Interview: How Emma Thompson Made a Terrifying Trunchbull for the Screen in Matilda the Musical

Thompson plays the iconic villain in the new film adaptation of the hit West End musical.

It's tough for Emma Thompson to play the villain. "I'm a softy," she says, with a laugh. But as one of our best actors, Thompson sinks her teeth into every role, and in Matilda the Musical's terrifying headmistress Miss Trunchbull, she does so with brute force. During a recent Zoom, the Oscar winner told us about how she developed this imposing character, her inspirations for the role, and how wonderful it was to work with the children on set.

Emma Thompson as Agatha Trunchbull
Emma Thompson as Agatha Trunchbull
(© Dan Smith/Netflix)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What made you want to play Miss Trunchbull?
So many things, really. I love Dahl. I love the story. I love the musical. Tim Minchin's music is fantastic and Dennis Kelly's script is just extraordinary. I actually just responded very much to the challenge. She's quite a big character to pull off and I really didn't know whether I was gonna be able to do it.

Was there a point where you realized that you could do it as an actor?
[Laughs] Not really, no. I realized I'd pulled it off when I first saw the movie and I thought,
"OK, so that's worked." But you just don't know. You are underneath quite a lot of stuff: There's a big body suit and prosthetics and all of that, and I can remember on a couple of days saying to Matthew Warchus, "I've forgotten what voice I was using. Can you remind me?" And he said, "Just go with your instincts." She's very protean, Trunchbull. She changes all the time and you don't quite know what's going to come out next. She's a terrifying personality. I mean, obviously, several personalities.

Emma Thompson as Agatha Trunchbull and Alisha Weir as Matilda
Emma Thompson as Agatha Trunchbull and Alisha Weir as Matilda
(© Dan Smith/Netflix)

Do you view her as a villain, or are you the kind of actor who can't look at a part that way because it's too limiting?
I'm a softy, so I just go, "She's like that because she was badly treated herself. I based her on Edith Sitwell, the poet who was badly treated as a child because she didn't look right. Trunchbull was clearly a big, tall child who was very aggressive, and she was just horribly treated when she was little. 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.

Did you scare the kids on set?
So not. So not. Apart from anything else for them, I represent Nanny McPhee, so they just all ran towards me going "Nanny McPhee! Nanny McPhee!" And Matthew Warchus kept saying, "Could you please stop hugging the children? They're supposed to be frightened of you." It didn't work. But it didn't have to work, because children are the most wonderful actors. They didn't need to be really frightened of me, because they were perfectly capable of acting it. So we were safe.

Was it fun, in the end?
It was physically very challenging. But it was such a joy to work with those extraordinary young people. Honestly, I loved them all so much. They were absolutely remarkable, and their level of commitment and dedication! They were so supportive of each other and looked after each other. It was so wonderful.