A Conversation With Mara Wilson — Part One

By Jennie Roberson

December 28, 2019



Photo credit: Ari Scott

When I was reading #bicon Mara Wilson’s autobiography Where Am I Now?, I was curious what she had been up to lately. Turns out, the answer is: a helluva lot. From voiceover work to indelible podcasting performances, Wilson has been absurdly busy these days.

Recently Mara was gracious enough to let me do an expansive phone interview with her about what her world looks like these days — so much so that we decided to do bi.org's first two-part interview! In the first part, we discussed brownie batter as a writing metaphor, queer American Dolls theories — and of course, all about her long journey into queerness. And that was just for a start!

JENNIE ROBERSON: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview; I really appreciate it and I’m really excited to talk with you.

Mara Wilson: Thank you so much for wanting to interview me!

How did you come to identify as bi or queer?

MW: I remember thinking to myself when I was young that bisexuality made more sense to me than being straight or being gay. It made more sense to me intrinsically. I thought, “Well, yeah, it makes sense to me that people would be attracted to more than one kind of person.” And I remember having that thought, but thinking: “But that’s just sort of an abstract thing; that’s not a real thought.”

And I remember being attracted to girls and having crushes on girls in middle school, and at a really young age, too. I think that when I was like prepubescent, I didn’t really realize that they were crushes. In middle school and high school, I would think that they were crushes, but then be like, “No, of course not, it’s something else.” I would blame it on something else. It took a really long time.

There were also a lot of reasons I didn’t identify with it for a really long time. I think [by] the time I was coming of age in the 2000s, there was sort of this idea of: “you’re doing it for attention.”


MW: There was a lot of stuff culturally — and this is even pre-Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” —  but there was a lot of like, “Girls make out with each other for attention.” And I was often accused of liking attention. [Laughs] Which I think I do; a lot of young girls do, and a lot of people of all genders do. I think it’s kind of telling culturally that one of the worst things that people can do — especially if they are young and a woman, or not a man, anyway — they can want attention.

So I was wary of that, and I also felt a lot of pressure on me — because I was a child actor — to be a good girl. I felt like being bisexual had kind of a bad reputation. When I was growing up, the way people would talk about LGBTI people was like… if somebody had committed a crime and gone to jail, and it was like a stupid crime. One borne out of — well, not borne out of poverty or necessity, but like: “[sighs] Can you believe that?” It was not the worst thing ever, but something slightly disgraceful.

Or you feel like you’re under arrest for being queer because of this internalized biphobia.

MW: Yeah, exactly! It was seen as a joke. I never saw anything about women loving women that wasn’t a joke. That wasn’t like: “They’re ugly, they’re hideous, they have no power, they’re pathetic, they’re whiny.” I saw nothing about it that was positive in any way. “They’re weird, they’re different, they are to be pitied.”

I did have a lot of my friends who were embracing their sexuality. But I felt like I couldn’t for a really long time because I felt sort of like impostor syndrome. “Well, probably everybody has these feelings. Everybody has these thoughts.” And I did find boys I could date, and cis boys that I could date.

I think I always kind of suspected, but I would shy away from experimenting with girls. And I would have a lot of bisexual friends being like: “Oh, are you sure you’re not?” And I would get angry at them because I was like: “No, no, definitely not. Don’t force me out of this.”

I felt like I had too much going on already. “Oh, I have mental illnesses, I have all of this baggage from my childhood. Being not straight would be too much baggage as well.” And it’s so funny because none of these things are rational, you know? I would say [to friends] “I have crushes on girls,” and they would reply, “Yeah, but you’re really not bisexual.” I would have friends do that. There was a lot of gatekeeping.

And so when I did start identifying and I did open up about it, and I did cry to my therapist about it, she was just kind of like: “You know I’ve known this for years, right?”

One of the funniest parts is when I told one of my brothers, we were out eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant. And when I told him, he didn’t even look up from his enchilada.

“Yeah, that’s great; just pass the guac.”

MW: He was just like: “Oh, you’re dating women now?” And I was like, “Yeah.” “OK.” It just was not a surprise to him at all. It wasn’t a surprise to any of my friends around me. So everybody kind of knew, everybody figured it out. But I felt like I had so many reasons for not wanting to do it. I felt like I had so many things keeping me in.

Yeah, absolutely — it takes a long time to come to terms with yourself about that. I understand and empathize.

What has your experience been like being out as a queer artist and writer?

