Mara Wilson talks geek culture, fame and Justin Bieber

In Hamilton, Ont., this weekend to meet fans at the city's ConBravo! convention, the Matilda star-turned-writer opened up about her thoughts on geek culture, the perils of early fame and coming of age in America during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Former child star appeared at ConBravo! convention in Hamilton, Ont.

Mara Wilson, who, as a child in the 1990s, starred in several blockbuster films, came to Hamilton, Ont., this weekend to meet fans and sign autographs at the city's ConBravo! convention. (Supplied)

American actress Mara Wilson is no stranger to fame.

She got a first big taste of it as a child, playing the sweet, youngest child of divorced parents in the 1993 comedy Mrs. Doubtfire. She later took on starring roles in the 1994 remake of the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street and the 1996 cult hit Matilda, an adaption of the Roald Dahl book of the same name.

Now 26 and living in New York City, Wilson has mostly given up on acting, choosing instead to channel her creative energy into writing for the stage and also for the web.  

In Hamilton, Ont., this weekend to meet fans and sign autographs at the city's ConBravo! convention, the former child star opened up to the CBC about her thoughts on "geek" culture, the perils of early fame, Justin Bieber and coming of age in America during the presidency of George W. Bush.

To start, you're here at ConBravo! and there are many people dressed up as their favourite science fiction and fantasy characters. What's the best costume you've seen so far?

Wilson appeared at the ConBravo! convention in Hamilton this weekend. The event attracted scores of sci-fi and fantasy fans, many of whom showed up wearing costumes. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

There was a woman who was, I think, the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland. Another one was a woman who was Captain America, but it was a women's costume. So it was like a women's dress. It was like Captain America at the debutante ball (Laughs). It was wonderful.

This convention purports to celebrate all things "geek." Where do you situate yourself in that culture?

I think I would say I'm more of a nerd. There's that geek-nerd-dork thing. I've always been more of a nerdy, academic type. I loved Star Wars growing up. I have three older brothers, so they were a big influence on me. We loved Danger Mouse and we love Monty Python. We loved any kind of British comedy and Wallace and Gromit and all of that stuff. So I would say I would be the nerdy, academic type and possibly the anglophile type.

People obviously come up to you and want to talk about the films you made as a child. How does it make you feel, given that you're working in a different field now?

For a very long time, it was hard for me to reconcile it. It was hard for me to think about it because it never really felt like something that I had accomplished. Acting just felt like something I did. It would be like someone saying to you, "Oh, you played peewee hockey, right? You did that? Oh my god, tell me more about it!" So for the longest time, I was like, "Well, you're talking a lot about something that was a long time ago and something that I don't take much pride in."

And then I realized that I should take pride in it. I had an impact on people's lives. And it was hard work. I'm especially proud of of Matilda. So I've come to accept it. This stuff was fun and it was rewarding and it means so much to me now. And it does mean a lot when people come up to me and say, "This was my childhood."

Wilson, pictured on the set of the 1999 film 'Thomas and the Magic Railroad,' said she's 'realized' [she] should take pride' in her time as a child actress. (Paul Vathis/AP Photo)

The behaviour of 19-year-old Canadian pop star Justin Bieber has made a lot of news lately, especially in his home country. As a former child star, do you think it's fair for critics to heap so much scorn upon him?

I think lately he's been doing things that are just rude. I saw a picture of him spitting on fans. You just can't do that.

But the thing about him is he went from zero-to-200 overnight. He went very, very quickly to fame — from being this kid from a small town in Canada to being an internationally known "thing." And he is a thing. He's not a person anymore. He's a thing. He's a brand. I think that it's got to be really hard for him.

Finally, I'd like to ask about Sheeple, the play that you've written that's appearing at the New York International Fringe Festival in August. It sounds like a quirky teen comedy that's set during the George W. Bush years. Why make that era the backdrop for your story?

I wanted to write about the feelings many of us went through in that age. I was a teenager then and I remember a feeling of hopelessness and feeling like, "We are never going to get out of this, we are never going to go anywhere, we don't know what we're doing." A lot of people knew exactly what they were against but they didn't know what they were for.

And that's a thing that I think is very much entrenched in teenage life. You know what you're against. You know what you don't like. You know what you don't want to be, but you don't what you are. And that's a feeling that I wanted to capture.

Mara Wilson as Matilda