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What Matilda Means to Mara

What Matilda Means to Mara

By Emma Fudge

Mara Wilson’s life has been inexplicably bound to an archetype.

At the age of 9, Wilson embodied the character Matilda, Roald Dahl’s beloved, magical young protagonist, and has been forever tied to the legacy of this fiercely intelligent, book-obsessed savant. So tied to her, in fact, that the Frequently Asked Questions section from Wilson’s website establishes their relationship as the first and foremost asked question:

“Are you Matilda?

No, but I played her in a movie.

The next frequently asked question — or rather, its response — will give you an even better read on Mara’s sense of humor about her past work:

“Are you that girl from Mrs. Doubtfire or Miracle On 34th Street?”

Yep.

In the collective American imagination, Wilson is Natalie Hillard, the adorable daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire, she is Susan Walker, the precocious believer in Miracle On 34th Street, and most of all, she is Matilda, the mighty bookworm who uses her mind to achieve justice and freedom. So when it came to rolling out The Hundreds’ highly-anticipated collaboration with Roald Dahl’s estate, a rare literary world crossover, the best person to rep the new collection was simple: It had to be Mara.

Runaway imaginations aside, Mara is not Matilda, she’s simply Mara, a fiercely intelligent young actress who grew up to be a pretty hilarious, book-obsessed writer. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t aware of the role she played in the cult following Dahl’s character has accumulated. Meeting Mara in person at The Hundreds warehouse in Vernon, California, she’s both grounded and light-hearted, happy to fall into discussions about anything from the Misfits to local taquerias.

During the shoot, Mara is just as comfortable swapping a t-shirt for a hoodie in the dark, dusty corner of the warehouse bathroom as she is posing, executing each look with such precision that the photos are wrapped in under twenty minutes. In case you’re unfamiliar with photoshoots that involve celebrity actresses, that kind of timeframe simply doesn’t exist. But Mara doesn’t conduct herself like most celebrities, sharing a ride to the photoshoot with a childhood friend, Elizabeth Abravaya, who works as a hair and makeup artist and did the styling for the photos.

Despite her early success, Wilson quit acting around the time she hit her teen years, and as an adult has become more well-known for her writing, including a book of her own, Where Am I Now?, published in 2016. As the title suggests, the impact Matilda had on Mara’s life is significant even now, and though she was acting at such a young age, Wilson was always aware of the separation between her and the character; she wasn’t actually becoming Matilda, she was simply borrowing her.

“I always felt like I was paying tribute,” she explained after the shoot when we convened in the brand’s pristine showroom to discuss her connection to the story. For fans, Mara has been a canvas to project their love for the character onto, but for Mara, the legacy has been both privilege and a responsibility to carry into adulthood. “I never felt like I was actually becoming her,” she continued. “I always felt as if she existed in another dimension — the same way you aren’t really Mary in the nativity play, or you’re not really Queen Esther in the Purim play, you’re just paying homage to them. They’re archetypes. And I’m not saying Matilda is a deity or anything, but she is an archetype.”

 

When Matilda was published in 1988, the world was drastically different than it is now, even three short decades later. For an established, incredibly popular male author to not only portray the emotional abuse of a young girl as the primary plot of his story but also imbue her with the supernatural powers necessary to overcome it was an extremely rare occurrence in literature. In some ways, it remains a singular feat. There is no Prince Charming here — Matilda achieves the life she wants on her own because of her wit, her femininity, and her vulnerability, not in spite of them.

“I think there was this respect for what little girls can do,” Mara explained of the hopelessly devoted fanbase that Matilda’s story has acquired over the years. “She’s one of the few female characters who uses her intelligence and her resourcefulness to work for justice in the world, and also create a family for herself. You don’t see a lot of little girls going for justice. At the same time, she’s unabashedly feminine, she loves tea parties, she loves books, she loves having these gatherings. You don’t see a lot of girls who got ahead by being smart and who aren’t punished, ignored, or mocked for it. There’s also an empowering message regardless of gender: That you can make your own family and your own justice in the world. It’s a really important message, and it’s taken on this feminist life of its own.”

