Matilda - London

Roald Dahl's classic children's book comes to the West End stage.

Alex Gaumond on Sporting a ‘Monobrow’ and Getting in Shape to Play Miss Trunchbull in London’s Matilda

There’s a surprising new Trunchbull terrorizing the students at Crunchem Hall: Alex Gaumond joined the London company of Matilda in September in the role originated by Bertie Carvel. It’s a fresh challenge for the 35-year-old Canadian-born actor, who received a 2011 Olivier Award nomination for Legally Blonde and then starred in West End productions of We Will Rock You and Top Hat. recently chatted with the versatile and debonair Gaumond about finding his inner femininity (or not) and what it’s like to sport a monobrow on stage.

I was surprised when I heard that you’d been tapped to be the West End’s latest Trunchbull.
So was I! [Laughs.] When I first got the audition, I was, like, ‘Uh, that’s interesting,’ but through all the recalls, I found myself weirdly drawn to the character of the Trunchbull and was very happy when I finally got the role. It’s a lovely stretch for me precisely because it goes against what I’ve done in the past.

This couldn’t be further removed from Emmett in Legally Blonde.
I know, but I like to think of my career as progressing from that to Galileo in We Will Rock You and then Alberto Beddini in Top Hat, with Jesus [in Jesus Christ Superstar] along the way! We had two months’ rehearsal for Matilda during the run of Top Hat, and you can’t get further away from an over-the-top Italian than a typically British headmistress.

Except that “the Trunch” is herself a pretty extraordinary creation. How have you approached the role?
What’s funny is that of course I am playing a woman, but that isn’t actually how I think of it—or of her. For me it’s about playing a character who comes with particular dialogue and text and emotions, so it’s about what’s happening in the moment. What it isn’t about is trying to speak in a higher pitch or trying to do some feminine moves.

Agatha Trunchbull in any case is hardly the most “feminine” of women.
That’s for sure! [Laughs.] She is a bit of a freak of nature, and because she was an Olympic hammer-thrower. She may have delved into steroids in her past, though we don’t know for sure. So much of the role lies in the makeup, really: If she were feminine, she would pluck her eyebrows, but instead they have given her a monobrow. You have to embrace all that!

Do you feel that you need to justify this character—or humanize her in any way?
Yes, I mean, with any role, you want to find out why that person is the way they are, and I certainly don’t believe that anybody is a villain or a tyrant without some reason behind it. Even the full-on psychopaths of this world don’t get to that stage without some sort of event that has happened in their past; it’s not as if you wake up and become evil, so I’ve got all sorts of reasons [for her behavior] in my head.

How important was it to follow what Bertie Carvel had done with the part?
I saw Bertie in London with the original cast, but by the time I came in to audition, that was only a fleeting memory. I purposefully didn’t want to see the show again so that I would be free to come up with my own interpretation.

Did he offer any advice?
We actually bumped into each other at the final performance of the London arena staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, which had [Matilda composer-lyricist] Tim Minchin heading the cast. I met Bertie there for the first time and we had a nice chat; he had just returned from Broadway, so we found ourselves sharing experiences more than actually delving into the advice side of things.

Fitness must be a crucial part of it.
Absolutely. When I first got the role, I was very aware that it was extremely physically demanding, and I decided to take it upon myself to get to a level of fitness that was higher than it needed to be just to get my cardio up.

Any examples?
Well, there’s a tiny bit in [the song] “The Smell of Rebellion” where Trunchbull holds her leg in the air for a few seconds. It’s something that in creating the role Bertie could already do—since which time, it has become the choreography for that particular bit! I certainly didn’t have the same flexibility early on, so I had to go through a training period to get to that level, but it was all about working hard enough to be able to do that little two-second moment rather than [the creative team] feeling that they would have to settle for second-best.

It’s extraordinary that both you and your girlfriend [Jane McMurtrie] are appearing in musicals adapted from Roald Dahl.
Jane got Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before I got Matilda, but when I was cast, she said, “Do you realize we are now the Roald Dahl couple?” Both musicals have the same choreographer, Peter Darling, so that’s been pretty amazing, as well.

Has a rivalry sprung up between the two shows?
I wouldn’t say a “rivalry” only because the stories are so entirely different but they are both children’s shows and I’m sure I wouldn’t want to be a parent having to decide between one or the other; I guess parents have to cave in and take their children to see both. That’s how it is.

It must have been helpful to try out your version of Trunchbull for Jane at home.
One advantage of having a girlfriend who’s an actress is that we ran through the scenes together and I was always making her laugh, which is a good sign. Once she came to see the show, she actually said, “I was watching the show and I stopped watching you,” which was great to hear;’ I would have been quite disturbed if she had been going, “That’s my boyfriend!”

Are you continuing to pursue your solo recording and concert career?
That’s had to go on the back burner for now, just because this role is so demanding that it kind of limits what you can do on Sunday nights [laughs]. I’m contracted until September, so we’ll see what happens.