Helena Bonham Carter talks to the Guardian about ‘witty’ David Cameron, ‘weirdo’ Lars von Trier and why Tim Burton won’t watch a rom-com. The actress talks about her friendship with the prime minister, why she turned down the Danish director and her false teeth hoard.
On a warm summer’s day Helena Bonham Carter is between jobs and between homes, supervising a move between the pair of London houses that she shares with Tim Burton. She is surrounded by photos and books, together with bizarre sets of false teeth from the roles she has played. “It’s like an archeological dig into my own past,” she explains. “I should sell tickets and open up a museum.” The souvenirs keep spinning before her eyes, like the animated props in a Harry Potter movie.
If you’re looking for an index of 30 years of high-toned British cinema, the Bonham Carter back catalogue provides as good a map as any. The route winds through her 80s breakthrough as the muse for Merchant Ivory, through Hamlet and Frankenstein, to The King’s Speech and Les Misérables. In the early years she played limpid and lovely, tottering about in bonnets and being ravished in poppy fields, although I confess that I like her better in her wilder recent incarnations. She’s perversely beautiful as raging Bellatrix LeStrange, the stentorian Red Queen, or ghoulish Mrs. Lovett, who bakes the bodies into pies in Sweeney Todd. On screen, at least, she has travelled a great deal further than the house next door.
In person, too, she can be bracingly good company. Bonham Carter conducts her interview as though riding side-saddle, hooking bare legs over the arm of her chair and galloping freestyle from one topic to the next. She has bird’s-nest hair, a candid air and a direct black gaze. The one-time ingenue turned 48 last month and it appears to suit her. She’s posh enough to make herself at home in the world; old enough not to give much of a hoot whether the world likes her there or not.
It wasn’t always that way. Starting out, she was a total mess. “It’s hard to be high profile and young,” she shrugs. “I wasn’t very confident; I was cripplingly shy. And, at the age of 19, you are all too aware of how people are perceiving you. I remember reading the first profile of me that was printed in a magazine and thinking: ‘Oh good, now I’m going to find out what I’m really like.'” She cackles at her naivety: “But no. That’s not the best way of judging yourself.”
Her roles in A Room with a View and Howard’s End had made her a star, but the bonnet pinched and the petticoats dragged. “I always wanted to be a character actor, even when I was stuck inside a corset playing innocent girls,” she explains. “I always thought that they were so passive, which I now see as unfair. They weren’t passive, they were these amazing, dynamic women from the [EM Forster] novels. But I’m afraid that’s how I saw it.”
If she hadn’t shifted gear, she’d be a timepiece by now. But at the turn of the century, Bonham Carter conspired to change the conversation and found a new lease of life. In 1999 she was cast splendidly against type as a scratchy sex kitten in David Fincher’s Fight Club and the following year signed up to play a learned monkey in Tim Burton’s idiotic, hugely profitable Planet of the Apes. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” Burton told her at the time. “But you are the first person I thought of to be the chimp.”
On screen and off, it has been a fruitful collaboration. The actor and director now have two children together (10-year-old Billy; six-year-old Nell) and a wealth of credits behind them. Bonham Carter has played the glorious foil to swaggering Johnny Depp on the likes of Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, although she struggles to pick a favourite. She generally forgets each film the second after it’s in the can.
“I still haven’t seen Sweeney Todd,” she admits. “I missed the boat with that one. I didn’t want to go to the cinema because I was pregnant with Nell and I was exhausted and my mum was in hospital and I hate watching myself anyway. But then, later on, me and Johnny made a pact that we should watch it for Tim’s sake. So we made a date and we arranged a screening. And then, Johnny being Johnny, he pulled out an hour before.” She snorts with laughter: “It was a very Depp thing to do.”
If her latest role takes her outside the Burton orbit, it’s a stone’s throw as opposed to a quantum leap. TS Spivet is a winsome, candyfloss fantasy about a pint-sized genius who hops a freight train through America. Bonham Carter plays Spivet’s exacting, bookish mother, an exotic flower uprooted to the prairie, while the film is directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the eccentric French director behind Delicatessen and Amélie. It strikes me that Jeunet could almost be Burton’s gloopy Gallic cousin: more sunny, less successful. Bonham Carter, it turns out, has adored his work for years.
“Actually Amélie was one of the first films that Tim and I saw together, just at the beginning of our relationship,” she recalls. “I thought at the time: ‘Oh, this is great, we love all the same films.’ But that was about it. There’s not a great deal of crossover, he won’t go to a rom-com.”