Wilson’s observations are astute: in Matilda’s world, a voracious love for reading is her saving grace — not something to be mocked for — and arguably lays the groundwork for the powerful telekinesis she later develops. Her relationship to her own family is strained and painful, but that doesn’t stop her from staying tender and having an open heart to other influences like her kind teacher, the darling Ms. Honey, who eventually becomes her chosen family. Within Dahl’s expertly crafted framework, the severe underestimation of Matilda, and her uncanny ability to extract justice over her mistreatment, made the character into an instant icon — not just for girls, but for everyone. And certainly for anyone who had ever felt mistreated, misunderstood, or alienated from their own family.

The representation Matilda’s character provided, as a young girl able to delineate between the neglect she faced at home and the love she received from Ms. Honey, remains a beacon for those who are still parsing complicated relationships with family and loved ones in their own lives. But if Matilda could do it, the film’s existence seemed to argue, so could they.

“She’s the ultimate underdog,” Wilson continued. “Kids don’t feel very powerful. Especially kids with families that don’t always understand them, or reject them. The speech that Ms. Honey gives where she says ‘you were born into a family that doesn’t understand you, but someday things are going to be different,’ I don’t think I understood at the time how deeply that would affect people, and how much it really has. A lot of people who grew up in poverty, who were LGBTQ, or were in marginalized communities, have said ‘People didn’t understand me, or my family didn’t understand me, but I feel like, now, I finally feel like I’m being understood.’ And that’s incredible to think about.”

Growing up with someone else’s mythical life attached to her own meant navigating the challenging boundary between fiction and reality, and that process can feel more like a lifelong relationship than a former job. Wilson cites Carrie Fisher, and Fisher’s discussion of her own relationship to Princess Leia, as a touchstone for her eventual acceptance of her relationship with Matilda.

“There’s a quote from Carrie Fisher, who I love, where she says that it was frustrating for her for a long time to be Princess Leia,” Mara remembered. “But she feels like she’s carried Princess Leia with her for such a long time, that eventually, they blended together in her mind. Sometimes, I feel like that with Matilda. I have to have her even if I didn’t want to. For a long time, it was very hard for me. I wanted to be my own person, I wanted to establish my own way. Eventually, I learned to assert my own identity, and appreciate her. Now, it’s sort of this reclamation of her and what she means to me. I feel like I have this familial relationship with an archetypal character.”

Matilda’s status as an underdog and a representative for the marginalized is part of what makes her the perfect heroine to rally around in an era like the one we’re currently living through. Because, whether it’s our own fears about immigration, healthcare, reproductive rights, or just making rent, looking at Matilda’s determination to fight for justice for herself and her community is more inspiring than ever. Her story is a universal representation of the individual standing up against the evil being enacted on themselves and upon their entire community. Through reading about Matilda’s strength, or watching Mara portray it in the movie version, plenty of kids, teenagers, and even adults have been able to find strength of their own.

“It’s a big responsibility for me to have embodied that,” Wilson admitted, noting she sometimes felt the pressure the legacy of the role brought with it. “I have to keep that in mind sometimes, that this is something that means so much to people — and what does it mean? And how can I make sure that I live up to this? In some ways, I’ve said it’s a bit like having an older sister who is always over my shoulder. I’m always looking up to her, and I’m always trying to make sure that she approves of what I do.”

Like a lot of Matilda’s most fervent fans, Mara is also drawn to the balance of femininity and strength that the character represents, and it’s another similarity she sees reflected in her own identity and personality. “I love dresses, I love tea parties, I love cats and dogs, and babies and flowers,” she laughed. “I love all that stuff — and that doesn’t make me any less of a strong person. That doesn’t make me any less of someone who is willing to stand up for things. The idea that you can’t like girly stuff, or you can’t like these things… and be a strong person is completely false.”

 

“Also, the character of Ms. Honey is someone who is very afraid,” Mara continued. “But I think it’s also the idea that it’s ok to be afraid, as long as you are able to reach out to people, you are able to take care of people, and you are able to help others in need and connect with them. I think that’s good. It’s definitely a very feminine story — there are three or four female lead characters — and it’s something that I always really liked and was always really grateful to be a part of.”

Aside from her book, her website, and a new substack newsletter, like most millennials, Mara frequently uses Twitter to openly express her opinion and lead discussions. On the social media site, her display name doubles as a political statement, reading: Mara “Get Rid of the Nazis” Wilson, a direct call-out of the rampant anti-Semitism the powers-that-be at Twitter have continued to give voice to on the platform. Using Twitter itself to confront the tech company‘s hypocriticism is the kind of clever subversion that can affect real change, and Mara’s platform of over 500,000 followers frequently leads the charge on issues of feminism, social justice, oh, and pics of cute, cuddly animals.

