If you grew up in the 90s, you probably remember watching “Matilda” and wishing you could have her powers. But we bet you never gave much thought to Miss Trunchbull, other than to hope you never encountered a teacher like that. There’s more to Trunchbull than meets the eye, though, and even more to the woman who played her.
“Matilda” was a novel written by beloved children’s author Roald Dahl in 1988. It tells the story of a young girl with telekinetic powers and her adventures at home and school. It was the first Dahl book to make it in the Top 100 children’s novels. Actor Danny DeVito loved it so much, he decided to produce it and even direct it. But casting it would not be easy.
A Villain Like No Other
Agatha Trunchbull, the headmistress of Crunchem Hall Elementary School, is probably one of the greatest literary and movie villains of all time. Dahl actually based the character on his wife’s former teacher, who was so cruel she forced her to stay up watching ice cream melt once. It was a good starting point, but Dahl took Miss Trunchbull to the next level.
A Kid’s Worst Nightmare
If you saw “Matilda,” as a kid, you were probably terrified of Miss Trunchbull. She was mean, scary, and violent, even with the littlest children at her school. You might remember her throwing a young girl across the yard by her pigtails or the iconic scene where she forces a student to eat an entire chocolate cake. The actress who played her had her work cut out for her.
Her First Big Movie Role
Miss Trunchbull was portrayed by British actress Pam Ferris, who was 48 years old at the time. She had been a theater actor her whole life and played motherly figures in some television shows. So she relished being able to play such a meaty and fun character on the big screen. But stepping into the role was not easy.
Creating That Terrifying Look
Though Ferris was no supermodel, her normal appearance is much different than that of Miss Trunchbull. So it took many hours of makeup to achieve her menacing look. It involved putting extra skin on the end of the nose and fake hairs on her upper lip and nose. She was almost unrecognizable. But she didn’t just rely on costuming to sell the character.
Scary On And Off The Set
Ferris knew that to truly embody Miss Trunchbull, she had to keep that ominous feeling around her. So she stayed away from the child actors as much as she could, as she thought the familiarity would reduce the tension between the characters. Sure enough, her strategy worked. The kids’ terrified faces in the movie were 100% real. Even so, some of the children still wanted to get to know her.
Too Sweet To Ignore
As good an actress as she is, Ferris couldn’t hide her gentle nature all the time. Some of the more courageous kids would come up to her between takes and hold her hand. “I fell in love with them completely and there were a couple I wanted to bring back to Britain with me,” she said. But it was still important to her to do her character justice.
A Believable Backstory
In Roald Dahl’s book, Miss Trunchbull says she was never a child, which explains her miserable nature. But Ferris gave the character a different backstory. To her, Trunchbull had taken too many steroids during her time as an Olympic hammer thrower. It ended up affecting her temperament and left her in a permanent state of rage. But Pam’s commitment to her character put her at risk sometimes.
Though she portrayed the toughest of the movie’s characters, Ferris actually got injured twice while filming. All the chalk dust in the air on the classroom sets got into her eyes and almost left her blind. Then, during the pigtail-throwing scene, she cut her hands with the razor-thin wires used for the stunt. Thankfully, none of the injuries were serious, and Pam is still in great shape — just look at her now.
The Actress Behind The Role
Pam Ferris is a classically-trained actor, in the vein of Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, or Patrick Stewart. Her ability to embody a character, no matter how minor, is what has helped her have such a prolific and long-lasting career. Plus, she has that British elegance that doesn’t fade away with age. Definitely nothing like her “Matilda” counterpart.
A Globetrotting Life
Though she definitely personified Miss Trunchbull in the film, Ferris’ life had very little in common with the character. She was born in Germany to Welsh parents, while her father was serving in the Royal Air Force. She has lived in Wales, New Zealand, and England. Her passion for acting started at a young age, and it influenced her whole life.
Child-Free And Happy
There is one thing that Ferris and Miss Trunchbull did have in common, though. They never had any children. But Pam didn’t hate children. Rather, she chose to focus on her craft. “I was obsessed with work in my youth. It’s why I didn’t get married until I was 38 and the reason I didn’t have kids,” she said once. Perhaps that made her good at portraying childless characters.
Villains You Love To Hate
Miss Trunchbull wasn’t the only memorable villain played by Pam Ferris. She also appeared as vile Aunt Marge in 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” making Harry’s life as miserable as she did to the Crunchem Hall schoolchildren. In real life, though, Ferris is as lovely a person as you can encounter.
Her Husband Of Three Decades
Pam Ferris has had a long and prolific acting career, from theater to television, to films. But, as she was nearing her 40s, she reached a new milestone in her personal life: she married fellow British actor Roger Frost. Frost, coincidentally, also had a part in a Roald Dahl adaptation.
Roald Dahl Is Everywhere
Roger Frost played a small role in the 2005 version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” This is not surprising, given that Dahl’s works have been adapted to the big screen many times. Gene Wilder iconically portrayed Willy Wonka in the 1971 version of that book. We’ve also seen “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and the “Big Friendly Giant” brought to life on film.