For Lashana Lynch, 2022 was all about showing off her range. In Sony’s The Woman King, she plays Igozie, a member of the historical, all-female warrior unit known as the Agojie, led by Viola Davis’ General Nanisca. While it required intense training (and doing her own stunts), it fit right along with the other roles in Lynch’s filmography — among them a pilot in Captain Marvel and a secret agent in No Time to Die. But it was Netflix’s Matilda the Musical, based on the Roald Dahl novel and subsequent stage musical that played the West End and Broadway, that was the major departure from Lynch’s string of badass characters. As Miss Honey, the kind and supportive teacher who attempts to protect the young title character from the cruel and brutish headmistress Miss Trunchbull (played by Emma Thompson), Lynch had to embrace her softer, less confident side — and belt some tunes. The actress recently spoke with THR about finding the throughline between these back-to-back roles and what she learned from her powerhouse co-stars.
I want to talk about Matilda first because Miss Honey is so different from the characters you’re known for. Was that part of the appeal?
I’ve been desperate to [play] someone who is fragile, vulnerable, emotional and [wears their] heart on [their] sleeve and doesn’t really know what to do themselves. I love being in charge as a human being and playing lovely characters who have a lot of confidence. But I feel like with all of the confident human beings I’ve portrayed, I’ve always tried to weave in some questioning of self or self-doubt, self-deprecation, anxiety. Sometimes it doesn’t always have a place. And now I’ve found a place. I got to work with children and to be delicate; I got to learn more about myself and how I want to approach a character. In a nutshell, it was just what I needed.
Were you a Matilda fan before signing on as Miss Honey?
Yes! I read and reread the book as a child. I loved the [1996 film, starring Mara Wilson as Matilda]. I tried multiple times to see the [stage] show and could never get a ticket, which I’m really glad about, actually. It’s great to come to something fresh. It’s like Shakespeare — what’s your version going to be? I had this great conversation with [director Matthew Warchus] at the top about what Miss Honey was going to be, and I was terrified that I was going to mess it up. I come from straight theater — I’m used to drama. This is the other side of the coin, but that’s why it was so exciting.
What was the biggest challenge with this role?
To not take myself too seriously. Coming from drama school and over 10 years in the industry, you want to make sure you’ve done all of the right things by your character, that you’re having all the right conversations with the director, that you are on point for that first day of school. Here, I was able to just literally play. I mean, we’ve got hundreds of kids on set. If I were to come in and be like, “Well, my backstory is …” (Laughs.) You have to just fall into the fold and be as easygoing as possible. And there are these really delicate, tiny human beings who are running around your feet every day. I relied on my conversations with Matthew, which helped me realize that Miss Honey — and Matilda, to a certain extent — offers balance. Everyone is in the sky, and we’re the ones who are constantly trying to stay on the ground.
Did you learn anything from working with so many child actors?
I believe that children should be spoken to as human beings because the more that we underestimate their minds, the more [likely] we’re the ones who are going to look stupid. They absorb so much more than we anticipate. And these kids were smart. They spent five, six months in boot camp, learning acting and choreography. They probably had more prep than I had. I just wanted to ensure that they felt they could trust me, that they felt safe and that I was just playing off of them — allowing myself to be as free as an actor around these people who have the most elite level of freedom.
That’s very much the spirit of Miss Honey: treating children as equals, as opposed to — as Miss Trunchbull would call them — maggots.
I genuinely love children, and I’m so fascinated by their brains. And the crew and I were substitute parents for them at certain moments, you know — when they don’t know quite what they’re doing, or they hadn’t heard Matthew’s direction, they would come to me and I would have to have the answer. I wanted them to see me as Lashana, but I wanted them to be guided by Miss Honey. In the end [a few kids said], “I hope you can come to our school and teach!”
You sing in Matilda — have you done much musical theater?
I started off singing for a long time, from a really young age until my first year of drama school, probably around 19 or 20. I was recording an EP, going to the studio after class — it was excellent. I just couldn’t do both, right? I didn’t want to do musical theater, I wanted to do acting and singing separately. I thought, “At some point in life, there’s going to be a world in which they can coexist, but it will be on my terms that will be my choice, and I’ll be able to have the best character to sing through.”
And Miss Honey is not a typical big, showy musical theater role.
That’s what comforted me. I was like, “Are you sure that you want me as Miss Honey? There are plenty of people — I can even suggest some; I have some friends who would be great for it!” (Laughs.) I didn’t want her to get lost in the world. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood [Matilda’s parents, played by Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough] and Miss Trunchbull have those fantastical moments, and Miss Honey is the center of the storm for Matilda. And for the children who are discovering Miss Honey for the first time, this is their Miss Honey, and that’s incredible.
You mentioned your young co-stars going through boot camp to prepare for Matilda —which was probably almost as grueling as your preparation for The Woman King.
I thought I had preparation until I realized I had no preparation. Yes, I was athletic as a teenager. Yes, I did dance at one point in life. Yes, I’ve done some stunts. But to have a director and the stunt coordinator and a trainer see your capabilities and your body and say that you can do it — and we’re not going to have a stunt double? That’s wild! But I am really competitive, and I always try to rise to the challenge. There was absolutely no way that I’d allow them to think so highly of me and not deliver. It was life-changing. My body was shaking after every single [workout] session — an hour and a half of weight training and then straight into three-plus hours of stunts, martial arts, choreography every single day.
Igozie is like Miss Honey in that she is a mentor to Thuso Mbedo’s Nawi. Was that on your mind when you filmed these movies?
It was new to be prepping a role a month or two months prior to finishing another role. Literally, I was still playing Miss Honey in the last few weeks while I was changing my diet and training for The Woman King, which as you can imagine was a small nightmare. I haven’t had any throughlines [among my film roles] that have [made] as much sense as this. It spoke to me as the kind of person I want to be for my community, for young people and for my future children. I want to ensure that we’re instilling the right mindset, the right throughline in their life to ensure that they’re literally just remembering that they’re enough. And it’s nice that we get to see a young Black woman in 2022 in cinema be a supporting character who is not bashing influence and inspiration into young people’s heads but is reminding them that they are capable.
Another throughline is that you got to work with amazing women in Emma Thompson and Viola Davis. What did you learn from them?
Working with two women like Emma and Viola in the same year, back-to-back, you’re reminded that we’re all humans making choices, building upon our experiences and bringing them to work. We come to work hoping that we can create together, and making mistakes and forgetting your lines and reminding the kids that we’re doing a take — or dropping a machete and picking it up again — is important. It’s empowering to feel that from two incredible, formidable women. Viola has all of the hallmarks of someone who you want to be around forever and ever. She taught me how to exist at work as a real human being and remind people that you’re a human being, not this force that has come to work. Emma’s pretty much the same: “Don’t ever look at me as I’m this big, amazing giant. I’m just a human being that’s trying to make it work.” We show up every day, we stay connected. And we become leaders together, instead of expecting the more experienced person to be [in charge].
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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