Matilda's Emma Thompson on her transformation into Trunchbull - and why she thinks it's not a children's film

Matilda’s Emma Thompson on her transformation into Trunchbull – and why she thinks it’s not a children’s film

Matilda is back on the big screen – and this time, Dame Emma Thompson has been transformed into the terrifying Miss Trunchbull.

Transformations on screen – and off – are no stranger, having played Professor Sybill Trelawney in the Harry Potter films, the teapot Mrs Potts in the revamped Beauty and the Beast, and of course Nanny McPhee. Thompson is unrecognizable in her latest role.

The actress told Sky News she spent up to three hours every day on set doing hair and makeup to get the terrifying Trunchbull look – and revealed the secrets to surviving in her costume without her prosthetics to ruin.

Dame Emma looks a little less creepy. Image: Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP

“You get so hot in it [the] big muscle suit…there’s a t-shirt that has these little whistles in it,” she said. that sits next to your skin to keep you cool.

“Otherwise your core will get so hot that all your prostheses will slip off. So it’s really an interesting process because you have to build [the character of Trunchbull]and after you build them, you bring them to the set three hours later and then inhabit them in some way.”

Being on set for days in a row meant “arming yourself,” she adds, “because it’s starting to drain your energy.”

Tyrannical Trunchbull is the villain of the classic Roald Dahl story. The character played by Pam Ferris in the original 1996 film was also portrayed by Bertie Carvel in the West End and Broadway musical, written by Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly.

So enduring is the story of Matilda – the gifted young girl who develops telekinetic powers – that the latest version of the book for the big screen remains largely faithful to Dahl’s 1988 novel. Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough play Matilda’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, while Bond actress Lashana Lynch plays Miss Honey and Alisha Weir plays the title character.

Dame Emma said that her character and the story itself needed little updating.

“In the book [Trunchbull] screams all the time, she just screams all the time, and in the movie she’s pretty quiet most of the time because Matthew [Warchus – the film’s director] I wanted it to be really scary,” she said. “But it’s that Dahl thing, isn’t it, of something that’s really menacing, but in a delicious way – like Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker in James And The Giant Peach.

“Growing up and reading Dahl, I loved that sense of real danger. And I also thought that he saw human darkness very clearly and yet was able to put it into children’s stories and allow us to read them when we were little and understand that it’s a real thing – darkness and cruelty to children.”

(L to R) Emma Thompson as Agatha Trunchbull and Alisha Weir as Matilda in Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical.  Image: Daniel Smith
Thompson plays Trunchbull alongside Alisha Weir’s Matilda. Image: Daniel Smith

The appeal of the story is such that the film was chosen to open this year’s London Film Festival. This time it’s based on the stage play that has been entertaining families in London’s West End since 2011.

Minchin, who wrote the songs for that show — and now the movie — says it took on a life of its own.

“Matilda was – shockingly to me – so surprisingly embedded culturally, especially in Britain, that I don’t feel responsible for it,” he said.

“The fact that it’s going off and there’s school productions and a Finnish version and a Chinese translation and a South Korean version and then a movie… It’s not mine, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Roald Dahl’s cultural legacy was not without controversy – in 2020 his family apologized for anti-Semitic remarks by the late author.

(L to R) Andrea Riseborough as Mrs Wormwood and Stephen Graham as Mr Wormwood in Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical.  Summit.  Daniel Schmidt
(L to R): Andrea Riseborough as Mrs Wormwood and Stephen Graham as Mr Wormwood. Summit. Daniel Schmidt

But that didn’t stop Netflix from buying up the rights to his estate and betting on the author’s enduring appeal — to adults and children alike.

Dame Emma says she doesn’t like to think of them as different audiences.

“I think the way we’ve divided generations isn’t helpful or healthy for people — I think generations belong together,” she said. “The things I like to write are often cross-generational, what I don’t like is children’s entertainment, which is childish.”

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The actress says it’s a trait she inherited from her father, Eric Thompson, who created the popular show The Magic Roundabout.

“He didn’t believe there were children – he says there is no such thing, it’s just a person who hasn’t lived as long as you.

“So he wrote things that were fun for kids and adults alike – he said if a kid doesn’t understand a word or phrase – like he once used the phrase ‘Lift with your own petard’ in Magic Roundabout – he said, ‘Well , the kids will just figure out what it is because kids love grown-up things.”

“And that inspires me – I’ve done a lot of stuff that wouldn’t be interesting for kids either, who I loved, and I understand we can’t always make things that are for everyone, but I don’t see Matilda as a children’s film. “

Matilda: The Musical is in theaters now

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