For young contemporary audiences, the work of British writer Roald Dahl is well known not for the delights of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but instead for the contemporary cult favourite of 1996’s Matilda.
The film, adapted from Dahl’s book of the same name, was surprisingly directed by cultural icon and secret cinema saviour Danny DeVito. Following the gifted magical talents of a young girl, Matilda Wormwood, and the cruel adult world that kept her aptitude caged, child actress Mara Wilson became a household icon, recognisable from both DeVito’s film and the remake of Miracle on 34th Street two years earlier.
A young lover of reading, Mara’s mother encouraged her to audition for the part, as she had read Dahl’s original novel and believed the protagonist to be an incredibly strong character. Signing up for the part, Mara was eventually awarded the job and went on to enjoy several pool parties and events with DeVito, his wife Rhea Perlman, and the rest of the cast.
In March 1995, however, during the production of Matilda, Mara’s mother, Suzie, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Mara struggled to contain her concern. Speaking to Parade in 2013, Mara noted: “I remember feeling, when I was part of Matilda, that it was nice because I could focus on that and I could focus on everything good that was going on in my life”. Though life on set was made more than manageable due to Danny DeVito and Rhea’s offers to host Mara anytime her parents needed to go to the hospital, as the actress comments, “It felt very familial on that set”.
“I was going through a hard time, and I know I had hard days, but everyone on the film was so nice. Danny and Rhea were like my favourite aunt and uncle. It was wonderful,” Mara added.
“I remember feeling anxious when the movie wrapped, and it was really hard to go back to being normal and dealing with my mom’s sickness…I definitely feel like having that family there, and having people willing to take care of us and help us out, made it easier,” Mara continued.
Unfortunately, Suzie Wilson would pass away in April 1996, mere months before the release of the film she was so desperate to see.
Years after her mother’s death, however, Danny DeVito revealed to Mara that he actually visited her mother in the hospital and allowed her to watch a near-completed version of the film, a heartwarming gift from the director and cultural icon. As Mara Wilson notes in her memoir, Where Am I Now?, “They’re great people; they were really there for me and my family”.