A Teen-Ager's Lark For Helena Bonham Carter
Source: The New York Times
Publication Date: 02nd March, 1986
Helena Bonham Carter has the kind of features that inspire cliches: luxuriant brown hair, wide-set almond eyes, a lovely heart-shaped face, little bow lips – a face that belongs on a cameo. There is something undeniably old-fashioned about her, nostalgic, even wistful. Perhaps this helps to explain why Miss Bonham Carter, a 19-year-old schoolgirl who had hoped to study English literature and philosophy at Cambridge, with no professional acting training and only one television play to her credit, was chosen to star in period roles in two major motion pictures opening within a month of each other.
She made her screen debut last month in Trevor Nunn’s ”Lady Jane,” playing the 16th-century adolescent who became Queen of England for nine days and was then beheaded for treason. In an adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel ”A Room With a View,” which opens Friday at the Paris, she plays an upper-class Victorian young lady, controlled by the manners and mores of her time and steeped in the subterfuge that repressive society spawned. Lucy Honeychurch, the film’s heroine, falls in love with an unconventional young man whom she meets at a Florentine boarding house. The gentleman has the effrontery to express his feelings – he kisses her and the insult is enough to force the heroine and her chaperone to return to England, where she becomes engaged to another man. In love with one man and engaged to another, Miss Honeychurch seems able to express herself honestly only when she plays the piano.
Not so her modern interpreter. She looks like a typical 1980’s teen-ager with green, high-topped sneakers, striped tights, an oversized purple sweatshirt and a pimple on her forehead. Miss Bonham Carter said she began her acting career on her own at 13 in an attempt to compete with an outgoing group of girls at her school. ”It was probably for rather unedifying motives,” she said, ”i.e., jealousy, that I got one of their agent’s names and called him. It was a conscious act, because I was naturally shy and I had to force myself. It was to seek the opposite side of myself.”
She also took the step to assert her independence at home (”My parents were mostly amused,” she said. ”I think they thought, ‘Oh, this is something she’ll grow out of when she adolesces.’ ”). There followed three years of going to what she calls ”orange juice and treats” auditions for children. At the age of 15 she landed her first job – a television commercial for a hi-fi set. Even in the modern world of stereo advertising, Miss Bonham Carter was typecast in a period role – Juliet. A year later she was cast in a television special called ”A Pattern of Roses,” in which she played Nettie, a part the actress characterizes as ”a malevolent, manipulative, Edwardian pubescent.” ”There was,” she says, with the expertise born of her recent experience, ”an awful lot of eyebrow acting in that one.”
And that was it. Two years later, when her agent sent her photograph to Trevor Nunn, who was casting for the role of Lady Jane, Miss Bonham Carter was preparing for her Oxbridge exam, the special admission test given by Oxford and Cambridge. Hers was the first photograph Mr. Nunn saw, and weeks later he returned to it, deciding to test her. But when he telephoned, she was determined not to let anything interfere with her plans for university. She said no and left for her holidays, traveling with some friends. Mr. Nunn tried again. When she arrived at a friend’s house, she was told that her agent had been phoning. ”I thought, ‘How flashy,’ ” she said. She decided to meet with Mr. Nunn, and the decision changed the direction of her life.
The auditions for ”Lady Jane” lasted for more than a month. She was asked to do Shakespeare, which she had not done much of before – ”I did, guess what?” she said. ”Juliet!” There were many conversations centering around herself, her emotions, her past and her feelings about the obligatory nude scene. ”It wasn’t easy, of course,” she said, ”someone basically self-conscious anyway being asked to take her clothes off, but it seemed on the whole less serious than the emotional exposure I was being asked to do. You are having to dig out part of yourself you don’t usually do in front of even one person, let alone over 100 on the set.” Mr. Nunn didn’t ask her to disrobe, she said, but expressed the hope that her physical appearance would not be disappointing. ”I think you will find me quite seemly,” the young British actress replied.
If she had any thoughts of still entering Cambridge, she was mistaken. The day after finishing ”Lady Jane,” she went to see James Ivory, director of ”A Room With a View,” who had called to ask her to audition for the part of Lucy Honeychurch. Within 24 hours she had the role.
”I was again employed in another major film and not feeling I’d been tested enough to deserve it,” she said. Although this was her second film, and she was no longer a novice, she said she felt less confident than she had in ”Lady Jane.”
”In ‘Lady Jane’ I had been employed as someone who had never done anything before,” she said, ”but in ‘A Room With a View’ I was employed as an actress. In ‘Lady Jane’ I didn’t know at all what I was in for. In ‘A Room With a View’ I was more aware, more diffident because I knew what the opportunities were.”
Although Miss Bonham Carter had not yet read much E. M. Forster -she has since made up for that by reading a great deal, including ”A Passage to India” and ”The Longest Journey” – the upper-class Lucy Honeychurch and the world she inhabited is not so far from the actress’s experience.
Miss Bonham Carter comes from one of England’s most distinguished political families. Her father is a merchant banker. Her great-grandfather was the liberal Prime Minister, Lord Asquith, and her grandmother was Lady Violet Bonham Carter, a well-known politician, orator and member of the House of Lords. Her mother, who is half-French and half-Spanish, is a psychotherapist. Her maternal grandfather was the Spanish Ambassador to the United States, Canada and Norway. She said she recently heard one of the radio broadcasts made by her grandmother, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, who died when the actress was 4 years old.
”The broadcast was about chaperones and how necessary they were for young ladies when she was a girl,” Miss Bonham Carter said. ”It was so apt in relation to Lucy. I thought that she must have been Lucy’s age when Lucy actually was supposed to exist.”
Miss Bonham Carter thinks that it is important, even today, to understand the world in which her grandmother and Lucy Honeychurch lived. ”The characters in ”A Passage to India” and ”A Room With a View” -Adela Quested and Lucy Honeychurch – are similar. They are both in a ”typical Forster muddle,” she said. ”They are lying to themselves and each other and not reacting honestly to their own feelings. In Forster’s world this lying is very unforgivable – we might not take it so seriously today. But he is involved in the idea of feeding spiritual needs in a society that militates against it – a central heroine wreaking havoc and then trying to resolve it.”
A full century away from the ”muddle” of her Forsterian film character, Miss Bonham Carter has concluded that it is impossible for her to combine academic study with a theatrical career. Unlike Princeton University, which allows Brooke Shields to attend while continuing an uninterrupted film career, British universities would not, she feels, tolerate such divided attention. ”I will have to absorb academic studies some other way,” she said. She has decided to study theater for the next few years ”to specialize and make a go of it. I need to learn a lot in acting. Playing these roles at such a young age is certainly more imagination than experience. I want to become versatile.”
She said, ”I want to do remarkable things and be remarkable at 25 or 35 years old. Miss Bonham Carter stopped, and smiled. ”Basically,” she said, with the kind of self-appraisal she might have learned from her psychoanalyst mother, ”I suffer from the adolescent idealism of wanting to do everything.”