Twenty-five minutes into “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical,” Miss Agatha Trunchbull appears onscreen for the first time. She’s initially introduced in glimpses — crooked teeth, thin lips, intricate uniform, severe updo — but the camera then zooms out to reveal a new version of the well-known villain, thoughtfully reimagined over the course of a decade and played here by an unrecognizable Emma Thompson.
“People think Miss Trunchbull is just a lot of opportunity for comedy, which there is, of course, because she’s such an outrageous exaggeration of a character,” said the film’s director, Matthew Warchus. “But if you don’t have anything in your core about the character, your comedy is unfettered and meaningless and just bounces around in an arbitrary way.
“It’s important that Matilda has the enemy she deserves for her victory at the end to be meaningful. So in order for this movie to work, everything had to come together to create this very real, formidable opposition.”
The movie-musical, now playing in theaters and streaming Dec. 25 on Netflix, roots its antagonist in the vivid depiction of the original 1988 children’s book. A former Olympic hammer thrower, the Crunchem Hall headmistress is described as “a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of the pupils and teachers alike.” Quentin Blake’s illustrations display her exponential height in comparison to her students, as she towers over them with a pointed finger and a scowl.
Emma Thompson plays the terrifying Miss Trunchbull to Alisha Weir’s winning Matilda in Netflix’s enjoyable if sometimes mechanical retooling of the popular stage show.
Dec. 8, 2022
Throughout the novel, Dahl and his characters repeatedly reference her prodigious strength (“This was someone who could bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half”), intimidating mien (“She treats the mothers and fathers just the same as the children and they’re all scared to death of her”) and over-the-top cruelty toward children, whether calling them condescending names, throwing them around like hammers or locking them up in the Chokey, the solitary confinement space she designed with a lining of sharp nails and broken glass.
“That’s the way to make them learn, Miss Honey,” she told a teacher at the school. “You take it from me, it’s no good just telling them. You’ve got to hammer it into them. There’s nothing like a little twisting and twiddling to encourage them to remember things. It concentrates their minds wonderfully.”
Netflix’s “Matilda,” which largely sets aside the 1996 movie, is a faithful adaptation of the stage show, which debuted in London in 2012 before hitting Broadway the following year. Collaborating with the late author’s estate, the creators of the stage version took Trunchbull one step further than the book: They grounded her unsympathetic view of childhood in her experience with the hammer throw, in which athletes fling a metal ball on a steel wire as far as they can by swinging and spinning inside a set circle.
And since she once claimed victory for her country by forgoing fun, training nonstop and unwaveringly adhering to the rules, she enforces that strategy to the point of absurdity within her school, where her students adopt the faux-Latin motto that reads “children are maggots” and sing the following as a morning anthem:
If you want to throw the hammer for your country You have to stay inside the circle all the time If you want to make the team You don’t need happiness or self-esteem You just need to keep your feet inside the line
“I remember thinking it was rather a good idea that the rules of this obscure sport anchor a person’s entire worldview,” said composer and lyricist Tim Minchin. “This is someone whose glory days are so far behind her, but she keeps going back to them because she’s desperately trying to hold on to the power she had in those moments.”
That’s why Trunchbull is so irked by Matilda Wormwood — a gifted child with a strong sense of justice and extraordinary abilities that deem her “an exception to the rules,” according to Miss Honey — and subsequently unveils more and more shocking attempts to try and maintain that power.
This backstory unlocked more of Trunchbull’s characteristics, Minchin said. Her two musical numbers, each full of clever lines and dark humor, were written with “this spiritedlyfront-of-the-mouth diction, like she has this dexterity with words but uses it for evil.” Her second song, delivered during her grueling physical education class, outlines her love of drastic discipline, as it can effectively divide and dishearten members of a group and therefore squash any potential plans for a mutiny.
Onstage, actors portraying Trunchbull must simultaneously convey the character’s troubled psyche and towering physicality. The role was originated by Bertie Carvel who, at 6 feet tall, easily loomed over the young cast. “Agatha captures my imagination,” he told The Times in 2013, after winning the Olivier Award and receiving a Tony nomination for his performance. “What makes such a person tick? What makes them rationally — or irrationally — behave the way they do?”
