Helena recently sat down with David Michael of The Age to be interviewed about her upcoming film projects, including Dark Shadows, Great Expectations and Les Misérables. You can view a snippet of the interview below, and for the full thing click the link below it.
Her characters have spanned a vast range, from royalty to eccentric commoner, but Helena Bonham Carter had inspiration from close to home for her Dark Shadows role as a live-in psychologist.
There’s a window of opportunity after an actor is nominated for an Oscar, says Helena Bonham Carter, who has been there twice, that provides the chance to pick and chose the best roles the film industry has to offer. It lasts for about six weeks, she says.
“It’s like a blood transfusion,” she says. “Oh my god, she’s alive! Suddenly you’re hot for that period.”
If there’s one thing that defines the elusive London-born actor, it’s that she has never taken the route most likely. After her first nomination, for The Wings of a Dove (1998), she sidestepped blockbusters and discarded the period frocks she was associated with, to play the unhinged, chain-smoking Marla Singer in Fight Club, David Fincher’s disturbed American fable of underground revolution.
After her second nomination, last year, for playing Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech, she again wrong-footed the industry.
“People said I wasn’t taking advantage of it doing Dark Shadows,” she says of the latest of seven films she’s done with her partner, director Tim Burton. “But I do have two children with the director, so it didn’t make much sense going off to the other side of the world when he was doing a film at home.”
While the actor’s persona in the media is of a kooky gothic-dressed eccentric, when we meet in a small concrete yard of a north-east London photography studio, she’s looking alarmingly normal. Dressed in relaxed sweatpants, ugg boots and layers topped with an oversize cardigan, she makes for easy company. Fittingly for an actress who’s played a queen or two, she sits with her legs tucked snugly underneath her on a high-back throne-like chair, a prop from her earlier photo shoot.
As we chat, she attends to a late-afternoon “pick-me-up” of coffee and tiramisu.
The dessert muffles her laughter when her role in Dark Shadows is first mentioned. “Yes, I play a live-in psychiatrist and she’s an alcoholic on top of that,” Bonham Carter chuckles.
Set in 1972, it’s Burton’s reboot of the 1960s supernatural soap opera (of the same name) about Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp), who, cursed to be a vampire by a spiteful witch (Eva Green) in the 18th century, is dug up in 1972 by his dysfunctional descendants. Bonham Carter’s Dr Julia Hoffman lives with them, trying to make sense of it all. To a generation in the US, the show was big news.
“Michelle Pfeiffer rang up and said, ‘I’ve got to be in it,'” Bonham Carter says. “As a kid she would obsess about it and run home from school to watch it.”
Bonham Carter had planned to take a breather from working with Burton but she was drawn by the “originality of the character”.
She also had a head start on the research as her mother was a psychotherapist.
“She’s obviously been our live-in one, too,” Bonham Carter says, cackling. “And it’s really resented, it’s horrible when your mother turns round and tries to psychoanalyse you and says that you’re just ‘projecting’ or you’re being ‘remorseful’. She was always taking the professional stance when I was little. It was very irritating!”
Certainly Bonham Carter’s childhood wasn’t made easy when, aged 13, complications from the treatment of her father’s brain surgery left him paralysed. Helping her mother look after him, she didn’t move out of the family home until she was 30. Yet despite learning responsibility young, at 45, Bonham Carter maintains a childish charm; her mobile phone case, for instance, is pink with bunny ears.
For her two children, Billy Ray, 8, and Nell, 4, you’d imagine she’d be a fun mum.
Motherhood requires the inevitable balancing act, though, as her career shows no signs of abating. Next, she plays Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. “I loved doing that part,” she says. “I suppose anybody who’s mentally ill fascinates me. She’s somebody who’s just stuck in a moment and can’t move on.”
As fate would have it, a week later I spot Bonham Carter at Pinewood studios filming perhaps her biggest film of the year: the new film musical version of Les Misérables. Directed by Tom Hopper (The King’s Speech), the impressive-looking production has her playing Madame Thénardier, alongside Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, all of whom sing live on set, which is a first for a film musical.
Age, long the chief handicap for an actress in the eyes of Hollywood, has not dimmed her powers.
“I’m sure it might be an issue at some point,” she says. “At the moment, the parts aren’t dependent on it. It’s looking good so far.”
An actor’s age is only an issue if you happen to be female.
“Yeah, there used to be the hair thing,” she says, breaking into laughter.
“It’s amazing. When you saw [soccer star] Wayne Rooney [and his hair transplant], it’s like, ‘Aarrrghh!’ That was the one thing we could say, ‘Well, they lose their hair, don’t they.’ Now, there is no longer any revenge.”
After a strained relationship with Burton on the set of her last musical, Sweeney Todd, not helped by Bonham Carter being pregnant and having to sing, the couple took to lightening the mood on Alice in Wonderland by shooting each other with foam Nerf guns. The couple’s latest high jinks while filming Dark Shadows brings us back to soccer.
“He’s become a real soccer fanatic, so he has yellow cards and red cards,” says Bonham Carter, adding that bookable offences include twitching eyebrows and moving hands.
“I’m always being sent off. It’s pretty playful but that’s good for me. We do have a laugh!”
One is bemused by honours
When Helena Bonham Carter received a CBE honour this year from the Queen, she found it hard to rationalise that such an accolade was bestowed on her for simply doing the job she loved.
“The acting profession is over-rewarded – we get a ridiculous amount of awards – but to get a medal for something you enjoy and are lucky to be doing, it’s strange to feel you’ve earned it,” she says. “[For me] it was definitely in the memory of my dad, because he was very brave in his own way.”
The irony wasn’t lost on her that she received the award swiftly on the heels of playing the Queen’s mother in The King’s Speech.
“I’m sure that’s why I probably got it,” she muses. “[The Queen] is not allowed to say if she’s seen it or not but I guess she must have.”