Helena Bonham Carter revels in offbeat roles (and outfits), but even she balked at playing Miss Havisham at 46. She tells Tim Auld what changed her mind.
Source: The Telegraph
Publication Date: 21st November 2012
I am sitting in a café in north London, being taught how to steal things by Helena Bonham Carter.
‘Try it when you get back to the office, right,’ she says conspiratorially. ‘If anybody’s got something in their back pocket, you drop something, they bend down and Bob’s your uncle.’
Pick-pocketing, which she has mastered while playing the role of Madame Thénardier in a forthcoming film of the musical Les Misérables, is just one of the 46-year-old actress’s new areas of expertise.
Another is prostitution (she plays a madam in a new version of The Lone Ranger), another entomology (for a film based on the novel entitled The Selected Works of TS Spivet – ‘which is a real winner of a title!’).
She obviously loves her work and talks about it with a dry, self-deprecating wit. She has a habit of leaving off the final words of sentences, which may be something she’s picked up from her partner, the director Tim Burton, whom she has dubbed ‘a home for unfinished sentences’.
She also has an explosive witchy laugh, which Colin Firth described as the ‘filthiest imaginable’ when working with her on The King’s Speech.
Talking of witchy, it’s traditional about now in a Bonham Carter interview to make some comment on her mad dress sense – what’s the queen of wacky wearing today?
Some slightly unkempt hair apart, I’m going to have to disappoint you, because she’s wearing a perfectly tidy patterned cotton dress and red cardigan combo, in which she’ll later trundle off to pick up her children (Nell, four; Billy Raymond, nine) from the school gates.
Lest we should fear she’s lost her mojo, however, she tells me, ‘It was Hallowe’en last night and I was the only one who didn’t have to dress up because I’m already there.’
She describes it as a party at ‘a friend’s house’, which all sounds quite low-key, but when I pick up a paper later I find it was Jonathan Ross’s party, to which le tout showbiz was invited.
Photographs show her arriving with Tim Burton, the latter dressed in a black satin dressing-gown with a white, floppy-eared rabbit-head mask.
Bonham Carter and Burton have been an item since they met on the set of his film Planet of the Apes in 2001, and it’s hard to imagine a better sartorial pairing, she and he matching each other frizz for frizz with their wild locks.
They’ve made a pretty successful artistic partnership, too, working together on seven films, including Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows in the past decade.
But our meeting today is not to discuss another Burton/Bonham Carter venture, but a new film version of Great Expectations directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral).
In it Bonham Carter plays Miss Havisham, which will come as a bit of a slap in the face to anyone who still recalls first seeing Bonham Carter as the quintessence of youth playing Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View in 1985.
Surely Bonham Carter has a few years yet before she needs to take on such elderly roles? It turns out I’m wrong.
‘Mike Newell kept saying, “You are exactly the right age to play Miss Havisham,” which got a bit irritating because you always think, “Well, you have to be a geriatric to play her.” But if you do the maths, she’s pretty much 45.’
Talking to the press isn’t Bonham Carter’s favourite thing – she hates all the red-carpet stuff (‘walking around in front of a ton of press, and people flashing cameras and asking questions that aren’t very interesting’).
Towards the end of her twenties she became fed up with being pigeonholed as the actress who wore corsets (‘ingénues, wilting roses’, she says wearily); and she and Kenneth Branagh kicked firmly into touch any attempts to delve into their private lives when they were dating in the 1990s.
But I have to say I find her extremely good company, and it’s clear she has managed not to be turned into a robot by the Hollywood machine.
One of the phrases she repeats in our interview is ‘life’s too short’, another is ‘you’ve got to have fun’, another ‘I don’t care anymore’.
Indeed, one of the great things about Bonham Carter is the fact she can be a bit of a loose cannon, marvellously off-message in a world of controlled sound bites.
Earlier this year, for instance, she rather rashly described her friend David Cameron to a journalist as ‘not that Conservative’. Today she can’t help airing her irritation with the BBC when talking about Great Expectations.
It’s only a year ago that the BBC broadcast a television version of the novel starring Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, which does beg the question: how many Great Expectations do we need?
‘That was a bit appalling but Gillian did a really good job,’ she says. ‘I’ll do a part if there’s a different take on it and I thought, “Well, it hasn’t been done,” and then a week later it was announced that Gillian was doing it, who is even younger than me, for the BBC, and, not only that, the BBC was funding our film and doing the telly. The lack of imagination!’
The film is, despite this frustration, beguilingly made, with a fairytale quality. Bonham Carter herself makes a convincing psychotic hell-bent upon having her revenge on the opposite sex.
Other ways in which Bonham Carter defies the Hollywood machine: where she lives. She and Burton, who grew up in Burbank, California, have turned their backs on Tinseltown to live in leafy Belsize Park in north London.
