Emma Thompson BFI Getty Images

Emma Thompson talks Matilda

Emma Thompson talks Matilda

As Matthew Warchus’ adaptation of Matilda premieres at the BFI London Film Festival, Emma Thompson talks about getting into character as Miss Trunchbull, the darkness of children’s books and scaring the crew. By Adam Davidson.

Image: BFI/Getty Images

Adapted from Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s Olivier-winning stage musical, Matilda tells the story of a neglected young girl Matilda Wormwood who is sent to Crunchem Hall by her parents after they find out she has been skipping school. Her new school’s headmistress is the tyrannical Miss Trunchbull who runs the school with an iron fist, and Matilda decides to stick up for her fellow pupils and fight back.

London-born Emma Thompson leads an incredible ensemble as the fearsome headteacher Miss Trunchbull. The character was previously performed by a male actor – Bertie Carvel won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for his role as Miss Trunchbull – but the director wanted to move away from that and look for something more real.

To find authenticity in the fictional Trunchbull, Emma Thompson did her research and looked into the childhood of author Dame Edith Sitwell. Emma says: “She was tortured as a child and I decided that Trunchbull was cruel to children because she couldn’t bear her own childhood. She couldn’t bear any vulnerability in children because when she was vulnerable she had been crushed.

“I kind of approached it from a very real and psychological point of view. It was fascinating to look into that as I think it is probably quite true a lot of the time with cruelty towards children.”

Despite the very dark side of researching the character, Emma said she had a ‘fantastic amount of fun’ bringing the role to life, even though it was the most physically demanding part she had done with the heavy prosthetics amongst other things.

Speaking about directing Emma, Matthew Warchus said: “Emma is completely fearless. As well as bringing all this deep-rooted psychology to the character, she was able to add a level of absurdity, exaggeration and silliness.”

Matilda is adapted from the classic Roald Dahl book, which was also made into a children’s movie in 1996. While Dahl became one of our most read children’s author with countless classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG and James and the Giant Peach, many of his books deal with heavy adult themes of poverty, bullying and abuse.

On writing about these difficult but important themes for a child audience, Emma says: “I was bullied at school so I read all the time and the books that really spoke to me were those with true darkness and that’s why I think Matilda is so extraordinary, and Dahl extraordinary more generally.”

“With all of the authors I read as a child there was a real darkness. You don’t want to sugarcoat it but it can’t be too real. It’s a balance because it has to be frightening but also you have to contain it and get a thrill from it.”

“When we are little we feel and see everything and we know there is darkness out there and often experience it when we are little so it is terribly important.”

Emma took this mindset into preparing for the role of Trunchbull as she personifies darkness – a far cry from the sweet Nanny McPhee she played in 2005. She adds: “It’s absolute bliss playing people like that because you can indulge in your inner demons and let them out to play which is thrilling and fun.” 


Images: Emma in Matilda, Dan Smith Netflix © 2022 / Emma at the BFI London Film Festival Emma Thompson © BFI / Getty Images

Emma had to spend three hours each day in the makeup department with five other people to put on the prosthetics and get in costume.

There was only one way to make sure that her character was scary enough to live up to the frightening reputation of Trunchbull and that was to scare the director.

Emma says: “I was worried I wouldn’t live up to Bertie Carvel and all the wonderful others, I thought, am I going to be able to pull this off?”

The actor had the idea of scaring Matthew Warchus in the Trunchbull costume so she went to the other side of the corridor in Pinewood Studios and asked someone to get him and two other crew to come to see her.

She adds: “I thought, ‘If I just walked towards them at speed’ and I did. I asked him to come in and he thought he was just going to walk in there and I’ll be standing there going ‘what do you think?’ But he came up and I marched towards him really fast and heavy.”

Despite being committed to the role, Emma did find it difficult to stay in character as Trunchbull, especially around the children.

Emma says: “They were so wonderful to be with and I love them so much. I’d come on set and I’d give them a big group hug, which so many things about that were wrong.

“A, it was Covid and we weren’t allowed and Matthew said ‘can you please stop hugging the children, they are supposed to be scared of you.’ The children just thought of me as Nanny Mcphee so they were confused.”


Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical will be released across the U.K. and Ireland in cinemas on 25 November 2022.