Exclusive: Mara Wilson On 'Matilda', Mental Illness And Laughing Off Those Who Call Her A ‘Has-Been’

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.”

(Photo: Supplied)

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.”

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.” 

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.” 

Okay to Say have partnered with Thrive LDN for World Mental Health day. Mara will be opening a film festival on Wednesday 10 October with a talk, and is also speaking at an evening showcase.

Love HuffPost? Become a founding member of HuffPost Plus today.


Children's Mental Health Week: How To Speak To Children About Issues Affecting Their Mental Health

Mental Health Awareness - Are We As Clued Up As We Could Be?

Also on HuffPost

Demi Lovato, 24

Demi Lovato spoke about her bipolar disorder diagnosis as part of a campaign for mental health group Be Vocal

"Getting a diagnosis was kind of a relief," she said. "It helped me start to make sense of the harmful things I was doing to cope with what I was experiencing. Now I had no choice but to move forward and learn how to live with it, so I worked with my health care professional and tried different treatment plans until I found what works for me.

"Living well with bipolar disorder is possible, but it takes patience, it takes work and it is an ongoing process. The reality is that you’re not a car that goes into a shop and gets fixed right away. Everyone’s process and treatment plan may be different.

"I am so grateful for my life today and I want to protect it. It isn’t always easy to take positive steps each day, but I know I have to in order to stay healthy. If you are struggling today with a mental health condition, you may not be able to see it as clearly right away but please don’t give up – things can get better.

"You are worthy of more and there are people who can help. Asking for help is a sign of strength."

Professor Green, 33

Chatting to Freddie Flintoff for Heads Together's latest campaign #ItsOkToSay, Professor Green said: "I think I was born with anxiety. I used to take a lot of time off school. I was brought up by my grandmother, my dad was 18 when I was born, my mum was only 16. And my mum was the first person to leave when I was a year old.

"I was 24 and my dad took his own life. And it wasn't until years later when I did a documentary for the BBC and I had a conversation with my nan - it's weird that this happened for the first time on camera - but we spoke about it properly and I broke down.

"And I was petrified, it scared me that people were going to see me at my most vulnerable in a way that I don't often see myself. But that conversation changed everything because from that point, everything was out in the open and I was able to then talk to my friends about it."

Ellie Goulding, 30

Ellie Goulding has previously spoken about her battle with anxiety and panic attacks, revealing that she underwent cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help her deal with her struggles.

She told Flare magazine“I was skeptical at first because I’d never had therapy, but not being able to leave the house was so debilitating. And this was when my career was really taking off.

"My surroundings would trigger a panic attack, so I couldn’t go to the studio unless I was lying down in the car with a pillow over my face. I used to beat myself up about it.

“There were a couple of times after I released ‘Delirium’ when I was doing promo and thought, 'Oh god, it’s coming back, it’s coming back,' but it didn’t. I think my body has become quite good at controlling anxiety."

Stormzy, 23

Grime and hip hop artist Stormzy has taken a new approach to discussing mental health, by rapping about his experiences of depression in single 'Lay Me Bare'. 

Speaking to Channel 4 about the track, he said: "If there's anyone out there going through it, I think for them to see that I went through it, it would help.

"Because for a long time I used to think that soldiers don't go through that. You know? Like, strong people in life, the bravest, the most courageous people, they don't go through that, they just get on with it.

"That's not the case. I feel like I always come across confidently and happy. I just present myself in a positive way so I can spread that. So people will be looking at and thinking I don't go through nothing, so for me to let people know that I do, I felt it's important for me to let people know that."

Dame Kelly Holmes, 47

Dame Holmes opened up about her depression battle, self-harming and the need to seek help in an open letter which the athlete tweeted during Mental Health Awareness Week.

She wrote: "I suffered in silence. And for too long. Behind closed doors - literally - I self-harmed to try and relieve the depression I was suffering as I struggled to overcome injuries that I thought would end my career. My body was constantly letting me down and then my mind did as well.

