Footballer turned actor Elliot chats all things Matilda

As Matilda The Musical settles in on our stage for the next few weeks, one actor who is enjoying being back in the city is Elliot Harper who plays the fearsome Miss Trunchbull.

Elliot used to spend many hours in the city as a teenager and had high hopes of becoming a Norwich City player having been signed to the club’s youth team as a teenager.

Here he answers a few questions about what it is like to appear in such an iconic show, and how he swapped the field of dreams for a dream role.

Elliot Harper.

What is it like to be part of such a hugely popular show like Matilda?

It’s awesome. The first thing I’d say is that it’s great fun. It’s a wonderful experience in that you are performing alongside lots of children, which is relatively unique in the theatre, and I think it is a unique and amazing thing to be part of. The spectacle of it and being part of such a big and well-respected show is wonderful and the audience reaction is always fantastic and very rewarding. It’s a really fun show and especially the part I play. I am Miss Trunchbull. She’s an iconic character. It’s become an iconic part in musical theatre, so I’m very fortunate to have been chosen to do that.

You were in Matilda in the West End – what part did you play there?

I played the escapologist when I was in the London show and I did that for two years which was equally rewarding but in a very different way. You see the show from another perspective and are included in a very different way, and of course the characters are wildly different.

You’ve taken over the role from actor Craig Ells who played Agatha Trunchbull for four years in the West End and on tour. Did you pick up any tips from him?

Craige was amazing – synonymous with the part. I admired him and thought it was a wonderful part that I would always have wanted to play, but it hadn’t necessarily crossed my mind until I was asked to audition and then it became a possibility. That was when it became real for me.  I think I am very different to Craige and that’s probably a good thing. Our stature and the qualities of our voices are very different. We are great friends and he has been very supportive along the way and has given me some tips and thoughts of his own, so we have compared notes.

Elliot as Miss Trunchbull. (Photo: Manual Harlan)

What is it like to play Miss Trunchbull?

Physically it’s very demanding – it’s very front-footed. There’s a lot of anger there and she is a very complicated character, so there are lots of ups and downs and you have to fill the peaks and troughs that she goes through.  Obviously there’s the choreography to consider and certainly singing-wise you need a lot of stamina and that’s exhausting in itself, but there are all the other elements that make her one person. So yes, it’s a tough role, but there is also something to be really enjoyed about the challenge of that. It is demanding, but equally very fulfilling.

Miss Trunchbull is one of the most grotesque characters from any Roald Dahl book – how do you achieve that frightening and overpowering element of her?

Hopefully in real life I don’t look anything like I do in the show. Obviously there is make-up and then I have a very distinctive wig that is greased perfectly – it’s about a half hour process in total. She’s not a particularly clean woman and doesn’t value looking great! I have a couple of prosthetics – I have a mono brow and a wart on my nose and lip – and there is a padded suit that gives me the appearance of being much bigger which is great. I’m six foot two, so being that tall and becoming that wide is what you need to give the impression on stage visually that you tower over Matilda. Her smock costume is based on that of a horticulturalist. Roald Dahl grew up in a place called Great Missenden, which is the village in which Matilda is said to be set. I contacted the Roald Dahl Museum which is based there and they sent me a picture of the woman that Miss Trunchbull was supposed to be based on in the sense of how she looks.  She was quite a strict mistress of this school for gardening and that is where he got his vision for her. I think she was a much nicer woman than Miss Trunchbull ended up being, but there was this picture of her in a very smart smock with a tie, so that is the idea behind how she looks.

Have you discovered any redeeming qualities in Miss Trunchbull?

It is hard to find any!  As an actor you have to try to find some redeeming qualities in the character because you have to sympathise with them to some extent. I can sympathise with her because it’s like a lot of people in life who, I imagine, are who they are because of what has happened to them in their past and certainly I think Agatha was bullied when she was a child and had a particularly hard upbringing. She was also the second favourite with regard to her relationship with her sister and her parents didn’t necessarily view her in the same light as they viewed her sister. She was always second best and trying to compensate for that but I don’t think she does have any redeeming qualities. The fact that she doesn’t have any seemingly redeeming qualities as far as the audience is concerned is a great juxtaposition with Matilda and Miss Honey, and that makes for a great story.