MW: It’s been great. Honestly, I was under a lot of stress when I came out; it was a really hard time for me. I’d just gone through a lot of loss in my family and friends, and I was really struggling. So I often wish I hadn’t come out in the way I did because I was accused of — of course — wanting attention, or co-opting a tragedy to be about me. And I hadn’t meant to make a big statement. I meant to say I was thankful to the community for being welcoming to me. But I felt like people were challenging me, and pushing me into a corner, where I felt like I had to admit something before I was ready.

So it was not a rational decision, it was an impulsive decision. So I kind of wish I hadn’t done it in that way; I wish I had done it in a much more casual way, at a time when stakes were lower. But that said, I am so happy that I came out. Honestly, I’m happy every single day.

I remember when I had first started coming out to people I had been really depressed. I had been having really bad seasonal affective disorder — I’d just been feeling frustrated. And then the day I started telling people: “Hey, would it be a surprise if I said that I was bisexual?” and everybody around me said: “…No,” [laughs] I just felt a great weight lifted. I felt so good. I felt so honest and open, and so comfortable with myself. It felt like there was so much peace.

And it didn’t change that much about the way that I lived my life; it just made me a little less afraid, which was good. There were things like holding hands for the first time with a woman in public and not having to worry about it. I remember being just so proud to be holding hands with somebody I was dating across a table at a restaurant. Or us walking down the street together and how nice that was. I’m also lucky that I’ve lived in New York and L.A., where these things are pretty common.

So it really did feel like a great weight lifted. I was really happy, and I’m really glad I did it. It feels really good.

How do you see yourself as an artist and writer, and how does being bi or queer fold into that?

MW: Oh, that’s interesting. There’s always just been a million things I’ve wanted to do, and a lot of things that I’ve wanted to try. Unfortunately, I don’t think that I have the complete confidence a lot of people who do a lot of different things have. A lot of them tend to be men, and they’ll just kind of try new things and do different things. I know some who will just be like, “Yeah, I decided I’m going to direct a movie”, or “I decided I’m going to do this, I decided I’m going to do that”. [But] I’m a worrier, I’m a doubter. I have impostor syndrome. So I kind of second-guess everything, and I don’t really have that [quality].

But a lot of things come back to me telling stories. I really just love the telling and hearing of peoples’ stories — and also promoting other peoples’ stories, that's really important to me as well. I think especially since I have a big platform, what’s most important to me is to elevate other people. “This person has an interesting story; please learn more about them, please hear more about them, please listen to what they have to say.”

So I think that’s what’s at the core of who I am. I don’t think I’m somebody who is an outsider who likes to be an outsider. I don’t think that that’s the kind of person I like to be. I kind of like to feel that I’m a part of something, but I think it’s hard for me to feel [that way.] There’s always a part of my mind that’s always worrying, second-guessing. There have been times where I always felt a little bit on the outside; I think I thought when I was young it was ‘cause I was the first daughter in a house full of boys, a middle child, the only child on a film set. And that I think is something that is part of my book — I always just felt like I was a little bit on the outside, even though I didn’t want to be.

I never wanted to be a loner. I liked being places where I belonged. But it was hard for me. And I do feel like that might also have to be with a little bit of, like: “Oh, I recognize I was a little bit different than some other kids when I was young because I was queer.” Or I noticed that I had things in common with other kids I couldn’t quite identify yet, you know?

I think about the fact that my preschool boyfriend who said we were gonna get married — we were best friends and did everything together — grew up to also not be straight. So we joke we had the lavender marriage at Burbank Temple Emanu El Preschool.

I think that [being bi] added to my feeling a little bit more outside, but it’s also added to my feelings of being able to be a part of a community. Because there are times when I’m with a group of people — like women who love women, or women and nonbinary people — [where] I feel like there is a part of myself I can show them I can’t necessarily show other people. And that’s really nice.

So I feel like my queerness kind of — and I also know not everybody likes the word “queer”; I like it but I also know not everybody does — feels very much like both I can be kind of slightly separate from the world, but also that I am part of something as well. I’m part of a community that’s bigger than myself. So there’s this kind of interesting existence.

I think that’s actually a lot of what my book is about. It’s about feeling like you’re on the outside and trying to find places on the inside where you can fit in.

Anything about yourself that you would like people to know that maybe isn’t part of your public persona?

MW: I always want to learn. I want to be corrected when I’m wrong, or I want to at least try to improve myself.

There are a lot of people who will stand up for what they believe in and they’ll stand firm. And I think especially in American culture that’s seen as an admirable thing. But for me — I don’t know, maybe it’s because I grew up in a family with a lot of scientists and a lot of people who work in helping others and education— it’s also looking at [what] the situation needs and being more flexible in response to that. I am scientific-minded in the way that I want to discover more and to learn more, but I want to make sure it’s the truth, you know? I wanna make sure I’m understanding — I studied social science in college as well as theatre — that I’m understanding other peoples’ experiences.

