One of the most interesting actresses of her generation, Helena Bonham Carter, recently travelled across the pond to the Hampton’s International Film Festival for the première of her BBC film Burton and Taylor (in which she plays Elizabeth Taylor) and for an intimate In Conversation With… event. It was a fitting event for the festival, which selected UK films as their national focus; and Carter proved to be an ideal guest. Not only does her career speak for itself, but Carter herself is a genuinely charming, funny and down-to-earth speaker whose weird characters and often unrecognisable physical transformations are all the more impressive when seeing the vibrant woman in person.
Carter has no traditional training and admits she only found an ‘in’ within the industry as a teenager when she found the number of her schoolmate’s agent and gave him a call directly. But even before that, she was drawn to the idea of performing and had a desire to be on television, or she puts it “I wondered if I could be inside that box.” At thirteen saw her first of many influential female performances, Judy Davis in My Brilliant Career. It was a performance she found so impressive, she found herself wanting at first to be Sybylla Melyn (Davis’ character) before deciding she wanted to be an actress.
It didn’t take long for her to break into similar “costume roles”, considering her first big break in the industry came with her appearance as Lucy in A Room with a View at age 19. Still what the industry would call an ingénue and often playing in costume dramas, Carter admits that if she was typecast, it wasn’t limiting in characters or abilities to perform. “They were all incredibly different women and there was a wealth of characterization because they came from novels. I was lucky because it was better than being in something like Baywatch and being watched for my boobs or legs.”
Her first BAFTA nomination came with Howards End, followed by another 5 years later for The Wings of the Dove, a role which also earned her an Oscar Nomination. But by then Carter had made a major transition in her career into the odd character roles she’s better known for today. One of the turning points in her career was her role in 1999’s Fight Club, as Marla. And while Carter herself loves the character, she believes David Fincher loves her even more. “I think he loved Marla. He wanted to play Marla, but he is the wrong sex, but he loved her with a passion. He had the same qualities. Because very often when you are being directed, you will take a bit of the director and put them into the part. And I definitely did that with Marla and Fincher, because he so much set the tone of the film and it’s his sense of humour, and he was always giving line readings with his cigarettes hanging out of his mouth. He had a massive inner Marla. And if you’re with someone like Fincher, you can just sit back and relax because he’s doing all the work for you.”
Fight Club was not, upon its initial release, a box-office or critical hit, which was a disappointment for Carter who had to be reassured that the movie would find an audience in years to come. Some of that reassurance came, unexpectedly, from her mother, who she says is one of the few people who understood the humour the first time she saw it. Carter’s mother is a psychotherapist, which may be part of the reason she finds herself drawn to certain types of characters; “The thing is, what attracts me are mentally ill people. Because they are far more fascinating and make you think, ‘how did that person get to be that way.’ When I see people in the street, I think, ‘how did that happen and what does that mean,’ but then I realize I’m becoming my mother, who is a psychotherapist. So I guess we come from the same place and it’s just about dismantling, because they are more interesting people to get inside of.”
While Carter embraces the opportunity to understand the psyche of her characters, she is almost childlike in the way she sees acting as an adult form of make believe. She loves dressing up in costumes, having wild make-up and even tries to take the teeth home the productions make for her (“no one else can use them”). She is thrilled when shown her character’s undergarments, despite them never being seen by the public and has become keenly aware of the difference between good and bad corsets. All this enthusiasm comes down to the fact, as she says of herself “I like dressing up, that’s basically it. I don’t want to be me. I want to get away from me. And I always think ‘I’m getting away from me, I think I’m losing myself, taking a holiday. But then I look at it and think, oh, it’s just me again.’ I try my hardest, even when I’m a chimpanzee, but I think, I changed species and I’m still me.”
