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November 24, 2018 at 11:00 AM EST
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Mrs. Doubtfire was a formative film for many reasons: It solidified Robin Williams’ new turn as a family-friendly star, it helped normalize divorce on screen, and it taught audiences everywhere about the versatility of whipped cream (it makes a great face mask — duh). But it also launched the career of a young Mara Wilson. After her breakout role as Natalie she went on to star in Miracle on 34th Street and Matilda, making her one of the most recognizable child actors of the ’90s. Now, 25 years after the release, she’s reflecting on the serendipitous nature of Mrs. Doubtfire.

“It was my first movie audition,” she tells EW of the family film. “I remember it was Valentine’s Day and I came home and my mom was on the phone saying, ‘I’m not sure, I don’t know if that’s a good idea.'”

Wilson’s mother told her that she had been called in to audition for a movie and, at five years old, she admits she didn’t understand the ramifications of going out for a feature film — Mrs. Wilson, for her part, knew that it would be a highly competitive process and didn’t think it would go very far. But then she got a callback. And another callback. And another, until she was sent up to San Francisco for a final screen test.

“I remember meeting Chris Columbus and Robin Williams,” she recalls. “But they just seemed like very nice guys to me — I didn’t understand who I was meeting.”

Wilson did scenes with Williams, who of course played the eponymous lead role, and then Columbus (the director, who at that point was most famous for the Home Alone movies) got all of the prospective children — Wilson, as well as Matthew Lawrence and Lisa Jakub — together for a family chemistry test.

“I remember I met this boy named Matt and this girl named Lisa and I immediately liked them,” says Wilson. “They felt like they could be my real brother and sister and I was secretly wishing and hoping that they would get the parts, too.”

The entire group was cast to play the children of Robin Williams and Sally Field, divorced parents who inadvertently become friends again when Williams disguises himself as an older, female housekeeper and nanny. The flick found great success at the box office, releasing over the Thanksgiving holiday and alternating between No. 1 and 2 for 11 weeks. But its biggest accomplishment was how it wove its way right into the pop culture zeitgeist. Audiences were charmed by Williams’ voices, of course (the same that helped Aladdin become a mega-hit), but also the silly-sweet moments that can only be found in a ’90s-era movie. In today’s current nostalgia-obsessed world, fans are all too happy to put Mrs. Doubtfire at the top of their watch lists.

For Wilson, that nostalgia holds an entirely different meaning — she practically grew up on movie sets, having gone straight from filming Mrs. Doubtfire to booking Miracle on 34th Street, and then jumped straight to Matilda once the Christmas movie’s press tour was over — and today, a quarter-century later, there are certain scenes that stick with her far more than others.

“I remember when I had to say, ‘We’re his Goddamn kids, too,’ that Sally took me aside and rehearsed with me,” Wilson says of the iconic line. “She was so sweet — she was making sure I would say it more fiercely and more intensely, and then her saying, ‘Good, you scared me this time.'”

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Other bittersweet memories lie in the small moments with the late Robin Williams, who Wilson says always went the extra mile to make sure she enjoyed herself on set — like in between takes of the dinner table scene, when he went off on a freestyle rap about the life of an ant (yes, an ant).

“He used chopsticks as antennae and at the end of the scene he used them again to get me to smile,” she laughs. “They left that part in, but cut out his song and dance about it. He could really riff on anything.”

Wilson came of age in the industry during a time before social media, and while she avoided the pitfalls that come with paparazzi and Instagram stalking, it’s impossible to come out fully unscathed from a childhood movie career. She credits the council of her costars for help in coping, saying that she and Lisa Jakub (who played her older sister in Mrs. Doubtfire) text all the time, both to reminisce about happy memories and to work through the difficult times. And as she reflects on the way her career started, she strives for a healthy attitude about it all.

“I do think that being a child actor was difficult in some ways, like it made me more of a perfectionist,” she says. “There were a lot of people out there who were very cruel. But I had a lot of great opportunities that a lot of other people didn’t and I met a lot of wonderful people. You kind of have to come to peace with it all.”

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