A fan of the BBC and PBS children's program "Shining Time Station" from way back -- OK, from a few years back, anyway --13-year-old actress Mara Wilson wanted so much to help bring Thomas the Tank Engine to the big screen that she signed on to his feature film debut having barely skimmed the script.
"I met with the director (Britt Allcroft) and she had such big ideas for it, and it just sounded great," the young star said during a recent stop in San Francisco on a solo promotional tour for the film, "Thomas and the Magic Railroad."
Already a veteran of both hugely popular family films ("Mrs. Doubtfire") and intrepid, offbeat kids' flicks ("Matilda"), in the movie Wilson plays a big city girl visiting her glum grandpa (Peter Fonda) near the little hamlet of Shining Time, where she helps him rediscover his inner child and helps save an endangered secret passage to the magical Island of Sodor, populated by talking trains and whimsical conductors (the chirpy character of Mr. Conductor is played by Alec Baldwin).
Keeping in the tradition of the TV show, "Thomas" is brought to life on a model-like miniature train set with the human characters superimposed into the action by low-budget special effects, so while making the film Wilson spend much of her time acting in front of a green screen "staring at big Xs made from electrical tape" that stood in for Thomas and other characters and effects to be added later.
"We did a lot of things like that. We did this one scene where we were supposed to be climbing up a hill and instead we had a ramp," Wilson said. "We just climbed up this ramp and they turned it into a hill by computer."
What's it like shooting large portions of a movie with no tangible sets or characters to work off of? "It is kind of hard when you're looking at a big piece of tape while an assistant director reads you lines (from) off stage. But I guess you get used to it. That's when your imagination has to come in."
Wilson tapped memories of a childhood fondness for trains to help her imagination along for this role. "We used to play with trains a lot when we were little. My brothers are obsessed with trains. They'll say, 'Why don't we go watch the trains go by!'"
While the young actress said she's always had fun making movies, she's starting to think about alternative career options.
"I have other ambitions, eventually," she said, giving the impression that she doesn't expect to be acting much beyond her teens. "I might keep going for a little while longer. I don't think I'm going to do it when I grow up, though. Maybe, maybe not. Probably not."
What would she'd like to do instead, I ask. "I was thinking of maybe writing," she replies.
Writing what? "Books and things. I don't know. I'm not really sure yet."
Sensing a little frustration with this line of questioning, I jokingly take on her perspective, "I'm thirteen! Quit asking me what I want to do in 10 years!' -- right?"
"Seriously!" she said, laughing and rolling her eyes.
While she's still a kid and still considering what she wants to be when she grows up, Wilson is for now enjoying being an actress at a point in her career where she's being sent scripts to consider (which she reads with her father, who helps her decide on roles) rather than having to audition.
"(Auditioning is) just hard because there are so many other people there, and you think there's a very small chance you're going to get it," Wilson said. "And you get really nervous, and sometimes you'll mess up because you're so nervous."
"A friend of mine said to me, 'You are so lucky you don't have to go on auditions anymore!'" Wilson admitted that as long as she's remains an actress, she'd definitely have to agree with that assessment.
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