There are way more important things to me than being right. That’s something I try to stay with. Because I do feel like I come across — especially on the internet— people are like, “Wow, you’re way angrier and harder on the internet” … and I’m like: “Yeah, it’s true.” I have no patience for people who are inconsiderate or bigoted. But I think that the most important thing is… I think the world would be a better place if we could all admit when we were wrong more often.

Yes! Absolutely.

MW: God knows that I talk a lot, but I also think sometimes you also just really need to listen.

It’s funny; I moved to New York thinking I was gonna meet everybody like me because I felt like I was dark and cynical. And as I lived in New York, I became less cynical and realized I’m always on a self-improvement kick. I think that’s the Californian in me. Now that I’ve moved back to California, I’ll be like: “Well, I’m really trying to do this right now, I’m really trying to do that right now.”

So I think the most important thing I want people to know about me is I’m always trying. [Laughs] I’m sometimes trying other people’s patience as well. So sometimes trying in more ways than one. But I want to be fair to people, I want to understand people.

And sometimes people want me to be their best friend, they want me to do things for them, and sometimes I just do not have the time or energy to do that.

Yeah, you’ve only got so many spoons! That’s okay.

MW: Exactly. But I always want to learn and grow.

I was thinking of saying if anybody knew how much everything I do is ruled by anxiety, they would probably change their opinions of me. But I’m starting to get the feeling people do know that about me. [Laughs]

Someone tweeted [this] the other day And I actually saved the image on my phone and asked my friends, “Is this me?” And they were like yes, it very much is. Somebody said: 

And I [retweeted it and] wrote: “Somebody described my energy thusly and I really hope this is true.” My friends were like: “Yes, absolutely, can confirm. 100% nailed it.” [Laughs]

“Yeah, that scans.”

What goes into the process of writing a memoir? You’ve been writing and telling stories since you were a kid, but what’s different about this specific process?

MW: Well, it was interesting because some of these were stories that came to me fully formed; they had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The one about my sister… we were talking over Skype, and I was like, “Oh, I know exactly how to frame this conversation. This is a story, and this is a framework to tell a larger story about me and my sister.”

That was one of my favorite chapters.

MW: It’s one of mine as well. You know, my dad and brothers are like, “You can write about us if you like”. My sister is like: “You should write more about me.” She’s really funny and really smart, so she actually is really fun to write about. She’s in the other room right now.

Hi, Anna!

MW: [Laughs] That [chapter] was really easy to write. And the story about the bombing at the bar in Greenpoint sprang out of my head fully-formed. That was a story I told a lot onstage. That one and the one about my sleeping with my friend’s friend visiting from South Africa. Those chapters, they were more like stories than essays, so they were really easy to write.

What was a little bit harder were the ones more like essays expounding on an idea, going back and forth in time. The “Dear Matilda” essay was one of the hardest ones to write because I had really complicated feelings about it. There was a lot of stuff I was still really bitter and frustrated about that I hadn’t really been able to express before. But there were [also] things I was grateful and happy about. My favorite college professor suggested I write a letter to Matilda at one point, and that really stuck with me. It took me… at least five years to be able to sit down and do it. But I did it. The [chapter] about OCD as well was really hard to write because it was more of an essay.

Sometimes when I feel like I’m writing something, it’s kind of like when you bake brownies; it solidifies around the edges but the middle is still gooey.

Ah yes, the smushy best part.

MW: It is, and it’s great, but you need to keep opening up the oven and testing it again to see if it’s good-smushy or if it’s actually just batter. [Laughs]

Going back and forth with my editor, all the notes she had going back and forth — and she was wonderful, so great and helpful — but the essays were a little bit harder to expand upon. But I think it really does speak to the idea I kind of narrativize everything. I think a lot of people have that [quality].

But I wanted to be able to tell my own stories. Some of these things were based upon a one-woman show I did when I was a senior in college. And it sold out every night, ‘cause for a long time in college, I just wasn’t talking about my experiences as a child actor. And when people would come in and they would talk to me about it, they would be like: “Oh my God, Mara, I can’t believe you brought that up.” Like it was a whole, horrible event, like it was about the time my house burned down or something terrible like that. But it was just like, “No, it can be kind of embarrassing, it can be kind of this and that.”

So finally I opened up about it and it got a good response. I eventually was able to do that and write about it. I feel kind of lucky because I’m always just happy to be writing anything. I know some people who are like, “I need to be writing speculative fiction, I need to be writing for TV, I need to be writing these kinds of things.” But honestly, like, I’m just happy writing.

