When a beloved children's book comes to the big screen, there's always going to be high expectations. Everything has to be just right, and the actors have to be perfectly cast, it's not going to match up with how people imagined their favorite characters would be. When Matilda came out back in 1996, the role of the fearsome Miss Trunchbull went to Pam Ferris, who absolutely nailed it. But that character was vicious, ugly, and utterly cruel. You'll be shocked to see what Pam's like in real life...
Bringing The Book To Life
Famous and prolific children's author Roald Dahl published Matilda back in 1988 to instant acclaim and widespread love. The story of a young girl who discovers she has telekinetic powers, it was always going to be a fun story to adapt to the big screen. And in 1996, actor Danny DeVito did just that - brought the magic to a new generation who maybe hadn't grown up with the book.
Other Big-Budget Adaptations
Filled with witches and giant peaches, talking foxes and magical potions, the wacky world of Roald Dahl has delighted children for decades. It's also a world ripe for film adaptations, and Hollywood has been mining it for years. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (or Willy Wonka) has been done a few times, while Fantastic Mr Fox was directed by none other than Wes Anderson. And let's not forget the latest, last year's epic BFG.
Dahl always had a keen talent for writing big baddies, knowing exactly what a kid's life is all about: avoiding authority figures. His creation in Matilda, Miss Trunchbull, is the headmistress of Crunchem Hall Elementary School, and one of his finest villians. Apparently, he based the character on his wife's old teacher, who terrorized the students and forced her one night to stay up watching ice cream melt. No joke.
The Character That Everybody Loves To Hate
Miss Trunchbull is just as cruel, if not crueler, than the worst teachers and principals that we've ever had in our lives. Everybody who's read the book or watch the movie can relate and hate her viciously mean streak. In one scene she forces a boy to eat an entire chocolate cake, while in another famous one she throws a young student over the yard by her pigtails.
She Was Played By Pam Ferris
Who could the movie producers get to play such a fun and terrifying role? In the end, they decided on British actress Pam Ferris, then 48 years old. She relished the role, and stepped into Trunchbull's big shoes with ease. It was the best decision director Danny DeVito could have made: even to this day, 20 years later, few of us will forget our time with Miss Trunchbull.
Her Early Life
In the story, Trunchbull is an ex-Olympian hammer thrower and staunch spinster. In fact, it's said in the book that she is such a miserable character, she reveals that she was never even a child herself. Pam Ferris, on the other hand, definitely did. She was born in Germany to Welsh parents, and from an early age living in New Zealand and Britain, she was determined to become an actress.
She Never Had Children
So dedicated to her work was Pam Ferris that like Miss Trunchbull, she never had any children herself. "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 says, although "not having children isn't a sadness in my life." It's not that she dislikes children - quite the opposite.
Married To Roger Frost
Over the years she's racked up dozens of screen credits, playing a diverse range of roles. Her only foray into a personal life was marrying Roger Frost, a British character actor who's been in The Bourne Identity and Notting Hill. They've been married for the last three decades - so something must be working out.
Getting Into Character
It took a lot of work to turn the lovely and classy Pam Ferris into a horrible monster, but they managed it somehow. The transformation involved hours of makeup, including extra skin added to the end of the nose and extra hairs on her nose and upper lip. You know, to get that real witchy look.
The other way that Ferris got into character was to try and keep away from the child actors as much as possible. She would only see them while on set, and that stuck to her mean character that entire time. So much of that awed and terrified look that you see on the children's faces during the movie? That's actually genuine fear.
The Children Were Just Too Sweet
Though with some of the children, it proved impossible for Ferris to hide her sweet and caring nature. Despite her best efforts to stay frightening, between takes the bolder kids would come up to her 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 admitted.
Her Own Backstory
Although Roald Dahl didn't go fully into detail about Miss Trunchbull's past - it is a children's book, after all - Ferris thought up her own backstory for why Trunchbull had turned out as mean as she did. Basically, her explanation was 'roid rage. As an Olympian, Ferris believed that Trunchbull had abused the performance enhancers too many times, and was now a simmering cauldron of hatred.
Injured On Set
Even as the most fearsome person around the set, life wasn't always easy for Ferris. She got injured twice during filming, the first time when she almost went blind from the chalk dust flying around. The second time was during the famous pigtail-girl-tossing scene, which was completed using wires. Those wires, though, were so thin that she nearly severed one of her fingers.
She's Played Other Villains
With her talent for playing the nastiest of ladies, it's probably no surprise that Ferris has gotten similar gigs in other films. As Aunt Marge in the fifth Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, she was just as vile to Harry Potter as she was to the schoolchildren in Matilda. Again, she nailed the role.
Pam Ferris In Real Life
So what's Pam Ferris like in real life? And what does she look like now? Nothing like Miss Trunchbull, thankfully, on both counts. Like Maggie Smith and Judie Dench, Pam Ferris is one of the old school British actresses, always stunning, always elegant, and always classy. Just remember that for the next time you watch the film. It's only make believe. It's only make believe. It's only make believe...
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