Matilda would approve.

THE HUNDREDS X ROALD DAHL DROPS THURSDAY, MARCH 26TH

EDITOR’S CUT :: MORE WITH MARA

CAITLIN WHITE: Why is Matilda’s story so important and different that it has such a cult following?
MARA WILSON: I think what really drew my mother to it is how Matilda is feminine but also so strong. That drew her to the book in the very beginning. My mom was a very strong personality, she loved the book so much and would actually read it out loud to the students in my older brother’s classes. I remember her taking me to school once, and I was curled up in the back of the class, I was a little sick at the time, so I was wrapped up in a blanket, and just listening to it and being entranced and thinking it was so great. My mom would act out the parts so wonderfully. Years before I was in it, maybe two or three years. I was entranced. So I dove into the book as well, and my brothers loved it, too.

Did playing Matilda change you in some way, or leave an impact?
I think when you’re a child you can’t really understand the magnitude of things. I knew that I was having a great time, and I had a great time making Matilda. It’s probably still my favorite movie to watch, of mine, and just because I think about happy memories that I had. There were also so many kids working on it, and that was always fun because I always loved playing with the kids. In some ways, it was a movie that was kind of ahead of its time. Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman were always really understanding and very progressive people. My mother was sick with cancer when we were filming, and when my mother was ill, they were very helpful and welcoming to my family. I was very fortunate to work with them. 

After this, I went on to another movie, where Michael Ritchie and his family were also completely wonderful people (A Simple Wish, in 1997). I was very very fortunate, I think, to know those kinds of people. But Danny and Rhea, they were taking me out and letting me stay over at their house when my mom had surgery. They would send us food and would help us out with all kinds of things. I remember talking to my brother about it a couple of years ago and he said, ‘I feel like they kind of helped save our family.’ I think that that was important to them, taking care of people, and I think it’s something that they had a lot of respect for. And that is a very important part of the movie.

 

Something that stands out about Matilda is that a man wrote it. How do you feel about a well-known male author writing this young female character and taking her story so seriously?
I knew Roald Dahl’s daughters and they were very interesting and very strong women. I feel like he did write a lot of strong female characters that were struggling and that were suffering but were sort of fighting against it. I think you see that with Sophie and The BFG, things like that. He wrote a lot of powerful women both good and bad. The Witches are a good example of that. The original story of Matilda, it doesn’t end as happily. And I’m glad that it was changed, because it was and is important to so many people, to see that happy ending. Not only a happy ending, but it’s sort of a self-made happy ending. She’s a very happy character.

The Witches and the diversity of female characters Dahl wrote is such a relevant point. Something that resonated with me rewatching Matilda was this idea that women can be evil, too — her mother’s willful vapidity, Trunchbull’s violent authoritarianism. In recent discussions of feminism it seems like gender essentialism or the idea that women are always good or always the victims has cropped up. What is your perspective on that topic?
I think that’s really important to discuss. A lot of times when women gain power, or when they have gained power in the past, they have done it not only in traditionally masculine ways, but in the worst kind of traditionally masculine ways, embodying a lot of these things of toxic masculinity, strength, and things like that. I’ve heard the phrase “toxic femininity” thrown around a lot as well.

“Also, the character of Ms. Honey is someone who is very afraid,” Mara continued. “But I think it’s also the idea that it’s ok to be afraid, as long as you are able to reach out to people, you are able to take care of people, and you are able to help others in need and connect with them. I think that’s good. It’s definitely a very feminine story — there are three or four female lead characters — and it’s something that I always really liked and was always really grateful to be a part of.”

Aside from her book, her website, and a new substack newsletter, like most millennials, Mara frequently uses Twitter to openly express her opinion and lead discussions. On the social media site, her display name doubles as a political statement, reading: Mara “Get Rid of the Nazis” Wilson, a direct call-out of the rampant anti-Semitism the powers-that-be at Twitter have continued to give voice to on the platform. Using Twitter itself to confront the tech company‘s hypocriticism is the kind of clever subversion that can affect real change, and Mara’s platform of over 500,000 followers frequently leads the charge on issues of feminism, social justice, oh, and pics of cute, cuddly animals.

Matilda would approve.

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