As a shy teenage actress, Helena Bonham Carter made her name playing demure ladies. But, she told David Lister, she has other sides, too.
Source: The Independent
Publication Date: 31st July 1991
WHEN I entered the restaurant, I walked right past her.
As Helena Bonham Carter has cornered the market in E M Forster gels (two down, one shortly to come) I was subconsciously on the look-out for a shy, demure, exquisitely dressed ingenue. Instead, there was a studiedly scruffy, cigarette-smoking waif in blue denim jacket, heavy brown Doc Marten shoes, drinking Diet Coke and fingering a condom.
Unfair. The condom had just been handed to her by a ”Stop Aids” campaigner. But it got us talking about how condoms always feature in the commercials before movies, but never in the love scenes in the movies themselves. She admitted it was a matter of academic interest as regards her movie career: ”In Forster they hardly ever get to kiss, let alone have sex.” So we moved on to the motivations of the characters she has played; and here she has some expertise to bring to bear.
Now 25, she underwent analysis herself for three years from the age of 18. Isolated from her friends, who had gone to university while she was already in films, she felt her life was ”in a fog”. Eventually her Spanish-born mother, Elena, a psychotherapist, told her: ”You’re thinking too much; just go out and live.”
Unusually for a 25-year-old star with two films now on release, Helena Bonham Carter lives at home, with a private phone line in her bedroom being the only concession to her star status. She discusses each role she plays with her mother for the psychotherapist’s angle.
Certainly, this paid off in Franco Zeffirelli’s recent film of Hamlet. While the actress had received mixed reviews for her performances in A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread, her Ophelia was remarkably good and all her own work, the director’s only note to her being: ”You have a very strong Ophelia. Keep it that way.”
”I just wanted to try to save her from being such a wimp,” she said. ”You don’t go mad through unrequited love. There must be something that has been loose. It would be nice to rewrite the play from her point of view. She would have to have some inner conflict. And if you witness the play from her point of view, it would send anyone mad. If her brother hadn’t left her, she might have had someone to hold on to. And there’s no mother figure.”
The actress herself is also driven almost mad by finding that after spending years learning to understand herself, hardly anyone else seems to want to understand her. ”People still think I’m Lucy Honeychurch the teenage innocent from A Room with a View and it drives me crazy. I’m not her. I’m just not asked to show my other sides.
”I would certainly like to show my strength and maturity. Women very rarely in film have a position of power. I’m petite with long dark hair, and look fragile and I’m young, and people want to keep you in this nice little image of being an ingenue and unthreatening. I just want to be true to my own character. People are very patronising, and if you look good you’re not allowed to be bright as well.”
Well, she started it by sending a photo to an agent while a schoolgirl aged 13 at South Hampstead High School. And it was seeing a picture of her in a magazine that caused Trevor Nunn to cast her in the title role of her first film, Lady Jane, though he made her recite a speech from Romeo and Juliet to ensure she could act.
She claims she was shy at school but she is the model of confidence now, talking at length on nearly any aspect of herself, though, as with many who have been through analysis, this does not necessarily mean giving of yourself or even always looking at the person with whom you are speaking. And sure enough, looking over my shoulder into the street at one point she spotted and darted after a cousin. If you’re in west London and a Bonham Carter, there is a statistical probability of this happening before the dessert.
Helena is the youngest in her generation of a Liberal dynasty dating back to her great grandfather, Asquith, the great Liberal Prime Minister, via his daughter, the grandee and public speaker Violet Bonham Carter, Helena’s grandmother. She is the first in the family to become an actress, though not the first to wish to.
Her background has clearly imbued her with self-assurance, though she claims it has never interested her much: ”I’m very proud of being related to all those people. But I don’t really know that much about them. I’m quite politically ignorant and apathetic, I’m afraid to say.”
Had she ever voted, I wondered.
”Vaguely,” she replied. ”I think I’m quite available to be persuaded, to be inspired.”
And in an intriguing way that process might now be beginning. For the part of Helen Schlegel in Howards End, which she has just finished filming, she wanted to research the life of an Edwardian girl, and turned to her grandmother’s still unpublished memoirs. Unsurprisingly, it has engendered an interest in her own roots.
”I found out my grandmother would have been exactly the same age as Helen Schlegel, so I read her memoirs. It was fascinating. Her mother died when she was about four and when she was a child she slept with her father, who would tell her as a four-year-old all about his day. And he was Asquith. I discovered a lot reading those memoirs. I learnt about the shipbuilding industry. I discovered Violet was fond of poetry and a great public speaker, and she wrote at one point: ‘Of course I wanted to be an actress but my father wouldn’t have it.’
”Violet had a deep reverence for words, she chose her words so precisely and with such respect. She didn’t die until 1969 and I watched a video of her reading poetry. She would stretch her vowels and make them last. In the film I tried desperately to shake off my modern vowels. Mark, my uncle, has that way of speaking and so does my father.”
Her uncle is Lord Bonham Carter, a former Liberal MP and first chairman of the Race Relations Board. Her father, Raymond, was a very successful merchant banker until he became wheelchair-bound when Helena was 13. ”He had an operation for a brain tumour and they bodged it up,” she said. It was this family trauma, she explained, that led her into acting.
”People say I have been lucky, but it was all calculated right from the age of 13. I knew that if my father was ill I had to be self-sufficient and get on with life. I was very, very shy as a child, the last person to become an actress. My brothers were older than me and ignored me a lot. Other members of my family were doing tremendously well. I remember consciously thinking, you’re going to be as good as you think you are.
”Now, if I’m the centre of attention it’s fine. I enjoy people. I enjoy talking endlessly.”
It didn’t happen overnight though. She recalls feeling confused and isolated at 18. ”There was no one to compare myself with of my own age. I think I stayed home to give myself a structure. And it’s safe in practical terms. My family have been my constant friends.”
Trying to broaden her acting experience, she has just done a season at the Nottingham Playhouse, run by two quite high-profile feminists. Did feminism interest her?
”I hate it,” she said, ”when women start ranting on and get almost racist about men. I hate any extremes. But I don’t think I’ve encountered any discrimination myself.”
What about the typecasting she complained of, the film-makers who won’t allow you to be good-looking and bright? She pondered but did not answer this. A connection not yet made even in a household where the message of Howards End, ”Only Connect”, is probably de rigueur at breakfast.
”I always discuss any part I am to play with my mother, informally over breakfast. She will try to work out with me the basic motivation.
”With Helen Schlegel the erudite half-German heroine of Howards End who has a liaison with a man beneath her station a lot of people find it incredible how she ends up having a child with Leonard Bast. My mother points out it is because in some way she must identify with Leonard. Leonard is financially and socially deprived. Helen is bereft of her sister and always a bit of a child.
”Also my mother pointed out she’s a middle child. I don’t think Forster thought all this through, but he has an innate psychological sense.
”Helen can be very excitable and irrational, slightly out of control. She brought out a lot of a side of me that hasn’t seen the light of day until now. My father is very cerebral and ruled by his head, my mother very instinctive and emotionally ruled. I guess I’m a mixture of both, but have veered more towards the head. I’m trying to shake that off because it’s not always an advantage in acting. It’s more interesting to see someone who slightly doesn’t know what they are going to do anyway themselves.”
And she, to whom Forster’s description of Helen Schlegel – ”flying hair and eager eyes” – equally applies: what will she do now that Forster’s women have been exhausted? Is she worried?
”Oh no,” she laughs, ”I’ll always get something.”