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Mara Wilson Reflects On Fame At A Young Age, Britney Spears' Career

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A wave of interest in the career and conservatorship of pop icon Britney Spears has inspired some reflection about female celebrities and how they are treated. For actress Mara Wilson, who grew up starring in films like "Matilda" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," it hit especially close to home. She wrote about it for The New York Times, saying she and Britney Spears both had to learn that when you're young and famous, there's no such thing as control. Mara Wilson joins us now from Los Angeles.

Welcome to the program.

MARA WILSON: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you see Britney Spears being treated back then? I mean, what is your view now of the way that she was actually treated by the media and by society at large?

WILSON: It felt like she was an acceptable target. You were allowed to say that you hated her. You were allowed to say that she was fake. You were allowed to say that she was too sexy. You were allowed to say things about Britney Spears that you really weren't allowed to say about any other 16-year-old girl, I think. And I think that there was this image of her as a bad girl because she was sexualized. And I think about that now - and first of all, why is it automatically a bad thing for a girl to have any kind of sexuality? But also, how much of that was her own choice? And I look at it now, and I think, what was it that she did that was so terrible? And you know, she would dance kind of sexily in some of her videos and, you know, she would bare her midriff. And I'm thinking, that's what everybody was terrorizing her for?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And of course, you know, she went on to struggle with mental illness. And ultimately, she, you know, was under a conservatorship. And so, you know, her whole trajectory sort of changed quite dramatically.

WILSON: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mara, what changed for you, I mean, that you could look back at that period and the lens with which you and everyone viewed Britney Spears and have a different view now? I mean, was it the #MeToo movement, getting older, your own experiences?

WILSON: I think it was my own experiences. I think it was humanizing. And I think that I didn't really understand what the term objectification meant until I got to college, and I looked at all the people who were making jokes about me and talking about me and making fun of me and all of these things. And I realized, oh, this isn't anything personal. They see me as an object. That's what objectification is. It is object-ification (ph). And I think that I realized that I had objectified Britney Spears, and I had objectified a lot of other people, too.

I mean, I think that you're allowed not to like people in the public eye, but you really don't know them, and you really don't know what they're going through. And the amount of pressure that she was under I think is something that is unbelievable and unprecedented. I think that one of the most important parts of being a human is being able to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes. And you can't do that if you're famous because you will get chastised for any mistake you make, so it becomes about avoiding mistakes. And that leaves you stunted, in a way. I think it leaves you emotionally stunted because you can't make choices for yourself. If you're in the public eye and you do something wrong, it's very hard to get people to forgive you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you want to write about this? - because, I mean, it's an interesting moment in our society - right? - where we're, I guess, collectively grappling with a lot of the things that we maybe have not wanted to look at. And celebrity is a lens through which we sort of experience our own reality, especially as it, you know, pertains to women and other groups.

WILSON: I think that there's a lot of misunderstanding about it. I think that people always assume, first of all, that it is all Hollywood's fault. They think very much back to the days of, say, you know, Judy Garland and MGM, where her image was being very carefully controlled by them.

And I think that people sort of assume that Hollywood is responsible for a lot of horrible behavior. And it is true that Hollywood is responsible for a lot. Hollywood has a lot to answer to. But I also think that the media, which I consider separate than Hollywood, and I also think that sometimes members of the public are also responsible for the way people treat people like Britney Spears. We don't realize that. I mean, the media and Hollywood do things because they are doing what will sell.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You ultimately did take a break from the public eye. How do you think that altered the course of your life when compared to someone like Britney Spears, who stayed in the headlines and tabloids throughout her adult life?

WILSON: I think that it was the best course of action for me to take time away from being in the public eye. I'm glad that I did it every single day. I think that I also had different options than Britney Spears did. I mean, I - when I left, I was, you know, not at a high point in my career. I had mostly made children's movies when I was growing up. And obviously, I was never as famous as Britney Spears and wasn't ever going to be as famous as Britney Spears, so I had more freedom there because I wasn't as big of a draw.

And I walked away, and I think that it was the best thing I ever did in my life, really. I got to sort of get to know myself on my own terms. And so I think I kind of had the opportunity to walk away from that all. I don't think Britney did, and I think that she still doesn't. I think that she's very much under other people's control. But I do think that treating people with empathy and understanding how just unnatural fame is is a really important thing. And I hope Britney knows that "Toxic" is my karaoke song.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) That's actor and writer Mara Wilson.

Thank you very much.

WILSON: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOXIC")

BRITNEY SPEARS: (Singing) Baby, can't you see I'm calling? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.