Adapted from the Roald Dahl novel of the same name, Matilda became a cult family classic upon its release in 1996. We could all sympathize in some way with poor Matilda’s plight: the feeling of being alone, fighting with difficult parents or being tormented by a nightmare teacher. And of course it opened up a fantasy world to kids everywhere, where Matilda’s talent for telekinesis – which we all wanted to have – could stamp out evil and save the day. And let’s not forget the so-called school “punishment” scene we all dreamed of: being forced to eat an entire, enormous chocolate cake. Yes, this heart-warming tale really does leave you with a fuzzy feeling inside, and here are 20 factoids from the film that might just astound you, too.
20. Matilda’s parents are a real-life couple
As she’s a child genius, you’d think that Matilda would make anyone proud – but her vicious parents, Harry and Zinnia, are big meanies who treat her like dirt. And, rather neatly, the pair who play the evil on-screen couple are actually married in real life. To date, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman have been together for over 45 years and married for nearly 35. Presumably they’ve been happier together than the Wormwoods, then.
19. Miss Trunchbull was mean off camera, too
In an attempt to keep the child actors legitimately fearful of her while filming, Miss Trunchbull actor Pam Ferris deliberately stayed mean and moody after the cameras had stopped rolling. Talking to the Radio Times in September 2016, Ferris explained, “We had a discussion, Danny [DeVito] and I… that I should stay aloof… and only meet them in character to try and keep that awed look in their face and the fear.” And judging by the kids’ reactions to her in the movie, it looks like her plan worked.
18. Pam Ferris ended up in hospital during filming
We could never forget Miss Trunchbull’s impressive hammer throw of poor pigtailed Amanda Thripp. But did you know that filming this classic scene almost cost Ferris one of her pinkies? Supportive wires were placed through the pigtails of the young actress, and Ferris held on to them with a loop. But when swinging the girl, the force of the manoeuver caused the loop to tighten, almost chopping off Ferris’ finger. In fact, she needed seven or eight stitches! Ouch.
17. Matilda’s real-life mom passed away after filming
Young Mara Wilson was an established film actor before she’d even reached 10 years old, but the young actress tragically lost her mom to breast cancer six months after wrapping Matilda. Her mom was diagnosed during filming, and the movie was ultimately dedicated to her. Filming, however, actually helped Wilson cope. In 2013 she told Parade, “I remember feeling, when I was part of Matilda, that it was nice because I could focus on everything good that was going on in my life. It was wonderful.”
16. After her mom died, Wilson lost interest in acting
After her mom passed, Wilson’s desire to act faded as she tried to come to terms with her loss and being famous at the same time. In 2013 she told Parade, “I just wanted to be a normal kid, especially after my mother died. I wish that I had stopped after Matilda. I wish that I had just focused on my own life for a while. Maybe gone to counseling or something…” Wilson’s had a few parts since, but she’s largely stayed away from on-screen work, preferring to stick to writing instead.
15. Originally, the Tyndall twins were to play Matilda
Child actors are restricted by the number of hours they can work, and using twins to portray one role is a popular way around the problem. And so twins Kylie and Keaton Tyndall – of The Bold and the Beautiful fame – were first cast as Matilda, and set to play the part alternately. Unfortunately for them they got sick with a nasty bout of flu right before filming, and were consequently replaced by Wilson.
14. The part of Miss Honey was offered to someone else too
The antithesis of Miss Trunchbull, the sweet and helpful Miss Honey was played by Embeth Davidtz. And she must have been fist-pumping the air when she heard she had the part, as it was apparently first offered to Law & Order: SVU’s Marisky Hargitay. Incredibly, though, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress rejected the role. Still, it hasn’t hurt her career, it seems!
13. The terrifying “chokey” was actually harmless
Pity the poor Crunchem Hall kids that ended up in Miss Trunchbull’s dastardly creation, the “chokey.” The panic-inducing cupboard was filled with razor-sharp nails, and would become home to any disobedient pupils. Thankfully, though, in real life those nails weren’t dangerous at all. Ferris told the Radio Times in 2016, “Don’t tell the children. The nails are rubber, so they can shut on you and jab at you but they wouldn’t hurt.” Phew!
12. Road Dahl puts in an appearance…
Children’s author Dahl actually pops up himself in the film, although not in person, as he actually passed away six years before Matilda was released. If you look closely, the portrait of dead Magnus in Miss Truncuhbull’s home is, in fact, a genuine painting of Dahl.