"Looking back, I wonder why I kept my feelings secret for so long. Even after I came through the worst, I didn't let on to people outside of my immediate family.

"Truth is, the stigma attached to mental health 12 years ago was a massive barrier for me. So I kept quiet, held it in and hid my mental health problems.

"Fast forward to today and people are talking more openly about mental health issues. But there's still a long way to go before people talk about mental health as openly as they do about heart disease or cancer."

Ryan Reynolds, 40

The actor opened up about suffering with lifelong anxiety and the effects the mental illness had on him while filming 'Deadpool'. 

He told Variety: “Our father was tough. He wasn’t easy on anyone. And he wasn’t easy on himself. I think the anxiety might have started there, trying 
to find ways to control others by trying to control myself. At the time, I never recognised that. I was just a twitchy kid.

"[When filming Deadpool] I never, ever slept. Or I was sleeping at a perfect right angle – just sitting straight, constantly working at the same time. By the time we were in post [production], we’d been to Comic-Con, and people went crazy for it. The expectations were eating me alive.

"Blake helped me through that. I’m lucky to have her around just to keep me sane."

Lena Dunham, 30

Dunham sat down with comedian Jacqueline Novak, on behalf of Refinery 29, to discuss her struggles with anxiety.

“I’ve always been anxious,
but I haven’t been the kind of anxious that makes you run 10 miles a day and make a lot of calls on your Blackberry," she said. "I’m the kind of anxious that makes you like, ‘I’m not going to be able to come out tonight, tomorrow night or maybe for the next 67 nights'.”

Zayn Malik, 24

Malik opened up about having an eating disorder and struggling with anxiety issues.

He told Sunday Times magazine: “Every area of my life was so regimented and controlled it was the one area where I could say, ‘No, I’m not eating that’. Once I got over the control, the eating just came back into place, super naturally.

"I came back to the UK and spent some time with my mum and got some TLC, and she cooked me food and I got back in touch, mentally, with a lot of the things I’d lost."

Discussing his anxiety struggles, he added: “I now have no problem with anxiety. It was something I was dealing with in the band.”

Lady Gaga, 31

In an open letter to fans about her battle with PTSD, Gaga wrote: "I have wrestled for some time about when, how and if I should reveal my diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After five years of searching for the answers to my chronic pain and the change I have felt in my brain, I am finally well enough to tell you.

"There is a lot of shame attached to mental illness, but it’s important that you know that there is hope and a chance for recovery."

Stephen Fry, 59

In a BBC documentary 'The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive', the comedian, actor and author spoke about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"I'd never heard the word before, but for the first time, at the age of 37, I had a diagnosis that explained the massive highs and miserable lows I've lived with all my life," he said.

"The psychiatrist...recommended I take a long break. I came here to America and for months I saw a therapist and walked up and down this beach. My mind was full of questions. Am I now mad? How have I got this illness, could it have been prevented, can I be cured of it? Since then, I have discovered just how serious it is to have bipolarity, or manic depression as it's also called. Four million others in the UK have it and many of them end up killing themselves.

"I want to speak out, to fight the public stigma and to give a clearer picture of a mental illness most people know little about."

Selena Gomez, 24

Gomez has been incredibly open about her poor mental health and how it affects her work and life.

In a previous interview with Vogue, she said: “Tours are a really lonely place for me. My self-esteem was shot. I was depressed, anxious. I started to have panic attacks right before getting onstage, or right after leaving the stage. Basically I felt I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t capable.”

In 2016, she said she was taking time off to deal with panic attacks, anxiety and depression which were a side effect of her lupus diagnosis.

She said in a statement: "As many of you know, around a year ago I revealed that I have lupus, an illness that can affect people in different ways.

"I've discovered that anxiety, panic attacks and depression can be side effects of lupus, which can present their own challenges.

"I want to be proactive and focus on maintaining my health and happiness and have decided that the best way forward is to take some time off."

