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How Darth Vader inspired Emma Thompson’s’shocking’ Trunchbull in ‘Matilda the Musical’.

Few characters loom as large in the minds of young readers as Trunchbull.

Trunchbull is the formidable headmistress of Crunchem Hall elementary school in Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel “Matilda,” where she swings a “naughty” student by her pigtails and forces another to consume an entire chocolate cake. She’s brawny and brutish, just the kind of challenge Emma Thompson was looking for as an actress.

Thompson disappears into the role of the tyrannical Trunchbull in Netflix’s “Matilda the Musical,” a film adaptation of the 2013 Tony-winning Broadway show directed by Matthew Warchus, which will be available on Christmas Day. She recalls seeing herself for the first time in full makeup and costume.

“It was quite shocking,” says Thompson. “However, my primary concern was that it would work for Matthew and the team. They’d had 12 years of brilliant Trunchbulls (on Broadway and in London), the first of whom I’d seen and admired so much that I’d written him a fan letter: Bertie Carvel. He’s very tall and muscular, and I thought: ‘Gosh, that’s a big ask. “How am I supposed to live up to that?”

Thompson and Warchus did it this way:

Why is Trunchbull played by a woman rather than a man in ‘Matilda the Musical’?
Trunchbull was played by actress Pam Ferris in the 1996 film “Matilda” directed by Danny DeVito. The character, however, was primarily played by men dressed as women in the stage musical.

Trunchbull “is a malevolent force that transcends gender,” Warchus explains. Given that film is a “more realistic medium,” it seemed like a great opportunity to cast another woman in the role.

Knowing Thompson was already a fan of the stage show, Warchus approached her about the role and received an immediate yes.

“She very much understood that it was an opportunity to flex her muscles in terms of the scale of the performance,” Warchus says of playing someone as ridiculous as Trunchbull. “But she also understood that you could delve into the character and create some psychological authenticity for what makes (Trunchbull) who she is.”

Thompson was inspired by a “terrifying” headmistress she had when she was a child. She also read a biography of British poet Edith Sitwell, who was abused by her parents and forced to wear heavy metal contraptions to straighten her spine and nose.

“I thought to myself, ‘That’s the kind of thing that could push you over the edge as a child,'” Thompson says. “So I thought: ‘OK, let’s say Trunchbull had a really cruel childhood. Then we can imagine her attacking the kids – not because of them, but because of what’s going on inside her (her). She can’t stand children’s vulnerability.”

Emma Thompson spent three hours getting into character with hair and makeup.
Trunchbull is a former Olympic hammer thrower, which is mentioned in both Dahl’s book and the musical. As an athlete, she has broad shoulders and a massive torso, which she achieves in the film through extensive padding. Thompson also has “such a friendly face,” so prosthetics were used to give her a more severe nose and jawline, according to Warchus.

Trunchbull, at about 6-foot-6, towers over our diminutive heroine Matilda (Alisha Weir). The “David vs. Goliath” illusion was created with a variety of inventive camera angles, body doubles, and practical techniques like standing on boxes. Thompson also wore boots with thick soles and was occasionally digitally enhanced to appear much larger on screen.

It took a team of five people three hours per day to get Thompson into hair, makeup, and costume. Because the film was shot in the summer heat, the wardrobe team installed a cooling system inside her costume, consisting of pipes and tubes that pumped cold air inside.

“Creating all the fittings was a huge challenge,” Thompson says. She wanted Trunchbull’s uniform to appear oily and unkempt, “so you knew she had terrible hygiene.” She also decided against wearing brown contact lenses because “I (needed) as much of myself as possible to be unrecognisable but also very, very real.”

Matthew Warchus desired that Trunchbull have the Darth Vader effect.
All of Thompson’s preparation paid off when she surprised Warchus with her startling appearance on the first day of filming.

“I got the team to help me put it all together and I said: ‘I’ll go to the end of the corridor and get him to come up the stairs. “Give me a shout, and I’ll just approach him and see what effect it has,” Thompson says. “To be honest, it was very satisfying because he quailed.”

Warchus recalls Thompson storming toward him “vividly” at the time.

“I’d frequently find myself saying, ‘The thing is, when Trunchbull comes on set, everyone’s pulse has to quicken.'” “The effect is similar to Darth Vader in that you feel unsettled whether you’re a child or an adult,” Warchus says. “When Emma Thompson walks into a room, you feel like you’re with an old friend.

“But when she opened the door and I saw her coming down the corridor, it was genuinely scary in a way that made me laugh. ‘This is fantastic,’ I thought. ‘We’ve got Trunchbull.’

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