Mara Wilson may never completely distance herself from the adorable little girl she played in ‘Matilda’ and other classic 90s films. Finding fame at just five-years-old, as Natalie in ‘Mrs Doubtfire’, she continued as a child actor until her teenage years. As a child on our screens, she seemed the epitome of happiness and hope. Picture her walking up to the judge with that dollar bill in ‘Miracle on 34th Street’. She believed – and so did we. All this time, however, no one was aware of what was going on inside her head.
As I sit down to chat to Mara about her experiences in a London hotel room, she immediately compliments me on the six silver rings I’m wearing and lifts up her hand to show me a delicate silver thumb ring of her own, with beads on it. “It’s a worry ring because I’m an anxious person,” she says. “You play with the beads when you feel nervous. These things are a blessing for adults like me.”
The 31-year-old tells me that she was loud and funny, over the top, a typical “theatre kid” when she was younger, but that this behaviour masked her innate fears there was something wrong.
“I always had symptoms,” she says. “My friends and family always said I was anxious, and I had anxiety attacks when I was young. I would wash my hands repeatedly until they were red raw and chapped. I had lucky numbers and unlucky ones. I felt like there were certain places I could or couldn’t walk. I was terrified because I thought people were going to tell me I was crazy or insane.”
Mara’s mental illness was at its worst when she was eight years old, she says. At the time, her mother was ill with cancer and she was making frequent visits to the hospital. But this also coincided with when she finished filming ‘Matilda’.
“That was such a wonderful experience for me, it felt like summer camp,” she says of the hit 1996 film, based on Roald Dahl’s equally popular kids’ book. “I loved it, I loved the people, I had so many friends, and met so many wonderful children.”
But experiencing such highs on set meant Mara hit a low when it was all over. She struggled to fit back in at school, had a teacher “who was a bit Trunchball-like” and missed her studio tutor and the friends she had made filming, most notably Kiami (who played Lavender) and Kira (Hortensia). “I can’t remember a lot of that year,” she says. “My anxiety was just so bad. It was a blur of panic, which is very sad to me because ‘Matilda’ is something I took so much pride in.” Just six months after filming finished on ‘Matilda’, her mum Suzie died.
Mara spent the next four years feeling isolated by her illness, not knowing what was wrong with her but living the reality of her worries and habits everyday. She kept filming – next as Annabel on ‘Simple Wish’ – because it felt like the only constant in her life. She didn’t feel anxious when she was acting, so she kept doing it, despite knowing inside it wasn’t something she wanted to pursue.
Her life changed for the better at the age of 12 when she read a book called ‘Kissing Doorknobs’ (which just happened to be written by Terry Spencer Hesser, the mother of her Matilda co-star, Kira). It was the story of a girl her age with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
“I cried when I read it,” says Mara. “I knew this was my issue and I knew there was help. I did not anticipate that book was going to change my life, but it did.”
I did not anticipate that a book was going to change my life, but it did."
Mara took the book to her parents, her teachers and the school psychologist – “I said: ‘I think I have this and I want help’” – and amazes herself to this day that she was able to speak out. She was referred to a psychologist and spoke to her family about how she was feeling. Mara also saw a psychiatrist and was put on medication. “My life improve immeasurably,” she says. “I was able to live my life as a teenager without that unnecessary anxiety.”
Mara calls the day she was diagnosed with OCD one of the best days of her life, because it meant there was help out there available to her. Despite her fears that she would become more isolated after speaking out, she was met with warmth and understanding. She no longer felt alone.
And over the years, she’s accepted the ups and down that having a mental illness can bring. She went a long time without having a panic attack as a teenager, then suffered several in a short space of time while a student at New York University. She’s had times when she’s needed more medication, other times when she’s needed less. But ultimately, she’s found ways to control the thoughts that used to control her.
Anyone who follows Mara on Twitter will know she is vocal (and very funny). But she has had her fair share of social media run-ins as she’s grown up and says that it’s now a place where she has to set boundaries. “I’ve been told I’m ugly, I’m a has-been.” she says. “And I feel at this point I just don’t care anymore. If you’re going to insult me, at least say something creative.”
She ignores the nasty comments and tries to get into the habit of not using social media in bed – late at night or early in the morning – as well as reminding herself that these platforms present only “curated” versions of people. “Sadness and anger can be seductive, but there are times you need to take a step back.”
I’ve been told I’m ugly, I’m a has-been and I feel at this point I just don’t care anymore. If you’re going to insult me, at least say something creative."
Mara credits being open with her friends, family and those around her as being a pivotal point in accepting who she was. She also credits the therapeutic act of writing about her experiences – on her blog, in articles, and in her book ‘Where Am I Now?’ released in 2016 – as being a great mechanism to deal with her illness. “I’ve had people tell me the articles I’ve written have persuaded them to get help,” she says. “It feels amazing to be able to do that. When I wrote the essay about OCD in my book, I started to cry because for the first time I was looking at myself from the outside, as a young girl who was struggling and felt completely alone. It was a cathartic piece to write.”
She says becoming an activist for mental health has given her a pathway and sense of purpose: “I talk about it because I know what it was like to feel alone and I don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” In January 2018, Mara joined Okay To Say, a US initiative that increases awareness about mental health. She told herself when she was younger that if she was ever going to be a public figure again, it would be to speak out against the stigma: “It saved my life getting diagnosed and I want to make sure other people have that as well.”
It wasn’t easy to step back into the spotlight as an activist. She wondered, at first, what people were going to say. “I feel like I have this platform that is perhaps bigger than I deserve,” she says. “I have a bit of imposter syndrome about it, but I am honoured to be able to use it for something I believe so strongly in. It’s something I’m proud to do and I’m proud to be.
“I have nothing to lose by doing it, but so much to gain by spreading the word. I want to live in a world where everyone feels safe and comfortable talking about mental health,” she says. “It’s getting better now but we can do even better.”