I’m the same way. As long as my hands are hitting keystrokes, then I’m a happy girl.

MW: Exactly. So I’m lucky.

People ask sometimes, “What was the process?” But the thing is processes are different for different people, and there were days where the process was different than others. There were days where it was: “I’m gonna sit in my pajamas until five o’clock in the afternoon writing this.” And then there were days [of]: “I’m gonna go to a café and sit down and work at this as hard as I can.” And there were days where it was: “I’ve completely outlined this and I’m going to work on this.”

Really, it is about what works for you. I do think consistency is key. Working on these things, that stuff is very helpful. But I also think that it’s different for different people. And it’s different on different days.

Photo/Ari Scott

In the chapter detailing your time making Matilda, you mention the generosity of Danny DeVito and the crew making your birthday extra special, including giving you an American Girls doll. Do you still have Samantha?

MW: It wasn’t Samantha, it was Molly.

Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, I wrote it down wrong. Sorry, Molly!

MW: I think she’s in my parents’ basement. [Laughs]

But the funny thing about Molly is I think I always wanted Samantha, but Molly was a much better fit for me. And it’s so funny because every other woman I knew who had Molly turned out to be not straight, a comedian, or both. So, yeah — every Molly girl grew up to be funny. That’s something that I think is really funny.

But yeah, I think my parents have her. But oh man, that was so amazing. I was so excited.

It seems like that kind of self-diagnosing was a precursor for all of us doing the Sex and the City thing: whether we’re a Miranda or a Samantha, etc.

MW: Oh yeah, definitely. That was definitely a thing. And every now and then, I would tell people: “I don’t really like Sex and the City”, they would go: “Well, that’s because you’re a Miranda.”

I get it! I’m a Miranda, too. I had the same quibbles watching it.

The book covers a wide variety of subjects, from your creative work as a kid to love, mental illness, mean girls, and other parts of growing up. Is there anything that didn’t make the cut you wish you could have talked about more?

MW: Yeah, there were things about the nature of child stardom I think I could have talked about a little bit more because I have a lot of thoughts on that. I have a lot of thoughts on the way that people look at chid actors and judge child actors.

I had kind of a “not like other girls” attitude towards them when I was young, too, because, I mean, sometimes you had to be. I would be like, “Oh, well, I’m not like these famous child actors”. Sometimes you had to be competitive with a lot of the others. But at the same time, some of my friends were child actors. And I feel sad I had that kind of attitude towards them when I was very young. I grew out of is as I got a little older — which to me was, you know, nine or ten. But that was something I definitely wanted to talk about.

I do remember being tempted to write about having crushes on girls, but I remember as I was writing it, I felt like: “No, I’m just not ready to do that yet.”

Yeah, you have your own process. But I do feel like there were hints in the book in places, too, even if you didn’t spell it out for the readers.

MW: Yeah. There are definitely parts in there friends of mine would recognize.

One of the things I talk about there is seeing a guy with his shirt off, and how I was like: “Oh, yeah, I guess I do like this.” Because I’ve never been super attracted to masculinity. I’ve never seen his shirt off and been like, “That’s really what I want, a super-built guy.” But seeing it on a guy that I was already attracted to was like: “Oh, right. Yeah, okay, I do like this, I guess.”

Yeah, it compounds when it’s attached to the right person.

MW: Yeah, exactly. But not when it’s on somebody who’s that hyper-masculine type that I’m not attracted to, anyway.

So there’s definitely been crushes. It’s funny: people ask me a lot if Miss Honey, played by Embeth Davitz, was my first crush. And I’m like, “No, she was like a sister to me”. But there were other actresses I worked with I definitely had crushes on.

Probably a little bit more age-appropriate ones than that.

MW: Oh no. I had crushes on some. I did have crushes on some other actresses, some of whom would grow up to not be straight.

I do think it’s funny that I look at the girls I went out on auditions with that got my parts, and it was all Alia Shawkat and Kristen Stewart and Evan Rachel Wood and all these people. And if you look at us, we don’t look alike, we don’t have a lot in common but the one thing.

The queer factor!

MW: [Laughs] In terms of looks and personality we’re very different, but we have one thing in common, which I thought was really funny. I feel like casting directors know what they’re doing.

And I did have crushes sometimes on the older, grown-up women I worked with, but it was always very much like having a crush on a teacher.

Yeah, when you have an unrealistic crush, but it’s just present.

MW: Of course. It’s just like: “[gasps] I hope she’s on set today, I hope we get to see her. She’s so nice and she’s so pretty.”

*** This interview has been edited and truncated for clarity and brevity.

Check back in tomorrow to hear more about what projects Mara Wilson is currently working on. 


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