It was on the remake of The Planet of the Apes that Carter was asked to play a chimpanzee (which required her to attend ape school, a fact she takes great pleasure in discussing), but also where she met frequent collaborator and father of her two children, Tim Burton. Of their relationship, Carter speaks candidly that “Tim’s very, very shy and he doesn’t really speak much. He does more now, but then he would never finish a sentence. I joke there should be a home for the abandoned sentences of Tim Burton. His films are so beautifully realized, but he doesn’t seem to speak, he’s just this walking expression and we didn’t have a conversation on set. Except when I was asked to do it, and I said I would, despite thinking there were problems with the script. My agent told me, you know the script isn’t very good, and I said, I know, but don’t ask me to explain but I know I have got to do it. Because I’m always up for doing something new and I got to go to ape school. But obviously, the real reason was not that I got to go to ape school but because I met the father of my children. But he never saw me, because I was always in make-up, because I would arrive in the morning, have my make-up on until six or eight o’clock at night. One night I came on set as me, and he literally jumped out of skin as if saying “who are you.” He completely didn’t recognize me. It was a year later, when his dog Poppy had died, who he was very attached to, and I phoned up just to give my condolences and invited him out to dinner. And he told me he thought how nice that she cares about my dead dog. And we went out, with me and my brother, and I don’t know what, but it definitely happened that night that the world turned and I thought, this is going to be significant. But then it was all very long because he doesn’t talk.”
Together the couple have worked on many films together, including Corpse Bride, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland, Big Fish, and Sweeney Todd. And while they have developed a shorthand for working together, that doesn’t mean being treated any better on set. While playing the evil queen in Alice and Wonderland, Burton had a nerf gun, which lead to the crew giving Carter one of her own (“they were on my side”). An on Sweeney Todd, Burton referred to Carter’s eyebrows as being like caterpillars (referring to her animated face) and asked her not use her hand; a challenge when playing a character who bakes pies.
Sweeney Todd is the film she considers the most challenging because she is not a trained singer and had to spend weeks learning in order to simply audition for composer Stephen Sondheim, one of her personal heroes. Approaching it with the same intensity that she studies accents, the work paid off, and she was not only approved by Sondheim himself, but last year appeared in the musical Les Misérables, an experience she calls liberating, because the actors had to actually sing on film, rather than record their voices first and then lip sing on screen.
Despite being proud of Sweeney Todd, Carter has never seen the film; nor has co-star Johnny Depp, because neither actor can stand to watch themselves on screen. Ironically, the In Conversation event shows a clip package of some of her most memorable performances, but she has no interest in watching. With a certain zen-like quality, she says she never looks back, nor does she plan out her career “like a grand architect. It’s just happenstance. Because we don’t employ ourself, although sometimes I wish we did. But we are the victims of other people’s taste or lack of.”
Which leads to her latest performance, as Elizabeth Taylor in Burton and Taylor. Although she was initially uncertain of taking the role, she agreed to take on the challenging of playing the Hollywood legend after seeing a collection of photographs of the late actress being playful, having the sense of humour Carter didn’t realize she possessed. “I didn’t realize she was such a clown. I didn’t realize she had such a great sense of humour. So that is what attracted me to her, and then the more I read about her, the more I was struck by her intelligence and sheer guts. She could be very naughty, but she could be very down to earth and very practical, but she loved life. She loved food and consumption and men and sex. And I just thought, she will give me so much and maybe she’ll think me a few things.”
Carter has played a number of real-life people in her career, a challenge she does not take lightly, such as when she was offered the role of the Queen Mother in Best Picture winner The King’s Speech. She went so far as to ask a friend acquainted with the royal family for advice. The reason she takes these decisions to make biopics so seriously is quite simply that “they can be a travesty, and I know what it is like to have one’s privacy invaded, so you want to have the best intentions.”
As for Carter’s process as an actress, she does what might be expected; considerable research, accent and behavioural studies (such as ape school), rehearsing the script. But she also has a few tricks of the trade she was able to share. One should always be comfortable, physically and otherwise, and always be present. And for her, keeping an assortment of beverages at the ready is both neurotic and practical. Not only does it keep her energy at the right levels (drinking diet coke, water, herbal teas and coconut water-usually caring 6 drinks with her at all times). But it also is something which gives her an opportunity to step away from people and the set when she needs time to regroup and check herself. The trick seems to be working.