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Behind the scenes: Professor Trelawney

Our first introduction to Sybill Trelawney in the Harry Potter books is certainly a memorable one, and Emma Thompson – who portrayed the eccentric professor – played no small part in bringing that vision from page to screen…

Sybill Trelawney looking mystically mad from the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Extracted from Harry Potter: The Character Vault by Jody Revenson
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When asked once to sum up her character, Divination Professor Sybill Trelawney, in one sentence, Emma Thompson simply stated, ‘Mad as a bucket of snakes.’ Jany Temime agreed with the actress that Trelawney was mad ‘but she has a reason to be mad. She has trouble coping with her life, her job. We could go far in doing something completely absurd and ridiculous because the actor put a sensibility behind it.’ Thompson felt that Trelawney was someone who hadn’t looked in a mirror for a long time, who, in fact, ‘just couldn’t see anything at all,’ she says. ‘So I thought if she hasn’t looked at herself, if she can’t see herself, then she must look all sorts of undone. Buttons missing, clothes a bit raggedy.’

Sybil Trelawney looking sad surrounded by suitcases from the Order of the Pheonix
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The actress illustrated her thoughts about Trelawney’s look and sent them to director Alfonso Cuarón, who passed them to Temime. Temime felt Thompson’s design was ‘pretty unbeatable’. She was clearly influenced by the pervading theme of sight – whether of one’s self or of the future – and Temime embellished many of Trelawney’s outfits with a form of Indian embroidery called shisha. Shisha embroidery employs mirrors or other reflective material; these are shaped in ovals and circles that create the illusion of Trelawney being covered in eyes.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Thompson worked with the hair and makeup department to generate Trelawney’s wild do. ‘I had this notion of her having hair that just kind of exploded at the top of her head and clearly had not been brushed in a long, long time. Probably has had squirrels nesting in it at some point,’ Thompson teases. ‘One doesn’t know what would be found if you went too far into it.’ Trelawney’s huge coke-bottle eyeglasses added the final right touch. ‘I just knew she had to have these huge eyes,’ Thompson explains. ‘The glasses made my eyes enormous, but, of course, they were difficult to see through. So as she’s entering the classroom and talking about having “the sight”, she walks into a table. Her entrance is one of the oldest and cheapest gags in the book, and I take full responsibility for it.’

Sybil Trelawney clutches her bag after being fired by Umbridge in the Order of the Pheonix
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter: The Character Vault book cover

Extracted from
'Harry Potter: The Character Vault'