Producing work for children “is the most sacred work we have ever done”, Emma Thompson said ahead of the world premiere of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical.
The actress, who plays tyrannical director Agatha Trunchbull in the latest adaptation of the popular children’s novel, told reporters at the opening of the London film festival that she grew up surrounded by Dahl’s work.
“I read all the time. I was bullied in school and the books that really spoke to me were the ones where there was real darkness,” Thompson said. “You don’t want the sugar coated, but it can’t be too real. It has to be scary, but you have to be able to contain it and be thrilled.
“But children see everything. When we are little we can feel everything and see everything, and we know there is darkness out there and we often experience it when we are little. I think doing work for children is the most sacred job we’ve ever had, and it has to be our best work, it has to be so good because they have to bring out the best in us as artists. Then they will take that as they get older.
Thompson’s father, Eric, wrote the 1960s animated series The Magic Roundabout. “It was supposed to be for kids, and he said, ‘Why should I write something for kids? They’re just people who haven’t been on the planet as long as we have, why should we speak disdainfully to them? “, remembers the actor.
While researching the role, Thompson said she looked into Dame Edith Sitwell’s childhood. “[She was] tortured as a child, and decided that Trunchbull was cruel to children because she couldn’t handle her own childhood. She couldn’t stand any vulnerability in children because when she was vulnerable, she was crushed…and I think that’s where that kind of cruelty often comes from,” Thompson said.
She added that it was “absolutely a joy” to play a character like that “because you can indulge your inner demons and let them play.”
The musical – which also stars Alisha Weir as Matilda, Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey, Stephen Graham as Mr Wormwood and Sindhu Vee as Mrs Phelps – will be released by Netflix internationally after its UK cinema distribution by Sony at the end of November. The streaming service purchased the rights to Dahl’s works for £370million at the start of last year.
Worldwide sales of Dahl’s 1988 novel about a young girl with telekinetic powers who fights her Philistine parents and a headmistress who throws hammers exceeded 17 million.
Matthew Warchus, director of the new film and the acclaimed show on which it is based, said: “[Dahl] plays on exaggeration, which is a great tool… you can take something awful and overdo it, and it becomes manageable.
Speaking about her role, Lynch said Miss Honey “allows children to perform at their best in the most organic and gentle way”. The actor, who made history as the first black and female 007, said the character had a host of vulnerabilities of its own, and that it was inspiring to see a black woman on screen “don’t not be perfect… she just is”.
The 66th London Film Festival will continue until October 16, when it will close with Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, starring Daniel Craig. In total, the festival will host 164 feature filmsincluding 24 world premieres – with additional red carpet galas scheduled.
Festival director Tricia Tuttle said she chose to open and close with “joyful bits of cinema” that will leave audiences feeling “uplifted” in response to recent unsettling world events. “Matilda for us was really important,” she said. “It’s a great British story, but it’s also a really joyful story about redeeming underdogs, and it’s also a great women-centric story, which was very special.”
Tuttle, who this week announced she would step down as director of BFI festivals, also said she wanted LFF to help ‘reinvigorate’ the film industry, which has suffered a huge blow as a result of the pandemic. .