People Who Need 'Sheeple': A Q&A with Mara Wilson

Mara Wilson

Mara Wilson rose to stardom in the nineties on a wave of hits like "Mrs. Doubtfire" and the Roald Dahl adaptation "Matilda," but decided upon a different path for her adult life. For years now she's been patiently beefing up her reputation as a writer,  amassing a mighty following via her blog Mara Wilson Writes Stuff and peppering the internet with insightful articles about, among other things, the perils of child stardom.

Wilson's been hinting at larger-scale projects all along, and now she's delivered the first course. This week, her full-length play, Sheeple, debuted at the New York Fringe Festival, offering audiences a glimpse into her past (and possibly their own) as a young person struggling to make sense of a world dominated by post-9/11 malaise. Based on early reviews it's one of the Fringe season's crown jewels; even as a writer, Wilson still knows how to make an entrance.

Signature: You've been working on this play since 2007. How did you know when it was ready to present to the public?

Mara Wilson: When I was in college, David Lindsay-Abaire came to our class and someone asked him when he knew a play was ready. He said it's never really ready, never really finished, but there comes a time when you need to let it go. It's like sending a child off to Kindergarten: The kid's as ready as she's ever going to be. I think he was right. Sheeple has been my piece on the side for several years, something I added to very gradually. I finished it in 2010, and my friend Max Reuben directed a reading of it that December at Fresh Ground Pepper's Playground. Max had seen it from the very beginning, from when I brought it into playwriting classes, and he was a good fit. The reading went so well we promised to submit it someplace together whenever we both had enough time to devote to it. We were both so busy with other projects for so long, but a few months ago I saw that the deadline for FringeNYC was approaching and asked Max if he wanted to apply. It got in, and we cleared our schedules.

SIG: The play is set in 2005, which was during your college years, and now it's being presented in the Village near where you went to college. Has the production been giving you flashbacks?

MW: It has, but not to the Village. Sheeple is set in Southern California, where I grew up, and there are many references to places and things only people who've spent a lot of time there would understand. Some are explained or implied -- Santa Cruz is known for being a pothead's paradise, Burbank cops are notoriously overzealous -- but others are more subtle. I never liked Southern California when I lived there and I wouldn't want to move back, but to my surprise, I started feeling a little homesick in rehearsals. Homesick and nostalgic, both: there are lots of little touches from my life, and some have even made it into the design. The front porch looks a bit like the one on the house I grew up in, and the first time I saw Benj Mirman (who plays Nick) in full costume, I thought, "My god, he could be one of my brothers."

SIG: How much research did you have to do about satanism to write a character that actually espouses those beliefs? (No matter what your answer, I suspect it's more than actual satanists might have done.)

MW: I did a good deal of preliminary research when I was first writing Sheeple, but when we started rehearsing for FringeNYC, Chris Cafero (who plays the satanist character in question and is an actor who does his homework) pointed out one or two inaccuracies. We talked a little about them, because while it's always important to do research and represent a character's beliefs and philosophies accurately, sometimes it's the character who's got them wrong. One of the core messages of Sheeple is it doesn't matter what you call yourself. And we did end up changing a few lines.

SIG: The Fringe Fest is a celebration of creativity, but there's a bit of a competitive edge to it also, with so many shows vying for audiences and critical appraisal. Has it been hard to keep your eyes on your own work?

MW: Not really, which is surprising: I can be very competitive. But it's important to remind yourself (and I'm slipping into second person here because this is advice I would give others) that your work is different than everyone else's, and everyone else's is different than yours. Everyone brings their own talents and history to their work, and comparing your work to theirs will only make you unhappy. Keeping your eyes on your own work is a sanity-preserving measure.

SIG: Also, "Matilda" is still running on Broadway. How surreal is it to be running your own show downtown while another piece of your past is playing uptown?

MW: It's not much different from any other time in my life, actually. My past has always followed me around, and while it took me a long time, I've gotten used to it. Though it was frustrating when a particular daily newspaper suggested FringeNYC patrons see Sheeple if they liked Matilda the Musical, because they're very different works, I have no affiliation with the musical, and Sheeple is very definitely not for young children.

SIG: Your blog and twitter account are both called "Mara Writes Stuff." Even the stuff you post on those sites would justify the name, but obviously you have your sights set on larger projects as well. When you first put yourself out there as a writer, did you feel tons of pressure to make good on it? If so, has the unveiling of a large work like Sheeple offered you any relief on that front?

MW: Definitely. In my first year or two out of NYU, when people asked me what I did, I would say "I'm a writer?" It was always a question. I long resisted getting a blog because I didn't want to be a blogger, that is to say, someone who writes only for their blog. When I did start Mara Wilson Writes Stuff, it was meant primarily to draw attention to my other writing. Blogging is most interesting to me when it's used as a springboard into other mediums. Having works published on other websites and plays produced has been a great relief. (Though I did really only register @MaraWritesStuff on Twitter after I found out @MaraWilson was taken.)

SIG: What's your favorite discovery from this production?

MW: It's always exciting to see actors inhabiting your characters, and I've been pleasantly surprised to see what they each brought to the role. When I was writing them, I hoped certain qualities would come across, and they have. Fernando Gonzalez, who plays Alberto, really brought out the character's intellectual side, Cecilia Kim made sure Soo-Min was both reckless and vulnerable, and Benj Mirman found the humor in Nick. William Vaughn and Chris Cafero thought very deeply about their characters, who could have been considered a lot simpler than the others. It's always nice to know other people understand what was going on in your mind.

SIG: In a recent interview you mentioned that back when you were still acting, you thought you might have to be a character actress, and noticed that there really weren't many young character actresses out there. Why do you think that is?

MW: There aren't many substantial female parts in film, period: a woman is ornamental, or she's the man's foil. And even when there are characters who are supposed to be awkward or unattractive, they're almost always actually beautiful: Brittany Murphy was adorable, Judy Greer's pretty, America Ferrera is hardly "ugly." Everyone knows major studios are more about marketing than they are about art or expression. If a woman doesn't look like the accepted contemporary standard of beauty (a few years ago it was Angelina Jolie, then maybe Megan Fox -- I'm not sure who it is now, to be honest), she won't be hired.

There are a few actresses who play characters, but they're mostly over fifty: People see older women as sexless, and less of an enticement or a threat. But no one gives them a chance until they're older, so average-looking or plus-sized actresses are cast aside until they can play the joke or the hag. It's a sad world, and I'm glad I'm out of it. Besides, seeing your name at the top of the credits or in the byline is so much better than seeing your name in lights.