The Truth About Mara Wilson's Tragic Childhood

If you were a kid growing up in the '90s (or had a kid growing up in the '90s), chances are you remember Mara Wilson. Wilson played a number of iconic roles early in her childhood, such as Natalie Hillard in "Mrs. Doubtfire" and Susan Walker in the 1994 remake of holiday classic "Miracle on 34th Street" (per IMDb). She later went on to play Matilda in film of the same name, a interpretation of the book by Roald Dahl.

Wilson had everything going for her. As an actor, she was working with some of the biggest names in the business, including Danny Devito and Robin Williams. She was universally renowned as an adorable child star. Many believed she'd have the trajectory of her peers, which ranged from Scarlett Johansson to Kristen Stewart (per The Guardian). Yet, Wilson walked away from acting following her role in the 2000 film "Thomas and the Magic Railroad," and wouldn't return for nearly 12 years.

Behind the scenes, Wilson had a normal family and lived a pretty grounded life for a child star growing up in Burbank, California. Her childhood took a few heartwrenching turns, however, that changed Wilson's perspective on acting, fame, and the Hollywood machine forever.

Mara experienced a heartbreaking tragedy at a young age

"Matilda" is Mara Wilson's most recognized role, and it was a particularly exciting one for the young actress as well. "I loved the book. My whole family loved that book. My brother was reading it in his fourth-grade class and my mom would go to his classroom and read the book out loud because she had this wonderful voice and could become all the characters," Wilson recalled in an interview with Parade

"I loved it so much that I started quoting it. Our agent called us when I was about six years old and said they had all these scripts including 'Matilda,' so my mom had them send that one right away. So the book was a big part of my life already."

Yet during the filming of the movie, Wilson went through a personally difficult time when her mother, Suzie, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sadly, Suzie died in 1996, about a year after she was diagnosed, while the film was in post-production, according to ABC.

Mara's approach to and feelings about her career changed in the aftermath

Following her mother's death, Mara Wilson's feelings toward acting shifted. "For a few years after that, I ended up passing on most of the scripts that came my way," she recalled in her memoir "Where Am I Now: True Stories Of Girlhood And Accidental Fame" (per The Guardian). 

The recent happenings in her life wasn't the only issue at play. Wilson was also growing up and seeing a different side to the industry. "At 11, I had a visceral reaction to a script titled 'Thomas And The Magic Railroad.' Ugh, I thought. How cute." 

By the time the film premiered, Wilson was 13. She faced physical scrutiny in casting for other parts. "When I was alone, I could admit to myself that acting wasn't as fun as it had once been. But I had to keep doing it, didn't I? It was the constant in my life. My family had changed, my body had changed, my life had changed. Sometimes it felt like acting was all I had."

At 13, Mara started seeing how the industry treated growing young women

Mara Wilson was coming of age at a time where child stars were starting to be judged for the ways they transitioned into an adult career. For young women, that often involved being sexualized. Wilson, at 13, knew she didn't want to be part of that. Yet, she found that as a public figure, it was inevitable.

"I had already been sexualized anyway, and I hated it. I mostly acted in family movies — the remake of 'Miracle on 34th Street,' 'Matilda,' 'Mrs. Doubtfire.' I never appeared in anything more revealing than a knee-length sundress. This was all intentional: My parents thought I would be safer that way," Wilson recalled in an essay she penned for The New York Times

"But it didn't work. People had been asking me, 'Do you have a boyfriend?' in interviews since I was 6. Reporters asked me who I thought the sexiest actor was and about Hugh Grant's arrest for soliciting a prostitute. It was cute when 10-year-olds sent me letters saying they were in love with me. It was not when 50-year-old men did. Before I even turned 12, there were images of me on foot fetish websites and photoshopped into child pornography. Every time, I felt ashamed."

With these experiences, it's no surprise that Wilson walked away from acting for over a decade. Now, she pursues acting and writing on her own terms.