role call

Lisa Jakub Answers Every Question We Have About Mrs. Doubtfire

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Twentieth Century Fox

Of all the movies she appeared in as a child — like Independence Day and The Beautician and the Beast, just to name some of the bigger ones — Lisa Jakub probably gets asked about Mrs. Doubtfire the most.

You can’t really blame audiences for still being curious about her experience nearly 30 years later: The 1993 dramedy starred the late, great Robin Williams as a divorced actor posing as an ambiguously British housekeeper so that he can still see his children, who are in sole custody of his ex (Sally Field). Not only was Williams’s performance wildly funny and convincing, coining classic phrases like “run-by fruiting” and “carpe dentum: seize the teeth,” the film itself, directed by Chris Columbus, has held up remarkably well in terms of how it addresses the gray areas of divorce.

Jakub, meanwhile, portrayed the couple’s oldest daughter, an earnest, solemn teenager named Lydia who is caught between wanting to set a mature example for her younger siblings (played by Matthew Lawrence and Mara Wilson) while simultaneously battling her anger around her parents’ separation. Lydia initially bristles at Mrs. Doubtfire’s presence, not realizing, of course, that it’s really her father in disguise. (“The only thing you’ll be watching is deep CNN,” Mrs. Doubtfire quips, flinging the TV remote control into a fish tank when the kids refuse to engage in a mind-expanding period of “homework time.”)

“I still have people come up to me and say Lydia was such a brat,” Jakub tells Vulture over Zoom in early May. “I always defend her. Because I think Lydia was taking on a lot of responsibility. Her world was completely falling apart, and this stranger suddenly showed up on the doorstep and was an important part of her family, and she was not sure that was okay.”

These days, Jakub has permanently left the entertainment industry and works as an author, speaker, and mental wellness advocate. In 2015, she published her first memoir about her days as a child actor, You Look Like That Girl. In her 2018 follow-up, Not Just Me, she described her childhood struggles with debilitating anxiety and depression. Given her multiple books on the subject of quitting Hollywood, every so often Jakub stumbles across a clicky headline that asks where she’s been since she quit acting in 2001. “Whatever happened to the actor who plays Lydia in Mrs. Doubtfire?” one shrieked last month, to which Jakub dryly replied on Twitter, “Well, ummm, I mean, a lot of stuff has happened since 1993 so you’re gonna need to be more specific.” The moment went viral, and Jakub wryly followed up with, “Lol they’re going to post these until I’m 97 years old.”

Though we might already know where Jakub is now, Vulture still took the opportunity to reminisce with her about what she learned from working with Robin Williams, the day she got to bottle-feed a baby cow on set, and Mrs. Doubtfire’s “lasting power” in its truthful portrayal of family dynamics.

You left acting behind at 22. Was acting something you’d expressed interest in as a child?

No, it was because of an entirely random encounter. When I was 4, I was with my parents at a farmer’s market in Toronto — that’s where I’m from. This guy came up to us, and he worked for an advertising agency. They were casting for a commercial, and he wanted me to be in it. It was never something that I had really dreamt of when I was 2 years old. It was just something that felt very random. My parents were not at all film-industry people, we were just very normal people.

I think their first reaction was to be a little bit freaked out by this guy, wondering if he’s just a random pervert or what his deal might be. They took the card, and we left. A few weeks later, their friend started bugging them like, “Well, why don’t you just call and find out what this was all about?” They called, turned out that he was legitimate. They were casting for this commercial, and then they asked me if I would be interested in going in for an audition.

I always say it’s kind of like asking a dog if they want to go for a ride in the car — I had no idea what I was getting into. I was just like, “Sure, an audition, that sounds fun.” From there, they sent me to an agent, who sent me out on more auditions. It entirely snowballed from there, and I ended up with an 18-year career.

It was something I enjoyed once I was in it for the most part. It got me out of school, I got to travel, I got to meet wonderful people. But it was never something that was this deep-seated desire for me to do when I was really young.

What do you recall about the audition process for Mrs. Doubtfire? Were you aware that this was going to be a movie starring Robin Williams?

