If you’re a child of the Nineties memories of Danny DeVito’s Matilda will undoubtedly be indelibly seared into your brain. Mara Wilson making pancakes to a backing track of Rusted Root, Bruce Bogtrotter’s chocolate cake and, of course, the saccharine sweet Miss Honey, played with enormous warmth and empathy by Embeth Davidtz.
It is almost certainly this portrayal that Lashana Lynch, who was only nine when the original film came out, had in mind when it was announced that Netflix and Sony had teamed up to reboot the classic Roald Dahl tale. So given a CV that specialises heavily in superheroes and secret agents, did she ever expect to be cast as the saintly Miss Honey?
“I was quite confused when I got the call,” she admits. “But I was glad they trusted me to deal with a level of softness because I hadn’t shown it yet. I was dying to do it.”
Adapted not from the original Dahl text, but from Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s Olivier-winning stage musical, Matilda tells the story of the titular neglected young girl, who is sent to Crunchem Hall by her parents when they find out she has been skipping school. After arriving to find her new headmistress, the tyrannical Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson), runs the school with an iron fist, Matilda decides to stick up for her fellow pupils and fight back.
Starring alongside Andrea Riseborough and Stephen Graham, Lynch plays Miss Honey, Matilda’s angelic teacher and the polar opposite of the fearsome Trunchbull, using her position to preach a message of acceptance and kindness.
Despite being thrilled to receive the call from director Matthew Warchus, Lynch was surprised to be asked to star in a musical – but relished the opportunity to use her vocal training and fulfill a childhood dream. Before deciding to pursue acting, Lynch considered going into musical theatre but was ultimately put off by the prospect of performing in eight shows a week. Matilda, then, represented the best of both worlds.
“I was really excited to manipulate my voice in a different way,” she says of finding a sound for Miss Honey. “Mine is a little more raspy and deeper but I was able to find a voice in Miss Honey that was bursting to come out. Every single song of hers is a journey to finding more and more of herself.”
Lynch’s childhood experiences played a large part in helping Lynch prepare for the role as well, with inspiration coming from one of her own teachers at her Hammersmith primary school.
“Miss Honey was one of my favourite characters from the book and the film as a child,” she says. “I spent a long time wondering what kind of woman I would be able to carve out for myself to show that level of vulnerability, angst and desperation.
“I also have my own Miss Honey from primary school that I really looked up to. She was also a Black woman and taught me how to sing and how to be confident and be myself. I thought that Miss Honey is just that: she is here to give the children their best selves in the most organic and sweet way, but also through the most tremendous amount of pain and trauma. She is very much triggered by everything going on in the school apart from these children.”
For a long time, I read scripts where Black women don’t get to just be on the page. I’m grateful that there’s been a shift”Lashana Lynch
And, while the subject of race isn’t explicitly explored in the film, for Lynch, the opportunity to offer young girls the kind of representation that was denied to her as a child is clearly meaningful.
“I feel like I’ve almost spiritually been given the opportunity to gift my childhood self what I didn’t get. It’s incredible that I get to watch myself create something for younger generations today and going forward.
“It’s really amazing to be able to play someone in charge, someone who can handle themselves and handle their body but also to be able to play someone like Miss Honey who is a saviour, she is the one to lean on and she is the one who is handling her stuff in the most gracious way but has such a story to tell behind closed doors, that is really special to me.
Of course, playing strong, powerful women is nothing new to Lynch. In fact, it’s been quite the few years for the rising star, who most recently appeared in the latest James Bond movie, No Time to Die, as the new 007, an African warrior in The Woman King and an Air Force pilot in Captain Marvel, picking up the 2022 BAFTA Rising Star award along the way.
However, this shift in tone to an inspiring, yet painfully real, Black woman represents a deeply symbolic evolution in her career. “It is inspiring to see a young Black woman on-screen not be perfect, not striving for excellence and not having to adhere to any rules that are being placed around her, she just is,” explains Lynch. “For a long time, I read scripts where Black women don’t get to just be on the page. I’m grateful that there’s been a shift that [allows] a Black woman to play Miss Honey.”
The actor added that, although it doesn’t matter what race Miss Honey is, she believes her casting sends a clear message of thanks to the Black women that gave up their time to support her as a child. She now hopes to be able to speak to young people about how incredible they can be, even if they come with trauma.
“Every single thing I have done in my career has led me to be able to play Miss Honey,” she finishes. “I needed the strength and the grit to be able to find the vulnerability.”
Matilda will be released in cinemas on 25 November 2022.