Mara Wilson has spent her whole life in the shadow of Matilda, the gifted young girl she portrayed in the film of the same name when she was just seven. “There are times I feel like she's perfect and maybe that's slightly annoying,” she explains. “People think I'm Matilda and I'm not – I don't want to disappoint them. Nobody can measure up to her.” She’s right about at least one thing: sat across from her, I do believe she’s the girl who introduced me to a love of libraries and learning. But she’s also wrong at the same time – she more than measures up to Matilda; she towers above her.
We’re meeting because Roald Dahl’s Matilda is celebrating her 30th birthday, an apparent milestone for any woman, even a child genius with magical powers. It’s the time we’re expected to be settled, to start thinking about children, to have our shit together. For Matilda, perhaps obviously, these things aren’t on the agenda – instead, we’re invited to imagine her job in a set of three new editions of Dahl’s original novel, each illustrated by the author’s long-term collaborator, Quentin Blake. In his mind, she’s now an astrophysicist or a world traveller or the chief executive of the British Library. In mine, she’s all three – and Wilson agrees: “She’s probably done everything at some point.”
“I do think she very easily could've been an astrophysicist,” she continues, referring to the book with the dark-blue cover. “Though I think academia would be pretty stifling for her. There is some sort of ivory-tower separation from everything and that's not something she would particularly like. I have a brother who is a scientist and works in academia; I have a lot of friends and have dated a lot of people in academia and it can be hard.” More likely, Wilson says, is that Matilda made her way back to her “first home”, the library.
Growing up with Matilda felt like being in a sister’s shadow. Now, I’m glad I was part of something
The library is where Roald Dahl first brings the character of Matilda to life. Away from her nasty, uncaring parents, she buries herself in books – Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Secret Garden, Moby Dick, Animal Farm, Brighton Rock, the list goes on and on. So does Wilson’s. When she was a child, she read everything, from the Betsy-Tacy books to Roxaboxen; from the His Dark Materials series to Harry Potter; she read historical fiction, Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens and, as most American teenage girls do, Judy Blume. Of course, she also read Dahl, although she does note he is seen as a little “dark” over in the States – she was allowed to read him because her mother had a similar sense of humour. There are around 20 other books included in Wilson’s list, although, even as she continues, she seems completely unaware of how Matilda-esque she sounds. It’s the same when she lists the amazing teachers she’s had the pleasure of working with, each one a Miss Honey to different stages of Wilson’s life.
It’s not the only time she sounds like the plucky girl who once blew up her parent’s TV – a particular moment from the movie Wilson wishes people wouldn’t focus on, even if it is “cool”. “I feel sad when all people want to talk about are the magic powers. I feel like some of her most effective pranks are ones she did without magic powers,” she explains. “It takes away from the allegorical nature of the book, which is about education giving you powers.” Having said that, she doesn’t blame anyone for remembering Matilda’s telekinetic abilities. In fact, it’s hard to believe the Matilda I grew up with would say anything different.
Everyone feels like they have their own Matilda. Mine is a cheeky, mischievous bookworm with a good heart and a strong sense of right and wrong. Your Matilda probably holds the same characteristics, but maybe with an added sense of restraint or wildness. Wilson isn’t precious over the character either way: “I don't feel like I own her – sometimes, I feel like she owns me. Perhaps I understand her a little bit better than other people do. For example, I understand why she would not want a sequel… I like that there’s not a sequel.” Another preference she and her fictitious alter-ego share.
Both women are fascinating, layered and, frankly, hilarious characters. They take things seriously, but are highly sensitive to the hilarity and ridiculousness of real life – for example, in her newsletter, Shan’t We Tell The Vicar?, Wilson frequently imagines possible BBC television programmes, including Step-Mum, Step-Mum, You’re a Step-Mum; Is It Currently Raining; and, my personal favourite, Mum Stole Me Marmite! “At the time, it was hard for me to grasp,” says Wilson, referring to her time on the set of Matilda, where she celebrated her eighth birthday with director and co-star Danny DeVito, a giant cake in the shape of a red ribbon and a 40s-style American Girl doll. “But I'm very proud of her. I'm proud of the part she has taken in people's lives.”
When asked to sum up her relationship to Matilda, Wilson is quick to pronounce it as sisterly, and equally as quick to follow it up with an explanation: “Sometimes, I'm frustrated with her, but I also adore her. I have a little sister and we are very close, but I'm a little sister as well to my older brothers. So, when I say that it's a sisterly relationship, that's high praise coming from me.” Matilda may exist in our heads, on our bookcases and on our Sunday-afternoon TV schedules, but, for Wilson, she’s a state of mind and a constant bar to measure herself against – it’s impossible to understand how that feels, but one story she tells me puts it into perspective.
“Once, I had a teacher who was very Trunchbull-like,” she tells me. “She yelled at me once for correcting her when I said a book can have more than one character... but it can. I should have brought in A Tale Of Two Cities. I should've asked her who the main character was and asked her whether she ever thought about dual narrative. I really wish I had done it; that's one of the few things in my life I regret.” If that’s not a case of taking a leaf out of Matilda’s book, I don’t know what is. Of course, Mara Wilson isn’t Matilda – but Matilda might just have grown up to become Mara Wilson.