Yes, we knew that. I don’t remember the initial auditions, but I remember the screen test. We would have gone through a couple rounds of auditions with casting agents and probably with Chris Columbus, the director. Then there were probably three kids for each of the three children’s roles who were flown to San Francisco to meet with Robin and to do a screen test on a set. That was the point where I realized this was a big deal. That was where I met Matt [Lawrence] and Mara [Wilson] for the first time.

They would mix and match the actors for the three kids’ roles. As soon as they put Matt and Mara and I together, all three of us just knew that we loved each other — we bonded instantly. Part of that is that I am an only child and always desperate for siblings. The fact that I could have some siblings, even for a little while, I loved, and I just decided Mara was mine to take care of. I was instantly protective of her.

We worked through some scenes with Robin. I remember being excited to meet him because I had watched Mork & Mindy, so I knew who he was. But honestly, I was way more excited about Matt and Mara. My focus during the screen test was “How do I get to spend more time with them?” because we just felt like family.

There’s a story out there about how when the three of you originally met Robin in character as Mrs. Doubtfire, he was introduced to you as Chris Columbus’s mother. Do you remember the moment you realized that this older British-sounding lady was, in fact, Robin Williams?

Yeah, absolutely. I think we were the guinea pigs to see if it could actually be believable, and it was. It worked. My recollection of it is that we ended the encounter with Chris Columbus’s mother thinking that was Chris Columbus’s mother, and we walked away. Then when we came back onto set, and we knew we were doing a scene with Robin as Mrs. Doubtfire, we went, “Wait, but that’s Chris’s mom.” And then we put it together.

I love it.

I just felt so stupid. I was so embarrassed that I had fallen for it, and here I am thinking, I always want to try to look smart and professional, and I should have figured it out. I was absolutely humiliated that I didn’t figure it out, and then my second thought was, Oh, this movie actually might be pretty good, because I realized that it was actually going to be believable that we would not know that that was Robin because the makeup was truly so spectacular.
In Mara Wilson’s memoir, she cites your relationship quite a few times as being really important to her. To what extent have the three of you kept in touch over the years?

I am so grateful that that relationship with Mara has stayed such an important part of both of our lives. It’s really amazing looking at the women who we turned out to be because we have so many similarities that it’s easy to forget that we’re not related by blood. We just have so many things that are important to us, things that we value and connections that we have, and that’s really wonderful.

We did lose touch for quite a while. She was working a lot. I was working a lot. Texting wasn’t a thing. So it was really hard to keep in touch when we were on location. I remember really missing her. Then, when we got back into touch, it was like no time had passed. That’s an incredibly special relationship that you have with very few people when you can just pick up where you left off.

I am so glad that we have reconnected and that that’s something important to both of us to maintain, because not only being child actors, but also having gone through what was a really singular experience of the filming and the audience reaction of Mrs. Doubtfire — nobody else but Matt and Mara and I understand what that experience was like as a child. It’s really nice to be able to connect with them and feel like they get it.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the birthday party scene, where Robin (as Daniel Hillard) throws this wild, kid-tastic party in your home, complete with a traveling petting zoo. What do you remember from that day? Was that scene as much fun to shoot as it looked?

That was a really good day at work. That was a really good day at work. I got to spend quite a bit of time with a baby cow named Norman. I just remember thinking, They’re paying me for this. How are they paying me for this? This is the greatest day of my life. I spent a lot of time bottle-feeding Norman, and it was fantastic.

I seem to remember you and Norman making it into that scene, no?

I still have a Polaroid of me feeding Norman, which is a prized possession. I think it made it, but honestly, I have not watched the movie in such a long time. I’d have to go back and confirm. [Editor’s note: You can actually see Lisa feeding Norman in the movie.] But it was amazing, and the bunnies leaping around and the pony and all of it, it was pretty much a dream scenario for any kid. I had already been a vegetarian for years — I am a huge animal person — so it was a very good day.

Speaking of the house, I love how central a role the city of San Francisco plays in the movie. It’s such a slice of city nostalgia, made more poignant by the fact that an interior designer and freelance voice actor could probably never afford such a house in San Francisco today.
I love San Francisco, and it was such a gift to be able to live there for several months while we were filming. It is such a vibrant city, and we were there long enough to feel like we belonged there. It wasn’t just that we were visiting for a week. We really got to know the place. I was 14, so you go through this phase where you’re obsessed with Alcatraz. I would pretty much, every day off, try to go to Alcatraz, because I was just fascinated by it; riding the trolley, just walking through the streets, it really was wonderful.

