“He looks like a mad professor but he’s very solid,” Helena Bonham Carter described her partner, brilliant director Tim Burton. Helena, whose curly mass of hair is threatening to upstage Tim’s famous wild mane, talked to us about living and working with the filmmaker.
Helena also discussed playing the Queen Mother in director Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, for which she earned Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nominations. It is to Helena’s credit that she’s getting some of the best notices of her career in an “un-showy” role and against the star turns of Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as a speech therapist. The actress met the Queen Mum several times, most memorably in A Room With a View, the film that helped launch her acting career.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
In the film, your character is very supportive of her husband. In real life, how do you support Tim?
Endlessly. I am patient.
Can you give examples?
I cook for him. I make sure he’s well fed. Hopefully when I get back, he’s going to cook for me. I have a lot of sympathy for the pressures of directing—the degree of patience and listening to his woes whenever he’s on the job because they’re quite considerable.
How does Tim help with the kids?
We’re doing parenting classes together now because a lot of times, when something happens, we just look at each other and go, “Well, what do we do now?” We’re just completely clueless. But it’s a two-way thing. He’s very supportive of me, too. Tim is very sound. He looks like a mad professor but he’s very solid. He’s very emotionally intelligent.
In a previous interview, you told us that your house has a Tim Burton wing. Have you added anything to your house since then?
I am not sure if I should talk about this… Other people seem to exaggerate the whole thing, but I did add a gypsy caravan which is where my daughter lives. It’s attached to the house, so don’t worry, we don’t stick her out in the garden (laughing)… But it’s in the field and lets her get on with things. She’s only 2 and a half years old.
You have a distinctive way of dressing. Do you dress your own kids?
Yes, it’s the story of my life. What’s the point of having a daughter without being able to dress her up? Nell has definitely got her own sense of style… She does costume changes every 10 minutes. Last Halloween, she wanted to be a skeleton, a dinosaur, a princess and a witch.
Can you discuss the process when Tim casts you in his movies?
If anything, he casts me with great reluctance (laughing) because he doesn’t want to be so obvious and he’s worried about nepotism and all sorts of things.
You’re not serious about the nepotism worries, are you?
I think Tim just feels like it’s not necessarily healthy to either of us. There are certain pressures about working together. Now we’ve got it down a bit more like on “Alice in Wonderland,” that went well. We had difficult moments in “Sweeney Todd.” But on “Alice…,” I ended up writing a whole list of commandments on how to work together and we abided by them.
What are these rules?
I shouldn’t talk on the set. I have to watch what my mouth says. I should think before I speak because a lot of times, I talk too much. It drives him up the wall when he’s trying to concentrate. I tend to over analyze things so I like to say we could do it this way, we could do it that way and I get excited by options but he actually wants it simple.
Generally, be polite. We’ve got to observe that we don’t inflict our own stress on the other person which we can… It’s very different at home because basically, I make all the decisions at home. I’m chief there but on the set, he makes the decisions so I have to become the geisha woman.
How did you research about playing the Queen Mother?
I did meet people who knew her quite well and I read some biographies. William Shawcrass happened to publish the official biography just when I got the part, but it was so bland that it gave me no hint to the real woman. Hugo Vicker wrote another one that was much more astute. He gave me the Cecil Beaton quote that described her as a marshmallow but made with a welding machine… And by meeting lots of people, I’ve built a picture of her but… I had to work out what was suitable to the story.
Can you describe your overall experience making the Harry Potter movies?
I loved doing them. It was really convenient for me, too, because I had Nell on it. The studio is not too far from where we live. Billy was young. There are lots of logistics to consider once you have children. You work around the movies. I love my character. It was a real license to go to work and scream a lot. It was very therapeutic.