Though Trunchbull usually is played onstage by male actors of similar height, Warchus said he opted to cast a female actor in the screen adaptation because “we wanted our film to go a bit more magical realism.” Still, the requirements for whoever would play Trunchbull on film remained the same as onstage: “We needed somebody who was a great dramatic and comedic actress and could also sing. But we also needed someone who could convey that, at the core of all of Trunchbull’s exaggerations, is a crushingly low self-esteem.”
In Thompson’s first conversations about the role with Warchus, the actor asked about Trunchbull’s childhood and likened it to that of British poet Edith Sitwell, who suffered physical abuse at a young age.
“Trunchbull was clearly a big, tall child who was very aggressive, and she was just horribly treated when she was little,” Thompson said in a TheaterMania interview. “So, it’s not children she hates; it’s her own vulnerability. It’s her own child within. As soon as I got hold of that idea, it was so much easier.”
Physically transforming Thompson into Trunchbull began with replicating the character’s extreme size. The film’s costume designer, Rob Howell, who also worked on the stage show, created customized footwear inspired by a 1920s Swedish deep sea diver boot, which added nearly six inches to Thompson’s height. Though the “fat suit” Thompson wore drew backlash earlier this year, Howell said the body padding was used to present her entire look in proportion to her boosted height while also accentuating her notably athletic build.
“She wants to appear aggressively powerful,” Howell said of Trunchbull, who wears a military-inspired coat and a tool belt with a handheld microphone, a massive ring of keys and a mallet. “She’s also got a pouch on the back of her belt that holds a notebook, and at one point, Emma said, ‘Well, she’s writing negative poetry.’ That’s funny but shows how every element of that costume goes back to the story. Emma was up for those conversations and actually bounced back with better ideas.”
Thompson spent more than three hours a day getting outfitted with prosthetics (jaw, chin and nose) and other cosmetic embellishments. “She’s a no-nonsense woman of a certain age, so hair and makeup are not things that will get in her way,” said makeup and hair designer Sharon Martin, who decorated Thompson with a reddish complexion and hints of facial hair. “It’s a lot, but we made sure that Emma’s performance can still shine through.”
Throughout the shoot, Thompson and Warchus worked together to anchor the character midway between pantomime dame Widow Twankey and serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Thompson’s physical wildness and emotional intensity grew with Trunchbull’s fear of Matilda and other students; in her final scene, the actor channeled the unhinged Jack Nicholson of “The Shining.” Even Lashana Lynch, who plays Miss Honey, was occasionally nervous around Thompson on set.
“She’s so lovely and chilled and funny, but when she had on her prosthetics, those chunky boots and her Trunchbull demeanor, Emma had washed away and this other person had come in,” Lynch said. “I was terrified, but it’s wonderful as a scene partner because she’s so committed, and you feel like you can do your best work because someone is giving 1,000% for every single take.”
With the help of the film’s creative team and design departments, Thompson’s grounded version of the infamous villain remains true to Dahl’s fantastical creation.
“When I turned in the first draft of the show to the head of the estate, she was really lovely about all the additions,” recalled Dennis Kelly, who wrote the stage show’s book and the film’s screenplay. “But the one thing she did say, very quietly, was, ‘You must remember what Miss Trunchbull is capable of.’
“Emma brings a massive sense of fun to Trunchbull, but when she needs to, there are moments when you feel like the fun is absolutely gone, because she’s so cold and severe and clearly having an amazing time scaring these kids. It’s such a finely calibrated performance; if it was one inch too far in one way or another, the result would be very, very different.”
‘Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical’
Rated: PG, for thematic elements, exaggerated bullying and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Regal L.A. Live; IPIC Theaters, Los Angeles; available Dec. 25 on Netflix
Ashley Lee is a staff reporter at the Los Angeles Times, where she writes about theater, movies, television and the bustling intersection of the stage and the screen. An alum of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute and Poynter’s Power of Diverse Voices, she leads workshops on arts journalism at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. She was previously a New York-based editor at the Hollywood Reporter and has written for the Washington Post, Backstage and American Theatre, among others. She is currently working remotely alongside her dog, Oliver.