We were living at the St. Francis Hotel. That was its own level of fantastic. First of all, it’s just a beautiful hotel. We lived there for such a long time and got to know all the staff who were so wonderful. Matt had his golden retriever who was living at the hotel as well. Matt and I would be playing fetch with the golden retriever in the ballroom of the St. Francis Hotel, which I’m sure they didn’t love, but they were kind enough to not give us a hard time.

We just had these wonderful kid experiences in this hotel. Mara and I ordered those little butterfly chrysalids. When they hatch, you can go and let the butterflies free, which we did. That was pretty amazing, that we managed to have our childhoods even though we were living in San Francisco, which was not where any of us were from, and we were living in this hotel that was stunningly beautiful, and we just figured out how to both work and be kids. Looking back, that’s an incredibly important part of being a kid actor.

What was it like filming with Sally Field, who plays your mother, and Pierce Brosnan, who plays her work colleague turned boyfriend? Brosnan hadn’t become James Bond yet, but he still exhibited such a poise and smooth charm that makes him such a foil to Robin’s Daniel.

Sally is just everything you would hope she would be. She did such an amazing job making sure that we had space to be kids, making sure that we were okay, making sure that we were feeling balanced with our workload on set, our homework, and just time to have fun. Especially now, looking back on that, I’m just so grateful to her and impressed by her and that she took the time to really do that and to have this very maternal, protective side of her. That does not happen on all sets, and it can be really difficult for kids. Both Robin and Sally were really always looking out for us, and that’s a pretty amazing thing.

I didn’t have that much contact with Pierce during filming. He was always absolutely lovely, but he was a little bit standoffish. Onscreen, we didn’t need to have that much interaction or chemistry. He was the mom’s boyfriend — he wasn’t really involved with the kids very much. We didn’t need to have the same kind of relationship with Pierce that we had with Robin and with Sally. Also, looking back, I’m realizing it was great that Pierce wasn’t wanting to hang out with a 14-year-old girl. That’s just reasonable boundaries.

When I went and got to spend more time with him during the little mini-reunion that we did, it was just so wonderful, because he is so kind and so thoughtful and so sweet and had so many wonderful memories. I actually felt more connected to him during the mini-reunion than on set because we could just talk as adults.

What are your memories surrounding the pivotal restaurant scene, when Mrs. Doubtfire is uncovered to be Daniel? How were you told to react in that moment, even though Lydia already knows that Mrs. Doubtfire is her father?

We all knew that it was a very pivotal point in the film — that this was where everything is revealed. We knew that it had to be done right. What was interesting for me about the restaurant sequence was what was happening off set. That was a turning point, because we’ve been filming for a while and most of the time we were [on a soundstage], so we weren’t really anywhere public. That was the first time that we had started filming in more public places.

People would come and set up to watch. They would be outside the restaurant, and they had barricades. It was at that point that we all got personal security. We had Hell’s Angels that were assigned to us as our security team. My security bodyguard was named Fuzzy, and I loved him. There was this giant Hell’s Angel, and his responsibility was walking me to and from set through this huge gathering of people who were screaming and taking photos and trying to get close.

That was the first time I had ever experienced that. What sticks out for me so clearly with filming the restaurant scene is this shift in my mind, where I realized that things were probably going to change for me and for the siblings. Robin and Sally were used to it. Pierce was used to it. But that was a big realization for me: Okay, this is going to be a little bit different now. That was pretty scary, honestly — I didn’t deal with that well. I’m a massive introvert. Realizing that being in public was going to be different for a little while was a pretty eye-opening experience.

That reminds me: Mara recently wrote a powerful piece in the New York Times about being objectified in the media, even as a 6-year-old. I have to assume you faced the same issue? How did you deal with being asked inappropriate questions, especially when it was all so new to you? 

I think it’s such a difficult situation to be in this vulnerable power dynamic with the press, where you feel like you have to be kind and cool and interesting and open and also to try to protect a piece of your own soul. In the moment, it can be incredibly difficult to figure out how to answer questions or how to get out of situations that do not feel appropriate. I never received any training on that. I don’t think that Mara did either. It’s so difficult to look back now and realize how vulnerable I was and how much I felt like I just had to be splayed open for whatever questions I got asked. I just had to be the nice, good girl who was easy to work with. Because that’s the reputation you want if you want to continue working.

