Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull
Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull
(© Joan Marcus)
For those of us who first became aware of actor Bertie Carvel when he won an Olivier Award for his performance as Miss Trunchbull, a hulking, hunching raging bull of a headmistress in the West End run of Matilda The Musical, it may come as something of a shock that Carvel is, in real life, an attractive young man with a quiet voice and deep thoughts. But then, his other roles have included acclaimed performances as Leo Frank in Parade and intuitive World War I veteran Rupert Cavell in The Rope. He even made an appearance as a less-than-savory Frenchman in the recent Les Misérables film. The man is versatile.

TheaterMania spoke to Carvel about his incredible nightly transformation into the very model of Olympic hammer-throwing femininity.

How did you come to be cast in this role?

Quite what it was in my portfolio that made them think I was the man for the job, I'm not sure. I mean it might be that I've played some larger-than-life characters and the key to larger-than-life characters is they should be larger than life but still life-like.

I think the point about a character like Trunchbull is they're a rich taste. There's a lot of flavor, but it's like putting sauce on your meal. If you drown it, then it tastes of nothing. You've got to make sure that it's credible.

You walk that line amazingly well.

Well, that's the trick, isn't it, to take this monster and make a human being out of it. Because there are larger-than-life characters in life and there are monsters all over the place. It would be quite easy really to sort of go over that line and daub monster all over the place instead of finding somebody who feels like a life-like person with motivations and whose skin is porous.

How did you prepare to play a role that's so different from yourself?

I think the truth is that even [for] characters [who] look remarkably like you and whose life stories are similar to your own, there's still an imaginative switch that you have to throw. I don't think it's that much more difficult to do that with a character who's very unlike you, it's just an act of imagination.

Having said that, I hugely enjoy playing characters who are apparently far from myself. I find it liberating. What I'm getting at, really, is I think it's the same switch, it's just you can throw it with both hands, this big lever. And actually, then it's just about working out how it would feel to be that person. You look at the evidence, like a detective puzzle, you see what you know about this person, you look at the documents — in this case we've got quite a lot of documents — there's Roald Dahl's story and there's Denis [Kelly]'s version and there's Tim [Minchin]'s music and all of that is giving you clues as to this person's psychology, and then once you get inside that I think you're sort of trying on different psychological goals and usually one fits and you go, "Right, okay. That was unexpected." It's like trying on clothes I think. And then bit by bit, the whole outfit comes together.

Bertie Carvel
Bertie Carvel
(© David Gordon)
It's amazing how you've made your voice sound like a 60-year-old woman's.

The obvious difference of a transformation like that is that you get all those tools to play with so even though the imaginative switch is the same as playing somebody who looks and speaks a bit like Bertie Carvel, I get all these toys to play with because I can work out how she would sound and why she would sound that way. And then of course, there's her physicality, her physique, what would it be like to have been a once powerful hammer-throwing athlete whose Olympic-winning muscles have sort of atrophied and have become this gigantic fossil? And what does that do to one's psychology? It's great fun. It's so rich.

How have the kids in the cast handled watching your transition?

I think they take that kind of in their stride, really. The kids have an ability to make-believe. And it's not quite make-believe, you see. They have less experience of the world, but they're not stupid. They can take certain things for granted that we've sort of forgotten to do. I think in some ways it's easier for them to go, "Right, we're in that imaginary place now," because they're not sort of so set in their ways. As long as it's clear what you're doing, I think kids seem to go, "Well okay, yeah, he's Trunchbull now and now he's being grouchy."

That's a great insight — that kids do the pretending thing better than adults do.

I don't even know that it's pretending. It's what all actors try to do really, to just preserve the child inside them because their imagination is quite available. I think partly it's because they're still making sense of the world. They haven't boxed everything up so neatly as most adults have. And the thing is adults haven't solved the world — they've just found a coping mechanism. So in a way, it's not even make-believe, it's not even pretend, it's just [that since] the lens through which they see the world isn't nailed down, they're able to switch it out and go "Oh, let's put a different lens on that."