Did you read Roald Dahl’s books as a child?

Yes. I was a fan of Matilda when I was little, also James and the Giant Peach and The BFG. I’d read Matilda. I’d read The Enormous Crocodile, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Danny the Champion of the World. He’s incredible and it’s all so well-written.

Did a fearsome head-teacher feature in your own school days?

There were a couple of fierce teachers along the way that I remember, but not a headmistress. I remember I did have a teacher in primary school who had a cane but obviously couldn’t use it. It used to resting against the wall as a threat, so that was a bit dark!

And was there a Miss Honey who inspired you?

There was a pastoral teacher who gave guidance and took us for form class and she looked after our university applications, or in my case drama school application. I remember her and she was gunning for me to do well. My drama teacher at the time was also very influential and he used to be a professional director and so took it very seriously in our drama class and gave me an idea that you could do this for a living.

Elliot as Miss Trunchbull and Carly Thoms as Miss Honey. (Photo: Manual Harlan)

What is it like to work with the child actors in the show?

You run out of words to describe them. They work amazingly hard. The Matildas are just unbelievable obviously, but also the young actors as a collective are remarkable. The choreography, the way they act, the discipline, it is certainly something I wouldn’t have got anywhere near when I was that age. What is required of the Matildas is extraordinary. They are the lynch pin. They front this show and they carry it, and you are along for the journey. They hardly leave the stage. I talk about stamina or vocal quality or any of those things and they double it, and that is what they have to achieve – and they are nine years of age. It’s remarkable.

To go back to your own school days, where did you grow up and how did you come to theatre?

I grew up in Brentwood in Essex and I did amateur theatre when I was growing up and I was in The Sound of Music as a kid, but I never did anything professionally. I wasn’t a particularly good student at school, if I’m honest, but the one thing I didn’t try particularly hard at, but still got good grades for, was drama and performance. So I thought I must be quite good at that and I stuck with it.  I did Theatre A-Level and then went to drama school. From the age of 13-14, I knew it was something I was going to do. 

Has it been a deliberate choice to go down the theatre route rather than television or film?

I think it is just the way it has panned out. I have been an actor for about 15 years now.  There have been certain boxes thatI’ve wanted to tick. I’ve always tried to build a career. I had no ambition or thought of becoming famous or doing one particular thing, but just wanted to get better and keep trying to tick those boxes. I just happen to have been in the theatre more than in television and films, but that is something I’d certainly like to do more of going forward.  Radio would also be amazing. I think it’s exciting for me to try and keep going and conquer those things as I go along.

Do you have any Norwich connections?

This is an honest true story – I used to play football for Norwich City. When I was 13-14 years of age, I played football for Norwich City. I always wanted to be a footballer, obviously. I wasn’t making it easy for myself, wanting to be either a footballer or an actor! I was scouted when I played for a Sunday League team back home. But when I was 16, it didn’t work out. I didn’t make it, but I played for Norwich for a few years for the youth squad. I used to go to the training ground at Norwich. I spent a lot of time there. I played some amazing games and had some amazing experiences because you are treated brilliantly at that time because there is the potential that you could be the next big thing for the club.

Who were your contemporaries when you were playing?

The odds of making it as a footballer are extremely slim. I used to play with Jermain Defoe, not at Norwich but when I played in Sunday League football. Leon Knight was another. I played against John Terry once.  After I played at Norwich, I went to play at Millwall and then when I was 16 they just said ‘it’s quite a bit of a long shot’.  I went to quite a good school so they suggested I go and study because I don’t think I was going to get a professional contact, so I turned more to acting.

Do you still play?

I don’t play football now. That is one of the things with the job we do. You sacrifice those things. The job is your hobby, which is an amazing thing in itself but you can’t do evening classes or you can’t really belong to a team because you never know where you are going to be. But I am happy with that. That is OK.