Considering the intense security I had to wade my way through recently to visit Helena Bonham Carter at her Manhattan hotel, for a few moments it actually did feel like I might be visiting the Queen of England. (As it turned out, it was just the Israeli Prime Minister’s security detail.) Alas, no — just screen royalty, as proven in her latest effort, The King’s Speech.
The film features Carter as Queen Elizabeth, though to hear her tell it, she would have rather have played Elizabeth’s husband George VI — the King of England who, in the early years of World War II, trains with a speech therapist in order to lose a nasty stammer that’s plagued most of his life. Of course, that part went to Colin Firth, and Carter took a role she admits could, on paper, be considered thankless. A little more than a year later, she’s on her way to her second Oscar nomination. Movieline spoke to Carter about playing a historical figure who only died eight years ago, landing the role as Sonny Crockett’s girlfriend on Miami Vice and her infamous line that was cut from Fight Club.
There’s an unbelievable amount of security in the lobby right now.
I wonder who else is here?
I was told Benjamin Netanyahu.
Oh… really. Oh, that’s interesting. Why did they have to choose this place?
When I was going through security I joked with a police officer asking if this was all for you.
No, I was the Queen but I’m not the Queen.
Well, he didn’t know who you were so I mentioned The King’s Speech and he said…
Then I mentioned Fight Club — he then knew who you were.
[Laughing] That’s funny. When you have someone headed toward you, you do a quick, “What’s it gonna be?” But sometimes it surprises you. You can usually tell if it’s going to be a Merchant-Ivory or a Fight Club. If it’s a child, it’s always Harry Potter. The other day I had this geriatric and I said, “Oh, she’s Merchant-Ivory.” She said, “Oh, I love Fight Club.” There’s a few of those 80-year-olds who love Fight Club. They’re interesting.
I always assumed Fight Club would be more of an American thing.
No. I know what you mean, but it’s still got a huge following. The most unlikely generations, even.
Your character in The King’s Speech is interesting because it’s set decades ago, but this is a woman that only died a few years ago and was very much a public figure. Does that present a greater challenge?
She was a phenomenon. She lasted the entire 19th century — no…
Wow, longer than I thought!
[Laughs] 20th century! Wow! So long! But she was a century old. Her lifespan, she represented that century, almost. She was an extraordinary figure. It was a tough call in some ways. I mean, it’s about the boys, but if you’re going to play the Queen Mum, you have to — and I didn’t look like her — but I had to capture some kind of essence of her.
I’m assuming you just can’t show up and ask to speak to her daughter?
No, you can’t really do that. I’m not sure necessarily the daughter would be the… Well, I did show up and speak to the biographers and people that knew her very well. I think [her] strength is what Bertie [George VI] drew upon. She was a really brilliant public figure and she knew how to do it; he didn’t and he couldn’t.
Were you trying to portray her as a fairly normal person? She does come off that way.
She had a common touch. She was called “The Commoner.” She was much more blue blooded than the royal family. She had enough grace, she had a kind of — on the whole — normal childhood. A healthy childhood.
Looking at The King’s Speech in a certain way, it’s almost a prequel to The Queen.
No, it is. I think there’s a lot about this episode that informs the queen’s sense of duty and what everyone attacked her for — her age, stiffness and a lack of emotional intimacy or openness. A lot of it was her formality, she got directly from this episode she saw her uncle’s betrayed sense of duty. She was made on the sense of duty, and so was the Queen Mum.
Did you ever get jealous on the set because Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush weren’t including you in their fun?
They were getting on so well.
They’re the ones who got to scream all the profanities.
I wanted to play George VI when I read the script: “Well, that’s the part.” And obviously Geoffrey. Definitely, I thought of this as a potentially thankless role, playing the Queen Mum. It wasn’t like my sole source of creative satisfaction. She’s deceptive: My role here is not to just play it in a bland, supportive way in the background. [I] also try and shed light on her relationship and humanize that in a way. I read it and it as a really, really good story, so I just thought that this is worth telling.
That’s interesting that you mentioned that this may be a thankless role. You have an eclectic mix at this point. What, then, goes into your thought process on how you choose your roles?
I do think that it one of the criteria. I don’t particularly want to repeat myself. And I like getting into parts that aren’t very like me. Usually illness, any mental illness or complexity is something I find fascinating. Like, “How on Earth did that person get to be that person?”
Which is why you just played one of the healthiest women to ever live.
Well, yeah, the Queen Mum, who ended up living… She had two levels, she was really complex. It’s just a mixture. A mixture of director, definitely. The film has to work and the context is everything.
You mention directors. Do you look at new David Fincher movies like The Social Network and think “Good luck, enjoy your 1,500 takes”?
[Laughs] Right. And in every interview I see David doing, he’s like, “It’s not true!” And then the actors are like, “Um, we did 107 takes.” So, I’m like, “Yeah.”
And you are also, obviously, in a lot of Tim Burton’s movies. Is it nice to get a break from him at times?
I think it’s important for both of us. Yeah, definitely. It’s of no function that I’m going to work on everything. And I think, if anything, it’s nice, but I don’t just work with him. I’m very thankful to Tom [Hooper] and [Harry Potter director] David Yates for employing me because I think a lot of people go, “Oh, she belongs to Tim Burton.” I so don’t. You know, not professionally.
At the time, as an actress known for English period pieces, how important was it for you to land the role of Sonny Crockett’s girlfriend on Miami Vice?
It was bizarre. I remember, because I just didn’t see myself on… And it was a real thrill being taken out and waking up in Miami. And then they saw me and they thought that I would look older. They started putting latex all over me trying to make me look older. I think they meant for me to be five years older, not 20 years older. But no, it was a real thrill. I’ve had so many unexpected things happen to me. I’ve been really, really lucky.
I almost hate bringing this up because I’m now going to be labeled a “Fight Club person,” but I’m fascinated with the story of your line being cut.
Yeah, “I want to have your abortion.”
And if I understand correctly, it was replaced with something the studio hated worse?
Yeah, “I haven’t been f*cked like that since grade school.” [Laughing] To be honest, the thing is, culturally, too, I really didn’t even know what I was saying. I kind of knew, I had to have it explained that grade school [means younger in the U.S.]. But it didn’t surprise me, David [Fincher] just wanted the worse, the better. That’s mischievous. He was completely mischievous.