”

Now, as an adult, if that were to happen to a child I love or take care of, I would be afraid. I would be infuriated. It’s definitely something that I think about a lot.

The thing is, there is some entitlement, there is some inappropriate stuff on the internet, but I also think if you have a fan base, fan bases try to fight back against that. If somebody was being crazy on the internet in 1999, which, for me, somebody was, it wasn’t as easy to crack down on as it is now.

But you know, we’re still figuring out how to fight harassment and such. [Back then] it wasn’t something that people were expecting to deal with, whereas now it is.

You mentioned in another one of your essays that you actually experienced some of these attacks on the internet as a child—a link to porn images with your face superimposed and even a foot fetish email. Do you think the internet is making children grow up faster? 

I don’t know if I would say that it’s making them grow up faster. I do think that it is exposing them to things that they might not have a context for, that they might not be able to understand. I also think that it does give them that feeling of instant gratification, a feeling that this is sort of the way that the world is supposed to be, that the world is supposed to serve you and give you what you want, because on the internet you can get what you want at any time.

We’re only now starting to kind of contradict those messages and take those things into account and actually teach in schools that what you see on the internet isn’t necessarily real life, and that you aren’t always going to get what you want, and it isn’t always going to load as fast as you want it to. 

Are there things that you don’t talk about, things that you keep private? 

I do have respect for my own private life and my own private behavior. I feel like you have to, because in this day and age, everything is so public all the time. Privacy has become kind of a currency for us. Privacy is something that’s special because it’s so rare. I think there’s joy and stability in having some things that you just keep to yourself. It’s fun to have secrets. 

Also, I just try to think like, “Who cares?” I’m not the kind of person who tweets pictures of my food because I don’t think anybody’s going to care. I guess I do sometimes, when I bake something and I’m proud of it, but most of the time, I ask myself, “OK, is this going to be interesting to anybody?” I also have to keep in mind that I have a following that’s a population of my hometown and the town next to it put together, so I have to imagine myself standing on a hill shouting out to Burbank and Glendale through the world’s biggest megaphone.

One thing that you tried to keep private for a while was your grief over the loss of Robin Williams. But you also were getting offers from news outlets like CNN to talk about him, so there was that expectation that you perform your grief publicly. I also remember there were some tweets and words of yours that went viral in the aftermath of his death. In what ways do you think these public displays of private grief are helpful—or are they hurtful? 

Grief comes in so many different forms. If you’re using it to self-promote, there are much better ways to self-promote, but I think people catch on very quickly when others are doing that. I wanted to talk about it, and I meant just to keep it on my blog, but it was later picked up by a news source and spread around. I kind of wasn’t expecting that to happen.

It was a bit of a miscommunication, although, ultimately, I am proud of what I wrote about him. I didn’t want to go on TV because I knew how I was feeling and I was not feeling very composed at the time. Lisa Jakub, who is my honorary big sister in real life, who played my big sister in Mrs. Doubtfire, did an interview, and she was very thoughtful and composed, but that’s the kind of person that she is. I’m a lot more outspoken.

I knew at the time that [speaking on-air] just wasn’t good for me. I also knew that writing definitely was. I feel very in control when I write and I like that. 

Did you take a break from social media during that time? In the essay about William’s death in your book, you said you logged on and were kind of overwhelmed by the well-wishers. 

Yeah. It wasn’t just well-wishers. There were some people saying very negative things too. It felt like a bit too much for me, and I had a lot of different and complicated feelings. It was one of the first times that I’ve had to deal with major grief as an adult. Since then, I’ve had to deal with much more. Sir Richard Attenborough passed away not too long after that, and he was such a kind man, too. I tried to take it easy at that time.

People harass you a lot on Twitter. How have you handled it? What would you like to see on the platform as a way to kind of manage this abuse that gets targeted at women especially?

I don’t have it as bad as a lot of other people do because I have a big following and a big fan base. If somebody says or does something against me, a lot of times I have people who will say, “Hey, this sucks, why are you doing that?” I have people who will call them out. A lot of people don’t have that following, those people to support them—and those are the people who I feel like need to be more protected.

I love using Twitter, but I do think that they need to definitely step up their game with harassment. They need to think about all the people who are being affected over and over again. When people are harassing each other, no matter what the reason or the consequences, they really need to take that seriously. That shouldn’t be what their platform is for.

It’s very frustrating to see [Twitter] pay lip service to [the problem of harassment]. I do really like Twitter, but this is something they know is a problem, and this is something they could be doing more with. I think it would be best if they just actually listened to people who have dealt with that kind of harassment, and talk to them personally about it, because those people know best. Those people might have solutions.

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*First Published: Sep 14, 2016, 9:00 am CDT