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Mara Wilson Talks ‘Matilda,’ Activism & Anti-Semitism

mara wilson

Mara Wilson knows a thing or two about the excitement of storytelling. Though she’s most famous for starring in the beloved film Matilda — based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book of the same name — Wilson is a writer, too.

You could say her entire life revolves around the magic of books. So it’s fitting that Wilson, 30, is judging Roald Dahl Estate’s Imaginormous Challenge Writing Contest for children.

The contest is unique because it isn’t about writing the perfect story — rather, it’s about having a wonderful idea for a story. In true Willy Wonka fashion, five new “Golden Ticket” winners will be rewarded awesome prizes for their “pure imagination.” One lucky child will have his or her idea turned into an e-book — other winners will see their creations become a Minecraft world, a theater piece, a toy and a candy. Sweet!

Since Wilson, who is Jewish, stopped acting in 2000, she’s found success as a writer. Her first book, Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, was published in 2016 to critical acclaim.

Kveller was thrilled to speak with the outspoken writer and social activist about the contest, combating anti-Semitism, and why standing up for what’s right is a menschy thing to do. Here’s what she had to say:

Tell me how you got involved in the Roald Dahl challenge. Have you kept in touch with the estate since your role in Matilda?   

They came to me, although I’ve been in that world since Matilda. We’ve been in touch for 20 years — and I liked the idea of it. I thought it was positive and encouraging, and I wanted to be involved in encouraging children to be creative, [especially as] it was something I always wanted as a child, that kind of encouragement.

 What was it like playing Matilda? Did you love the book before you played her?

I read the book before I played her. My mother used to read it out loud at my brothers’ school. She loved it because there weren’t very many books out there at the time that were about young girls having power — and acquiring that power through knowledge and curiosity.

So when I got the script, as my agent was giving us new scripts to choose from and we heard Matilda, my mom said, “Back up. Yes!” I was so excited.

When did you start writing? 

I always wanted to be a writer. The reason i got into acting in the first place was because I loved making up stories and acting them out. I had been reading since I was four, I loved reading.

I didn’t know if I wanted to be an actor forever. I’d be writing while on set. And in college, it finally clicked, [as] I got very into playwriting and storytelling.

How did you know you wanted to leave acting? It can be hard to know when to move on from something, especially when you’re successful at it.

Well, I was a child actor and they come with an expiration date to begin with. It was hard for me to find work when I was older, and I wasn’t as cute as I used to be; I was tired of being judged for the way I looked. Acting is fun, but film prep can be a bit tedious. I still do voiceover work, so I guess I didn’t walk away completely. It’s not my main passion, though.

You’re pretty active on Twitter. Social media is a strange beast these days. How do you navigate it, especially as you advocate for social causes, like LGBTQ rights and anti-Semitism. Why is this important to you?

Well, I feel lucky, and sometimes undeserving of the platform I have. Because of that, I want to amplify other people’s voices, to speak about things that are important to me and other people. This has been important since before I was acting, and I did that since I was five, as my family has always been focused on activism. I feel a bit surprised to have the platform I do, so it’s my responsibility.

How have you reconciled Dahl’s own potential anti-Semitism with being so involved in his work? Was this, or is this, a concern for you?

It is definitely a difficult thing to think about. I can really only think about my own experiences. The Dahls have been wonderful to me for many years. That’s how I reconciled it. What I do with them is good for the world, they help and encourage children.

It’s important to call out anti-Semitism when you see it, although I didn’t know about those things until many, many years later. I don’t know why he said those things, if he actually believed them. It’s a complicated legacy to be sure.

What are you obsessed with right now? As writers and artists, we’re sort of ruled by our obsessions.

I’m naturally an anxious person — I have OCD and anxiety. But I also eavesdrop a lot, especially around young people. So this comes back into a lot of my work, since I grew up with three older brothers, so there were always teenage boys in my house — and lots dialogue, which I found fascinating.

What’s next on your plate?

I’m doing a lot more voice acting, a podcast, and I’m going to be writing a lot more regularly for more outlets. It’s a whole batch of secrets. I feel lucky to be able to do this.

So, what’s your fave Roald Dahl book? 

It’s definitely Matilda!

And what about your favorite kids’ book in general?

So many: In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. I’m a big Harry Potter fan. The Everworld series. Starring Sally J. Freeman as Herself. And in general, Beverly Clearly, all the Ramona Quimby books. The Magic Shop series.

Going in another direction, what was your favorite TV show as a kid? Today?

The Simpsons. The Twilight Zone. Rocko’s Modern Life, because I loved all the anxious characters.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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