I think that has changed somewhat. There’s more awareness around this. But certainly, when I was a teenager, that was not the case.

When I watched the movie as a kid, I was much more on the side of Robin’s character, Daniel, who is like a kid himself. And as I got older, I sympathized more with Sally Field’s character, who is clearly juggling a lot of emotional labor in her marriage and is absolutely making the right call by asking Daniel for a divorce.

I think it’s one of the reasons that the movie worked and that it still continues to work decades later. There is not a clear-cut good guy and a bad guy. This is not a battle between good and evil. This is not something that ends with a happy ending or a sad ending. It evolves, and it exists in this complicated gray area in which we all live. I think that’s such a perfect perspective that you have, coming from watching it as a kid, and like, ponies in the living room, to: This poor woman is working a full-time job, she is raising children, and she is raising her husband, and this is a feminist issue.

Being able to see all those different layers in a film that on its surface is just a silly little comedy is why it’s had a lasting power. You can come at it from a bunch of different perspectives, and you can appreciate it, because it really is so much about how do families really interact? How do relationships really work, and how can we evolve to make it work for everybody, even if that means the parents don’t end up together at the end? Even if it means that it doesn’t look like you expected it to work, can that still work?

I love that message, I think it’s incredibly important, because so many of us are not living the lives we expected to, but that can be okay, and we can thrive there. I think if we’ve learned anything over the past 13 months, it should be that we have to learn how to go with what the world throws at us and not get stuck in figuring out who’s a good guy and a bad guy and how do we get our happy ending?

Your character, Lydia, in particular is really struggling with her parents’ separation, which you see her taking out on Mrs. Doubtfire. She’s kind of caught between wanting to set a good example for her siblings but also harbors a lot of anger at her father being out of the house now. How did you get into that mind-set at the time?

Being 14 is incredibly difficult. It’s just a really tough age. Lydia was going through some typical 14-year-old angst. She’s trying to be an adult but is still a child. She’s trying to be responsible for her family but still wants to dance at the party her father threw that she knows is not really okay. It’s that space that she’s trying to navigate, which is really difficult.

I think when I was 14, I pretty much had teenage angst covered. I knew how to do that. I was an incredibly sensitive person. I was highly emotional. I already had a lot of experience with anxiety. So I knew what that was to be straddling that line between “I want to run away and hide” and “I want to be aggressive and just a brat to everyone.”

I think that there needs to be compassion when you see somebody who is lashing out in that way, somebody who seems angry, seems defensive. Because, of course, under all of that is pain. I wanted to be very aware of that as I was playing Lydia, that this was all coming from such immense hurt and feelings of responsibility that she had to now pick up the pieces of her family.

I remember seeing an interview where you spoke about how Robin honestly discussed subjects like anxiety and depression with you. How did that land with you at the time? Especially since you’ve described yourself as an anxious child? Was it in any way a comfort to know that adults deal with anxiety too?

It was such an incredible comfort to me to realize that I was not alone with this, that I was not some weirdo who couldn’t cope with the world. It was incredibly meaningful to me at the time. Looking back at it, I realized that it was really brave of him. It was just such a relief, because I started having panic attacks when I was about 10 or 11 and had always had issues with anxiety.

I was always a highly sensitive kid, and that worked well for my job as an actor. It’s really good to be able to cry instantly when you’re an actor. Being sensitive, being that kind of tortured-artist soul worked well for me. But I hadn’t dealt with the darker side of that: How do you cope with the fact that you are sensitive, with the fact that you have anxiety, in a way that is healthy and sustainable? It’s great to be emotional, to be empathic, to be compassionate, but how do you make that something that’s not going to destroy you?

I really appreciated him being so honest about everything that he had been through, and I really felt like I could talk to him. Especially back then, it was not something that was talked about very often. To see him speak so freely and to see him really treat me like a co-worker, a fellow human, and not talk down to me was pretty spectacular.

Lisa Jakub Answers Every Mrs. Doubtfire Question We Have