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

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

No stranger to on-screen makeovers – and unders – having played Professor Sybill Trelawney in the Harry Potter films, teapot Mrs Potts in the reworked Beauty And The Beast, and of course, Nanny McPhee, Thompson is unrecognisable in her latest role.

The actress told Sky News she spent up to three hours in hair and make-up each day on set to get the fearsome Trunchbull look – and revealed the secrets to surviving in her costume without ruining her prosthetics.

Emma Thompson poses for photographers upon arrival for the premiere of the film 'Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical' on the opening evening of the 2022 London Film Festival in London, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. (Photo by Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP)
Image: Dame Emma looking a little less scary. Pic: Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP

“You get so hot in [the] big muscle suit… there’s a T-shirt which has got these little pipes in,” she said. “And the pipes, you have a little handbag and it’s got iced water, and it pumps iced water around the T-shirt, which is next to your skin, so that you can keep cool.

“Otherwise you get so hot at your core that all your prosthetics slip off. So it’s really an interesting process because you have to build [the character of Trunchbull], and then having built her, get her on set three hours later and then sort of inhabit her in some way.”

Being on set for several days in a row meant having to “steel yourself”, she adds, “because it slowly takes away all your energy”.

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

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Such is the endurance of the story of Matilda – the gifted young girl who develops telekinetic powers – the latest version of the book for the big screen stays largely true 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 stars as the titular character.

Dame Emma said her character, and indeed the tale itself, needed little modernising.

“In the book [Trunchbull] shouts all the time, all the time she just shouts, and in the movie she’s quite quiet a lot of the time because Matthew [Warchus – the film’s director] wanted her to be genuinely sinister,” she said. “But it’s that thing with Dahl isn’t it, of something that’s genuinely threatening but in a kind of delicious way – like Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, in James And The Giant Peach.

“When I was growing up and reading Dahl, I just loved that sense of genuine jeopardy. And I also thought that he saw human darkness very clearly and yet was able to write it into children’s stories, and make it possible for 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. Pic: Daniel Smith
Image: Thompson stars as Trunchbull alongside Alisha Weir’s Matilda. Pic: Daniel Smith

So broad is the appeal of the story, the film was selected to open this year’s London Film Festival. This time around, it is based on the stage play which has been entertaining families in London’s West End since 2011.

Minchin, who wrote the songs for that show – and now the film – says it has taken on a life of its own.

“Matilda has been – shockingly to me – so surprisingly culturally embedded in the UK especially, that I don’t feel ownership over it,” he said.

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

Roald Dahl’s cultural legacy hasn’t been without controversy – in 2020 his family apologised for antisemitic comments made 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. Pic. Daniel Smith
Image: (L to R): Andrea Riseborough as Mrs Wormwood and Stephen Graham as Mr Wormwood. Pic. Daniel Smith

But that didn’t stop Netflix buying up the rights to his estate, banking on the writer’s ongoing appeal – to adults and children alike.

Dame Emma says she does not like to think of them as different audiences.

“I think that the way in which we’ve divided up generations is not helpful or healthy for humans – I think generations belong together,” she said. “So the things I like to write are often, you know, intergenerationally watchable, what I don’t like is children’s entertainment that’s childish.”

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The actress says this is a trait she inherited from her father, Eric Thompson, who created the beloved show The Magic Roundabout.

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

“So that’s why he wrote things that were so enjoyed by children and adults alike – he said if a child doesn’t understand a word or a phrase – like once he used the phrase ‘hoist with your own petard’ in Magic Roundabout – he said, ‘well the kids will just find out what it is because children love adult things’.

“And that’s what inspires me – I’ve done a lot of stuff that wouldn’t be of interest to children as well, which I’ve loved, and I understand that we can’t always make things that are for everyone, but I don’t think of Matilda as a children’s film.”

Matilda: The Musical is out now in cinemas