For her role as Miss Trunchbull in the Netflix film adaptation of Matilda the Musical, Emma Thompson spent almost three hours a day with a team of six make-up artists transforming into the fearsome headmistress of Crunchem Hall. But she knew what she was getting into.
As she tells Playbill, when she was offered the role in the new Matilda film, “I didn’t even hesitate. I just said yes,” she says. The film is helmed by Matthew Warchus and featuring a screenplay by Dennis Kelly and score by Tim Minchin—the same three-person team that created the stage musical.
Thompson likens Matilda, written by Roald Dahl in 1988, to some of his earlier works that she grew up with—including James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “It's a child coming up against cruelty, or injustice, or poverty, and triumphing because of an essential sense of justice and inner sense of how the world should be— which most children have,” she says. “They’re remarkable, their inner balance of knowing when something's wrong and not wrong."
This is not the first time Thompson has worked on a stage property. The two-time Oscar winner was in the television adaptations of the plays Wit and Angels in America. And she has also sung live in 2014 in a limited concert presentation of Sweeney Todd with the New York Philharmonic (and provided her vocals on the song "Beauty and the Beast" for the 2017 Disney film).
Matilda is a way for Thompson to get her stage fix; she channels her theatrical side with a larger-than-life performance she doesn’t often get to employ in front of a camera. “I love big performance. You have to be big in the theatre," she says. "You can't be naturalistic in theatre, unless you're mic-ed up, and then it's actually quite dull to watch. Because why would you want to sit in a theatre and watch someone behave as though they're in their front room? I want a performance."
The hammer-throwing, brassy-voiced Trunchbull is indeed that. “I really appreciate the opportunity to be burning on all cylinders in front of a camera,” she says. “I’m bigger than I’ve ever really been on film as Trunchbull.”
As for turning in a theatrical performance on Broadway, Thompson says that she would love to one day, although family obligations are keeping her in Europe for the present. Though she did have fond memories of her last stage performance in New York: “I've been at Lincoln Center when I did Sweeney, another grotesque. Oh my god, that was just the most amazing experience."
But Thompson's next project is one for the stage: she's written the book for the Nanny McPhee musical (based on the films that Thompson starred in). The Nanny McPhee musical, co-written with Gary Clark (of Sing Street), has been in the works for five years. The New Yorker reported that the show will premiere on the West End in 2023, though a date and a theatre has not been confirmed.
As for headlining a musical live on stage? Thompson exclaims, in horror, "But what if I bombed? Oh my god, I'm already stressing!"
Matilda the Musical is now streaming on Netflix. See full musical performances from the film here, as well as the behind-the-scenes featurette of Thompson’s transformation into Trunchbull.