11. …as does his wife
And Roald isn’t the only Dahl the film pays homage to. In the movie, teacher Miss Honey used to own a doll which she christened “Liccy Doll.” And of course, Roald Dahl’s widow – who was also one of the film’s producers – is none other than Liccy Dahl. Crafty!
10. The chalk scene took lots of behind-the-scenes work
Using her secret special powers, Matilda summons a piece of chalk to a blackboard to write a note from the ghost of Magnus. But this infamous scene was actually a lot harder to produce than it seems. First, the text had to be scribbled on the back of the blackboard. Next, the chalk was magnetized. Then one of the team hid on the other side of the board, going over the pre-written words with a magnet-attracting tool, so it appeared that the chalk was writing by itself. Surely SFX would have been a lot easier?
9. The three secret newts
One newt makes a starring role in Matilda when it’s almost swallowed by Miss Trunchbull, but two more are celebrated elsewhere. In fact, during the final credits on the DVD, three “newts” are credited: Mr Speaker, Sir Isaac and Wayne. This is a sneaky reference to then U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Geingreich, Isaac Newton and the singer, Wayne Newton. Clever!
8. The film references Dahl’s The BFG
Another one of Dahl’s books, The BFG, is subtly referenced in the film. When talking with Miss Honey about her adoration of novelist Charles Dickens, young Matilda messes up his name, calling him “Dahl’s Chickens.” And cleverly, the Big Friendly Giant does exactly the same thing throughout The BFG.
7. And another Roald Dahl favorite, too
Likewise, yet another Dahl novel-turned-movie, The Witches, gets a cheeky look-in during the movie. Towards the closing scene, Matilda has a conversation with Miss Honey regarding how fast a mouse’s heartbeat is. And the very same thing happens between two characters in The Witches. Dahl really was a master of self-promotion… or maybe he just enjoyed recycling his own work.
6. Wilson actually designed Matilda’s doll
Matilda’s beloved doll Wanda was one of her few possessions in the movie, and it’s extra special because a young Wilson actually designed it herself before filming. The quirky-looking comforter was later manufactured and sold to the public. And in 2012 Wilson wrote on her blog, “It’s one thing I feel comfortable using for bragging rights: I got my first design credit at age seven! I’m not actually sure if I was ever officially credited, but still, I’m proud.”
6. Pee-wee Herman makes an cameo as a cop
After laying low for a few years after his 1991 arrest for indecent exposure, Pee-wee Herman, played by Paul Reubens, also pops up in Matilda. He plays Bob, an FBI cop. But could the fact he was cast to play a law enforcement officer be a sly dig at his previous conviction?
5. Malcolm in the Middle’s best buddy stars, too
Look closely and you may spot actor Craig Lamar Taylor, who for six years played the disabled best bud of Malcolm in Malcolm in the Middle. His part in Matilda is so small that his character wasn’t even named, but he’s the child in the classroom who grabs the newt after it springs off the light. Blink and you’ll miss him.
4. Subliminal lunchbox secrets
One lunchbox in the movie features the slogan, “Greeting from Asbury Park, New Jersey.” And this is actually a reference to DeVito’s hometown. The movie star was raised in Asbury Park. Coincidentally, it’s also the name of Bruce Springsteen’s first album.
3. The boy who ate the whole chocolate cake actually detested it
Sweet-toothed Bruce Bogtrotter successfully completes Miss Trunchball’s challenge/punishment of eating an entire, enormous chocolate cake. However, what would seem like a dream scene to act out was actually a nightmare for the young actor, Jimmy Karz. Why? Because Karz couldn’t stand the sweet, brown stuff. In fact, he even kept a bucket off set to spew the cake into!
2. Now Bogtrotter is a doctor-in-training
Indeed, after just a few more acting roles – including a Drew Barrymore butt-grabbing part in The Wedding Singer – Karz chucked in the showbiz towel. And now, this chocolate-hating chap is training as a doctor at Philadelphia’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. Which sounds healthier than gorging on cake.
1. Danny DeVito basically owns the movie
Everyone knows that DeVito had a starring turn as Harry Wormwood, Matilda’s vile car salesman pop. But did you know that he also directed, produced and narrated the movie? And although he’d worked behind the scenes on other pictures, Matilda was actually his first flick for kids. We think he made a pretty good job of it too, wouldn’t you agree?