They own three houses side by side (and, no, they’re not, as some reports have suggested, joined by an underground tunnel patrolled by bats): one for Bonham Carter, one for Burton and one for their children to play with the nanny.
The children have Burton’s surname. What do they make of the arrangements? Do they pester their parents to get married?
‘Yes. Actually, Billy was the one who was worried. Nell wants a dress. He thought, “Are you part of our family?” And I said, “Yes.” And then he said, “You were married, [what about] the wedding photo?”
‘And of course it was a photo of me in costume for Sweeney Todd, where Tim and I were just playing around, and he thought that was our wedding photo.’
Will you do it, I ask. ‘We might do it,’ she says. ‘It’s the organisation. I can’t invite the world, that’s the thing – how do you not offend?’
Then there’s how she dresses. She’s taken her share of criticism over the years for her gothic, grungy, Marie-Antoinettey, Vivienne Westwoody, all-at-oncey style. Her look – call it eccentric, call it individual – clearly got up some people’s snouts. One journalist even felt at liberty to accuse her of sporting a moustache. Such barbs used to bother her but don’t anymore.
‘I’ve sort of given up on pleasing people,’ she says with a laugh. ‘I remember I did one Oscars ceremony and I got really bad reviews for the way I dressed.
‘If you get bad reviews it might affect you personally, but is it going to affect you getting the next job? If it is then I don’t want the next job, you know.
‘But Hollywood has been eaten up by the fashion industry; completely hijacked by the fashion industry. Oh, it’s a complete … and they don’t even ask about the bloody films. Just, “What are you wearing?”’
Bonham Carter may not like dressing for Hollywood, but she still loves dressing up – always has since her childhood in Golders Green. ‘[In my mind] I was always in some costume drama. I was a fantasist.’
That Bonham Carter had a vivid imaginary existence is not surprising in the light of her upbringing. When Bonham Carter was five her mother had a nervous breakdown, then when she was 13 her father, a merchant banker, suffered a stroke that left him in a wheelchair.
Bonham Carter responded by getting herself an agent. ‘I was gutsy,’ she says. ‘But that was because of Dad. It was a conscious decision. I did actually think, “Right, I’m on my own.” It was a bit of an overreaction. He wasn’t dead, quite.’
She moved from South Hampstead High School to Westminster in the sixth form, where Nick Clegg remembers playing opposite her in a production of The Changeling (she had to kick him in the nethers).
It was around this time that the director Trevor Nunn saw a picture of her and cast her in Lady Jane (‘back,’ says Bonham Carter, ‘when I had one eyebrow practically’).
She was also offered the lead in A Room with a View, and so began a career in bustles and corsets, which culminated in her Oscar nomination for best actress in The Wings of the Dove in 1997.
Throughout this period she lived at home with her parents (her father died in 2004), only flying the nest when she turned 30. Back then she was defensive when quizzed about this arrangement, now she’s able to see it more clearly.
‘Yeah, that was big, aged 30. I postponed. I am definitely a Peter Pan. I didn’t know why [I’d stayed] frankly until I left and as soon as I left I realised I was trying to make things better for Dad.’
It was while waiting for the Oscars ceremony for The Wings of the Dove (she didn’t, in the end, win) that she made a decisive move, taking the role of the scruffy, chain-smoking vamp Marla Singer in Fight Club.
Bonham Carter revealed a different her – the woman who loves disguise, who likes to bring a bit of grit to those soft looks. It clearly struck a chord with Tim Burton, who approached her with an extraordinary proposal for Planet of the Apes.
‘Even though he’d never met me before, he phoned me up and his first sentence was, “Don’t get me wrong, but I just had this instinct, well, you were the first person I thought of to play a chimpanzee.”’ How did that go down? ‘Brilliant.’
She’s not laughing. ‘No, I thought, “Somebody gets me.” He said, “I’ve never met you, but I just have this instinct that you like to cover up.” And I said, “You’re absolutely right.”
‘So, yep, it’s about losing yourself and dressing up. Like with me I go over the top because I put too many things on and I like teeth and I like all that horrible …’
And so began Helena Bonham Carter’s life with the ‘teeth’ and the ‘horrible’. It seems to have served her and Burton well. But are they really that offbeat? Well, maybe a little.
But I think what really makes people think of her and Burton as weird is actually that they don’t conform to the airbrushed norm, like so many of the rest of us – only no one’s pointing a camera at us every day.
As to Bonham Carter’s future, she’s sanguine: ‘I do feel there are roles out there for me, but I do touch wood because it’s an incredibly difficult profession.
‘I didn’t feel that confident in my twenties, or frankly that much in my thirties, and I’m sort of slowly getting there in my forties. I know I’m definitely far more interesting now than when I was younger.’