Mara Wilson has turned the “where are they now” trope on its head with a new book of essays. Where Am I Now gets real about Wilson’s experiences as as the child actress who won hearts around the world in Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire, Miracle On 34th Street, and more. She writes deeply into her experience with grief after her mother’s death when she was 8. She dishes on her crushes, her show choir, and some very interesting corners of show business. Most of all, she offers her reflections as an adult writer and artist living in New York City and still trying to figure out what it means to “make it.” She speaks frankly about body image — and what it feels like to be on lists of ugliest former child stars.
Although Wilson is formerly famous, and now Twitter famous with 300 thousand followers, her writing feels deeply relatable to me as a twenty-something with a mish mashed career and a cloud of dreams.
And there’s also this — a few days after the Orlando shooting, Wilson came out as Bi/Queer on Twitter. Though in the book she describes herself as straight, there’s plenty of queerness in these pages (did I mention show choir?) for us to discover.
We are delighted to share more of her wisdom, humor and advice about storytelling as well as her very first girl crush in the following interview.
Autostraddle: How are you? How is your year? How does all of this – the book, the publicity, life in 2016 as a weirdo artist – how does it feel?
Mara Wilson: It’s been a busy year. A lot has happened, it’s been sort of the best of times and the worst of times. I’m getting through it, though, and I’m feeling optimistic. I’m excited about the book and the future, if a bit nervous. But then, I’m always nervous.
AS: It’s wild how life changes in an instant. In the book you refer to yourself several times as a straight woman. But in June, after the devastation of Orlando, you came out as bisexual/Queer. Why did that moment inspire you to come out publicly? Were you out in your personal life before that?
MW: I was out to my close friends and to most of my family, though it was a relatively recent announcement. Fortunately, they were all supportive, and it didn’t seem to be much of a surprise. I told one of my brothers while we were at a Mexican restaurant, and he did not even look up from his enchilada. When I came out to my best friend from college, she just looked at me quizzically — she thought I was already out! (“I’ve seen you make out with like three different women.”)
I did not know if I was ever going to come out publicly. I’m not exactly paparazzi material, but I do remember worrying “What if I’m out on a date with a woman or someone non-binary, and someone sees and tweets about it?” I had hinted at it on Twitter, and thought maybe I would just be one of those kind of Bi/Queer women who never makes a statement, you just see them dating a woman one day. (Ideally, that woman would be Janelle Monae or Kate McKinnon.) But I had already had a rough month, full of loss and stress, and the Orlando attack really shook me. I was sad, frustrated, scared. It was an impulsive decision, emotional rather than rational, but I guess at that moment I didn’t want to hide anymore.
I am fortunate to be in a community where many of my close friends and peers are LGBTQ. I did not think this would be a very big deal. I certainly did not think it would trend on Facebook. If I had known it would, I don’t think I would have done it just then. I had strangers telling me I was just doing this for attention and that I was taking advantage of a tragedy, which was the last thing I wanted to do. I felt less than great about it for a few days. What helped was taking some time off Twitter, and also asking all of my LGBTQ friends to tell me their horrible, embarrassing, hilarious coming out stories. (I also went with Queer female friends to an Indigo Girls concert, because apparently I never do anything halfway.)
Eventually, though, I looked at the feedback I was getting and noticed that the vast majority of it was positive. A lot of “welcome to the club!” and “You know, I always thought you were” and even a few “You just gave me the courage to come out to my parents” messages. While it was difficult at the time, ultimately, I am glad to be out. Especially if it can help people who aren’t.
AS: Reading the book, I noticed a lot of queer flags throughout – an obsession with Skins, your teenage frumpy lesbian style, comparing yourself to Kristen Stewart. What are some queer touchstones of your life that you personally look back on, the memories that make it all make sense?
MW: Oh, there were SO MANY. For one, the little girl in my preschool class who said she wanted to marry me! She must have picked up on some vibes. And when we played House in Kindergarten, I would pretend to be a carpenter. I was way too happy when Princess Aurora hugged me at Disneyland, and way too annoyed when loser guys hit on particular female friends. I desperately wanted to be “best friends” with smart, beautiful, cool girls, and most of my close friends, the ones who understood me best, were Queer women.
Yet I always considered myself “straight, with exceptions.” But at what point do your exceptions disprove the rule? When your exception count is over 10, you might want to start rethinking it. It took me well until my late-mid-twenties, but I finally did.