Prince William, 34

The Duke of Cambridge called for an end to the “stiff upper lip” culture in a bid to encourage more people to open up about mental health issues - especially men.

He told charity magazine CALMzine: “We will all go through tough times in our lives, but men especially feel the need to pretend that everything is OK, and that admitting this to their friends will make them appear weak. I can assure you this is actually a sign of strength.”

Carol Vorderman, 56

Carol Vorderman has bravely spoken about the debilitating depression she has experienced while going through the menopause and how it led to suicidal thoughts. 

She told ITV’s ‘Lorraine’: "This depression hit me - and I don’t use the word depression lightly. This was a blackness where I would wake up - nothing else in my life was going wrong, I’m a very lucky woman, no money worries or nothing like that - and I would wake up and think ‘I don’t see the point in carrying on. I just don’t see the point in life.'

“And there was no reason to feel that way and the only reason I didn’t do anything, and I’ve not admitted it before, is because I had two children."

She said that from the moment she started taking medication for it, she felt better.  

"I’ve been fed up, and obviously at the moment my mum is not well so I’m upset," she explained. "But there is a reason for all of those things whereas before there was no reason for it and it was absolutely, categorically to do with hormones."

Kid Cudi, 33

Last year, the singer shared a candid Facebook post explaining that he'd checked himself into rehab because he was experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts. 

"It's been difficult for me to find the words to what I'm about to share with you because I feel ashamed. Ashamed to be a leader and hero to so many while admitting I've been living a lie," he wrote.

"It took me a while to get to this place of commitment, but it is something I have to do for myself, my family, my best friend/daughter and all of you, my fans.

"Yesterday I checked myself into rehab for depression and suicidal urges. I am not at peace. I haven't been since you've known me. If I didn't come here, I would've done something to myself. I simply am a damaged human swimming in a pool of emotions everyday of my life.

"Theres a raging violent storm inside of my heart at all times. Idk (I don't know) what peace feels like. Idk how to relax. My anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember and I never leave the house because of it.

"I can't make new friends because of it. I don't trust anyone because of it and I'm tired of being held back in my life. I deserve to have peace. I deserve to be happy and smiling."

Cara Delevingne, 24

When rumours were circulating that Delevingne was going to quit modelling, she tweeted: "I suffer from depression and was a model during a particularly rough patch of self hatred.

"I am so lucky for the work I get to do, but I used to work to try and escape and just ended up completely exhausting myself.

"I am focusing on filming and trying to learn how to not pick apart my every flaw. I am really good at that."

Prince Harry, 32

Prince Harry sat down with Bryony Gordon to discuss how losing his mum - and not grieving properly - affected his mental health. 

“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12
, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well," he explained.

“I have probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions when all sorts of grief and sort of lies and misconceptions and everything are coming to you from every angle.

“My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help? [I thought] it’s only going to make you sad, it’s not going to bring her back. So from an emotional side, I was like ‘right, don’t ever let your emotions be part of anything’.

"I was a typical 20, 25, 28-year-old running around going ‘life is great’, or ‘life is fine’. And then [I] started to have a few conversations and actually all of a sudden, all of this grief that I have never processed started to come to the 
forefront and I was like, there is actually a lot of stuff here that I need to deal with."

Frankie Bridge, 28

The former Saturdays singer spoke to Glamour about her depression battle: “One night, I got upset because Wayne hadn't bought the right yoghurts; I managed to convince myself that he didn't know me at all.

"It set off this spiral of negative thinking - that if I disappeared, it wouldn't matter to anyone. In fact, it would make everybody's life easier. I felt that I was worthless, that I was ugly, that I didn't deserve anything."

She sought help and has since been on the road to recovery.

"Nine times out of 10, my depression is under control, she added. "I get a bit emotional to think I felt so low about myself, that I shouldn't be around people I love, because I can't make them happy. I did lose myself, but I feel like me again now."

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.