Helena Bonham Carter spent years trying to get away from her reputation as the queen of corsets, but she stepped back into period garb to play Queen Elizabeth, the wife of George VI and future Queen Mother, opposite Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. In person, she dresses more like Madonna circa Lucky Star, with a half-dozen silver chains slung around her neck and her nest of curls topped by a lopsided maroon bow. As she talked about her relationship with professional filmmaking oddball Tim Burton, her own arrested development and the Queen Mum’s acid wit, she negotiated a forest of drinking glasses filled with varicolored liquids on a nearby table (a penchant that earned her the nickname “Cups” from her “King’s” director Tom Hooper), pausing slightly to dispatch her mother to a nearby Duane Reade drugstore for vitamin supplements.
It’s tricky to play a figure as revered as the Queen Mother. You have to play her as an ordinary person but maintain an air of royalty, almost otherness. Playing her is a bit slippery because she’s so well loved and she’s so well known and she’s lasted for so long. She’s so ingrained in people’s heads. I don’t look like her, neither does Colin look like … [laughs] what’s-his-name. I went in search of her essence. It’s like finding the essence to a perfume. Something that’s recognizably her. She was a very complex character, but she would try and pass herself off as this charming, rather vague exterior — in a way, the archetypal woman. She played very low status. The head was always cocked, and she looked thoroughly sweet and cozy — which she wasn’t.
She was really funny. She had real wit. Someone said last night that Noel Coward was at some sort of event and was eyeing up some of the foot soldiers, and she said, “I wouldn’t do that. They count them before they put them out.” She was really clever. She had the basic confidence that her husband didn’t. And he drew upon it. It was a real proper marriage, in the sense that they were much more successful together than they would have been separately.
The movie’s about a man who, in some sense, has never recovered from the traumatic “correction” of his youth. You’re acting as his mother as much as his wife.
I do think a lot of the time you marry partners to make up for the lacks of our parents. My father was an excellent father, but I also know that Tim provides parental security that’s an echo of my father. I’m sure that she gave him lots of maternal support, the sense of security, her sense of confidence, her sense of belief in him. She wasn’t a panicker. That’s what Colin and I, we both noticed when we were watching bits of them on tape. He was panicking, trying to get through his speech, and she was just blithely carrying on. Looking as if, “It’s fine. You’ll get through it.” She had a sense of faith in him. It was interesting, because she took three times to accept his proposal. It might not have been love at first sight, but I think it grew to a really profound love and a really dynamic relationship.
Both your parents were incapacitated at different times during your childhood; your mother had a nervous breakdown and your father suffered a stroke. But rather than staying a child, you grew up fast.
Well, yes and no. On some level I grew up quickly, because I started working very early. But then I was 30 when I actually moved away from home, so I was pretty backward. I definitely got my own arrested development, which I don’t think is a bad thing. I think everyone grows at different rates. My brother’s a late developer, and very successful at that. I can see it in both of my children. So I definitely have been arrested, and I’ve been a slow developer professionally too. It’s only now I feel like I’m beginning to work out how to do this acting business.
It’s a story about psychotherapy as well. Lionel Logue treats the stammer as a psychological problem as well as a physical one.
His whole approach is psychotherapy, going back and trying to find the emotional blocks that created the stammer. Quite apart from the physical. My mum’s a psychotherapist. She read it and took to it. She really loves the film. She says it’s going to help people. I do think it’s going to help people. I think it’s really touching that here’s this hero — he was a hero, because he combated with great courage this disability.
You started out in period pieces, but a lot of what you’ve been doing recently…
Is to get away from it. I did look at [The King’s Speech] and go, “Oh, no! You’re wearing the same costume as you were 15 years ago.” It’s like you’ve gone backwards. Partially, I did it because it was the same costume people as on A Room With a View. It was like the old times. It wasn’t like I read the script and wanted to play the Queen Mother. I read the script and wanted to play George VI. Tom said Colin was playing George VI.
That was very shortsighted of him
Very shortsighted. So he wasn’t looking for a George VI, or a Logue.
Between the movies you’ve done with Tim Burton and the Harry Potter franchise, you’ve been doing a lot of theatrical, high-register performances. The King’s Speech is in a very different style.
That’s exactly what I thought was going to be good for me. I was doing Harry Potter, which involves a lot of screaming. It’s a very externalized performance and really uncontained. So I thought it would be good for me on the weekends to do something that was smaller and more internal, as a sort of exercise. It made a good duo: Witch by week and queen by weekend.