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It’s been 20 years since Matilda was released in cinemas – TWENTY! As an excitable seven-year-old I pottered along to see the big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book; somehow two decades have flown past and I’m an even more excitable 27-year-old interviewing the great Pam Ferris.
The British actress was, of course, the formidable Miss Trunchbull in Danny DeVito’s film – a performance that’s gone down in film history. But despite the passing of so many years, Ferris’s memory of the shoot remains razor sharp – as I found out when I quizzed her on what really went on behind the scenes of the 1996 flick.
Here are my findings…
She may have had Roald Dahl’s book as source material but the inspiration for tyrannical Miss Trunchbull came from “my gardener”, says Ferris.
As she points out, Dahl himself based the fearsome headmistress on a local gardener, but the Matilda actress claims hers is in another league. “My gardener is a whole different board game – she’s now 80 and still working trimming hedges and she’s the most incredible bully to her clients and we love her. But she has that sound in her voice – you know, that kind of hard sound.”
Does she know that Miss Trunchbull is based on her?
“No! People don’t recognise themselves. You can be remarkably accurate in a characterisation and other people recognise it but people do not recognise themselves. That’s a level of un-self-awareness that I can only be grateful for.”
Between takes, Ferris tried everything she could to keep a distance between herself and the young actors playing Crunchem Hall’s pupils.
“We had a discussion, Danny [DeVito] and I, before we met the little ones, that I should stay aloof from them and only meet them in character to try and keep that awed look in their face and the fear. It’s not a Daniel Day Lewis thing – it was for the benefit of the little ones.”
Except it didn’t quite work out that way…
“It broke down very quickly because they were daring little ones there that just came straight up to me and put their hand in mine between takes. I fell in love with them completely and there were a couple I wanted to bring back to Britain with me.”
Miss Trunchbull thought it was a snake – actually, it was a newt. A real life newt that crawled all over Pam Ferris’s body. (Rather her than us…) “His name was Mr Speaker and we looked after him very well,” recalls Ferris. “I think they substituted a plastic one for when I actually drank the water. We had a newt wrangler and she was in love with the newt so you couldn’t do anything nasty to it.”
When you’re tasked with filming a scene that involves eating a LOT of chocolate cake, you probably don’t want to actually swallow all of it. Enter the spit bucket, used by actors to dispense with the food in their mouths after the director has shouted “CUT!”
“You don’t want to be around those buckets of stuff,” warns Ferris.
We can believe it – and we reckon actor Jimmy Karz (who played Bruce Bogtrotter) got plenty of use out of his because it turns out he doesn’t even like chocolate. “He hated it and no one knew that until it was too late,” reveals Ferris.
You’d think you would flag your dislike if your one scene was going to involve shoving mouthfuls of cake into your mouth, no?
“You would. And if everybody had known they would’ve made it savoury or something that he could eat. It was hard on him, poor little devil.”
Ferris is dedicated to her craft, so much so that when it came to painting a picture of Miss Trunchbull, she went as far as dreaming up her character’s sex life… or lack of. “I think she had a very funny feeling when she was standing next to one of the Russian wrestlers at the Olympics but never quite knew what it was and never wanted to experience it again,” she reveals.
But, according to Ferris, there was a reason for this strange sensation.
“You see, my theory is that she was on steroids – this is not mentioned in the book or the screenplay, but I think if you’re that obsessed about your own physique you probably would get into steroids. And that her personal struggle is between steroid rage – my god, it amuses me – and trying to live a healthy life, which in her case means eating nothing but raw steak. And there’s the other part of her which is the bit that collapses and goes and eats half a chocolate cake because she can’t keep up the raw steak. So she’s constantly falling off her ideal wagon which puts her into a steroid rage.”
OK, it seemed pretty nasty – a dark, fumey, claustrophobic cupboard decorated with nails ready to skewer any unfortunate youngsters sentenced to a stint inside it – but the real-life chokey wasn’t all that bad. Yeah, it looked and smelt pretty awful, but the spikes were harmless, according to Ferris. “Don’t tell the children. The nails are rubber so they can shut on you and jab at you but they wouldn’t hurt.”
Anyone who’s ever seen a picture of Pam Ferris will know she looks nothing like Miss Trunchbull. That effect was achieved by hours spent in the hair and make-up chair constructing the tyrant’s signature sweaty look.
First, the nose: “A little extra in the way of nose tip was a very clever thing. We put a tiny bit of a tip on, just lengthened it a bit, and a little extra eye bags, but there was very little. And then it was mainly little bits of extra hair and three or four colour inks with very fine brushes which make veins and blobs. I was textured like a Jackson Pollock.”
The teeth also played a part. “We were going to have big top teeth all the way across but in the course of extra teeth being fitted I said I quite like it with only half in because it gave me a kind of Elvis sneer. So we left just the one side of extra teeth in and it did a wonderfully cruel thing to my mouth.”
But perhaps our favourite insight is the lengths to which Ferris went to achieve a hairy face:
“I did have false eyelashes… and they were on my chin! And a little bit on my top lip.”
Ferris suffered a number of injuries during filming – the scene which saw her beaten up by blackboard dusters sent her to hospital twice. “It’s very tempting to close your eyes when you’re being wacked in the face but the idea was that I shouldn’t because it didn’t look right so I had to force myself, against my instinct, to keep my eyes open and occasionally I got a big chunk of chalk dust in my eye so I had to go to hospital to have it washed out.”
But it was Trunchbull’s exchange with young Amanda Thripp (above) that nearly did Ferris serious harm. “When I throw the lovely little Amanda Thripp over the fence the special effects guys hadn’t worked out how I was supposed to hold on to the wires that supported her. The wires came from her body casing through her plaits and into my hands and I said, ‘how am I going to hold this?’ So they put a loop in the wire and said, ‘put that over your little finger and swing her around,’ which I did and of course the centrifugal force got stronger and stronger and I had to let go eventually and it nearly took the top of my finger off. I had to have about seven or eight stitches.”
It turns out director Danny DeVito was a big Jurassic Park fan – an appreciation memorialised on film by his homage to the dinosaur thriller in Matilda. As Ferris explains, “When I looked out of the window and I snorted and the glass heated up, Danny was very keen that I snorted like a big Tyrannosaurus Rex. So what he did was he froze the glass so when I snorted on it, it fogged up.
“God he’s clever, he’s so clever.”
2016 celebrates Matilda’s 20th anniversary and Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday. You can purchase Matilda on DVD via Amazon here