It is tempting to view Burton and Bonham Carter as a pair of awkward shapes that somehow fit together; the outlandish kooks who spooked respectable society. But it’s more complicated than that. Burton, for all his outsider gestures, has been one of Hollywood’s most bankable directors since he made Batman back in 1989. As for Bonham Carter, where do we begin? She’s the great-granddaughter of the Liberal prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith, the daughter of a diplomat and reputedly close friends of the Camerons, a regular at Chequers.
On balance, I think, it’s this last nugget that’s the most intriguing, though I’m finding it hard to broach the subject. It doesn’t fit with her image and the implications are alarming. It’s not so much that her social life reveals Bonham Carter as an establishment insider (most successful actors are, whether they admit it or not). It’s more that I’m suddenly wondering whether she’s also a Tory.
“No, no, no,” she splutters. But this subject is a minefield. At worst, any comment she makes risks being misconstrued. At best, it leaves her sounding defensive. “Why should I have to justify my friendship with Dave and Samantha?” she asks. “Come to think of it, why should I have to justify my friendship with anyone?”
She goes on to explain that she’s known Cameron for years, since his days as a PR man for Carlton TV. Her view of the couple is therefore coloured by shared history, by personal experience and (in particular) by the Camerons’ relationship with their eldest son, Ivan, who required round-the-clock care and died in 2009 at the age of six. “So yeah,” she says. “I definitely get to see a side of them that other people don’t. David Cameron is incredibly witty, incredibly bright and incredibly genuine. But actually both those people are immaculate. The humanity that they showed when it came to dealing with their son. Both of them, probably because of what happened with Ivan and how they reacted to that, they have an amazing sense of humour and sense of proportion, and they are people to be taken seriously.”
She wants to shut up, but she’s now on a roll. The thing about the Camerons, she adds, is that they have no sense of self-importance. Even now, inside No 10, they are open to the world, interested in people. You can talk to them about anything. “Whatever you think about them as public figures, that they are doing well, or that they’re not doing well, there’s a lot to be said for the way people handle themselves and their children and their family. And there is a real compassion to Cameron. Maybe that doesn’t always come through. And, God knows, he sometimes gets it wrong. But that compassion is genuine.”
I must take this on trust, but I’m still wondering how Tim Burton fits in with this crowd. The patron saint of stumbling, nerdish outsiders, at large inside Chequers. It must be like that bit in Edward Scissorhands where the lonesome hero loses his rag and runs amok through suburbia.
Not a bit of it, says Bonham Carter; it’s a very easy mix. “It might seem bizarre, but that’s because you’re viewing things through stereotypes and wondering how on earth it works. Tim is often misrepresented as Edward Scissorhands, but that’s obviously not who he is. And he’s always had very good instincts when it comes to judging people.”
She likes to think that she does, too. Bonham Carter thinks carefully about the roles that she takes and the directors she works with. Some films, for instance, simply don’t feel right.
In the mid-90s she was offered the lead role in Lars von Trier’s anguished, extraordinary Breaking the Waves, playing the fragile sexual saint who rides (quite literally) to the rescue of her paralysed husband. Emily Watson would later parlay the role into an Oscar nomination, but Bonham Carter has no regrets about turning it down.
“There has to be a chemistry between you and a director,” she says. “And Lars von Trier struck me as a bit of a weirdo. I got a weird vibe off him, so it was never going to work. You have to be able to trust people, or what’s the point in spending time in their company?”
Back in the 80s, setting forth as an actor, Bonham Carter regarded the profession as her means of escape; a way of wresting control of a life that had turned fraught and chaotic. Her father had suffered a stroke; the family home was in crisis. Acting was her window into another world. It helped her then and it still helps her today. Life, she points out, is always fraught and chaotic. Whether we’re tending to sick relations or supervising a house move, we all need a place that we can run to and be free.
“The thing about acting is that it’s just so much easier than everything else,” she tells me. “Yes, you get to sound more intelligent than you are, which is nice. And you sometimes get to look better than you are, which is nice as well. But it’s also rewarding and fascinating, and moving and fun.” Bonham Carter gives another snort of laughter: “And anyway, I’m crap at everything else. I’m crap at putting my feet up. I’m crap at being a production co-ordinator. And being a mum is like running on a hamster wheel. This week it seems that all I’ve done is move lots of books I’ve never read from one shelf to another. I’ve looked at lots of old photos and stared at tonnes of false teeth. I’m putting all my teeth in boxes and then I’m going back to work.”