AS: In your tweets, you called yourself a Kinsey 2 while owning your queer identity, and it meant so much to see that. What does the bi label mean to you? What does it feel like to be out in such a public way with an identity label that gets a lot of bad press? What has the response been?
MW: I am one of those weirdos who likes labels, or at least, I like to label myself. But I think coming out has also made me realize there’s a limit to labels. Calling myself bisexual doesn’t always seem to fit, and for some reason pansexual just doesn’t feel right to me. Queer seems the best fit, but not everyone knows what that means. It’s a question of defining myself on my terms, or on others’.
My Kinsey number has gone up and down throughout the course of my life, though I’ve never been a zero. I justified not coming out for a long time because I hadn’t been in a serious relationship with a woman. But I talked with my friend Dylan Marron when everything was going down, when I was having doubts about myself, and he reminded me that being Queer is not about who you’re with, it’s about who you are. To put it in a slightly less eloquent way, I can color my hair red, but I’m always a brunette.
I know a lot of people don’t like the Kinsey scale, and that is fine by me. But I’m pragmatic at heart and find comfort in numbers.
— Mara Wilson (@MaraWritesStuff) June 13, 2016
I also justified not coming out because I thought people would say it was because I wanted “attention.” I’d heard it said a million times before: “They just want attention, they’re not bisexual.” Or even worse, “They just want attention, there’s no such thing as bisexual.” A few years ago I once said “I think I may be bisexual” in the company of a few friends and one of them actually told me, “No, you’re not, Mara.” Incidentally, we are not friends anymore. Now, clearly, I like attention: having hundreds of people like my tweets about cats feels awesome. But I have a book, I have a show, I have a publicist, I have plenty of ways to get attention. This is just who I am. It’s also strange to me that people seem to think the most despicable thing a woman can do is want attention, but that’s a whole other subject.
AS: The way you write about your mother’s death and your grief resonates so deeply. My father died of colon cancer when I was 10. And in fact I know a lot of queer folks with at least one dead parent. What did it feel like for you to write so rawly about her love, her imperfections, and the impossibility of losing her?
MW: I’m so sorry to hear that about your father. Regarding my mother, she had an indelible impact on my life, and she was such a force that it almost seems strange to me that other people don’t know about her. It wasn’t until I was more than halfway through the book that I realized part of what I had set out to do with this book was memorialize her. So much of it is a tribute.
AS: What’s your favorite NYC independent book store? What are your favorite kinds of reading and storytelling events, and what advice do you have for other folks who want to get involved in the scene?
MW: There are so many great ones! Word in Greenpoint is fantastic, as is Astoria Bookshop. They seem small but they have amazing selections. Drama Bookshop is great if you’re a drama nerd, which I am, and Kinokuniya is great for comics. The Strand is great, but everybody knows about it already. And any bookstore that has a cat is fine by me.
As for storytelling, my favorite shows are the ones that are warm and welcoming, rather than edgy and antagonistic. There’s definitely room to push the boundaries in storytelling, but it should be done to give the audience catharsis, to make them think and feel, not just to make them angry and uncomfortable. Not to mention that the shows that are warm and welcoming often have the most challenging, fascinating, provocative stories, because people feel safe sharing them there.
There are storytelling shows in nearly every big city and college town these days, so don’t be scared to give it a shot! And remember: an anecdote is just a recounting, while a story requires a change.
AS: What else do you want to share with the AS audience? Parting advice or anecdotes for a loving audience of queer women and non-binary folks?
MW: First of all, thank you for being so welcoming!
Anyway, I hear “Miss Honey was my first girl crush” all the time, and I actually love hearing that. But just for the record, no, she wasn’t mine. Embeth Davidtz was beautiful, and sweet to me, but more like a big sister.
However, when I was nine, I was cast in Rhea Perlman’s sitcom Pearl, about a middle-aged woman who goes to college. I played a child genius (again) who’s studying quantum physics and tutors Rhea’s character. There was one actress on the set I immediately took a shine to: she just radiated elegance and intelligence, and was so funny and kind. Her character didn’t like mine, so she went out of her way to let me know she liked me. I thought she was beautiful, looked forward to our one scene together, and when she called in sick in one day, I was devastated. Several years later I looked back on that and thought, “Oh. That was my first big crush on a woman. That’s what that was.” It was a revelatory moment.
So, wherever she may be now… I am much obliged, Lucy Liu!