When Helena Bonham Carter was first offered the daunting challenge of playing the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother she was, at turns, baffled and apprehensive. “I mentioned the possibility of playing the Queen Mum to a few friends and they all said, ‘What, already?’ And that’s an understandable reaction because we all think of her in her later years, but this is different. This is playing the woman at a time in her life when she didn’t even think she would be the Queen Mum.”
“But yes, I was apprehensive. Very apprehensive. She’s such an iconic figure and yet you have to go beyond that to build up a believable character. The biggest task was trying to find some inner dimension to her other than playing the sweet, docile, archetypical wife.”
It’s a tribute to Bonham Carter’s considerable talent that she did just that. In The King’s Speech she is utterly convincing as the young Elizabeth who persuades her beloved husband, the Duke of York – affectionately known as Bertie – to seek help for the crippling stammer that blights his life.
She has already been nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination – her second, she was nominated for Wings of the Dove back in 1997 – should follow.
We meet on set for The King’s Speech, where Knebworth House, the 15th-century stately home nestling in the Hertfordshire countryside, is doubling as Balmoral, and Bonham Carter is waiting to go on set for a key scene with Colin Firth, who plays the man who will become George VI.
Bonham Carter is dressed in character – sensible shoes, tweedy twin-set with that mane of dark pinned up under a pillbox hat – and huddles close to an electric fire. She’s friendly, chatty and giggles frequently. “Do you like my outfit?” she asks. “I’m thinking of asking if I can keep it…”
Directed by Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech is the true, poignant and very moving story of Bertie’s unexpected rise to become king in 1936 after his older brother, Edward, abdicates to be with Wallis Simpson. As he is thrust into the limelight with the Second World War looming, Elizabeth is only too aware that his speech impediment is a terrible embarrassment for a man who would need to inspire his subjects with rousing public speeches.
At Elizabeth’s suggestion, he enlists the help of an unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) – an Australian, a commoner, the son of a publican – and they strike up an unlikely, lasting friendship.
“I remember my dad used to talk about Bertie’s stammer and how terribly hard it was for him,” says Bonham Carter. “I think most of my father’s generation knew all about it, but for the younger generations it’s not something that is widely known.
“And it’s fascinating because you immediately ask yourself, ‘How could someone in that position possibly cope?’ And this happened at a time when stammers weren’t understood, they didn’t know how connected to the mind and how emotionally connected it was.
“It must have been terrible for him, really like classic stage fright, and it was really bad luck because he became king at a time when the radio had come to the fore and people expected to hear their monarch speak. A generation earlier, nobody knew what the king sounded like and it wouldn’t have mattered.
“He was also under pressure because nobody knew whether they would be accepted as king and queen. Edward hadn’t died and they were genuinely worried that he would try to return as king at some point.
“The Prince of Wales was genuinely popular and very charismatic, and Bertie was stepping into those very big shoes. It must have been very, very difficult for Bertie, with his stammer. And she knew that better than anyone.”
Logue’s ground-breaking work with Bertie helped him tame the stammer to a point where he was able to deliver a famous radio broadcast as the nation went to war.
“Elizabeth was the one who found Lionel and brought him in. She knew that he had to do something about it and, at that point, little did she know that he would have to broadcast to the nation as the king. It’s an incredible story and, really, The King’s Speech is about their rather unlikely friendship.”
Bonham Carter watched documentaries and read various biographies of the late Queen Elizabeth before filming started. “I read William Shawcross’s book [the official biography] but she still remained out of my grasp. Hugo Vickers wrote an unauthorised biography and that was very helpful.
“But it’s hard playing her – harder than you think because it’s quite difficult to get beyond what you automatically think about the Queen Mum – that softness and sweetness and delicacy. She developed a real front, a public personality, and I think you have to, to protect yourself.”
Bonham Carter comes from a distinguished family herself. Her grandmother was Lady Violet Asquith and her great-grandfather was Herbert Asquith, the Liberal prime minister from 1908 to 1916. Her uncle was Baron Bonham Carter, the publisher.
“My uncle Mark actually wrote an obituary of the Queen Mum and knew her quite well. But then, in fact, he died before she did.”
Still, though, Elizabeth remained elusive until it dawned on Bonham Carter that the key was in that public persona. Queen Elizabeth had to play a role. Just like an actress. “I think the royals have to be performers. Every so often I do these big press junkets when I’m promoting a film and, if you don’t perform, I don’t know where you’d be.
“As a royal, if you don’t perform, you get an incredibly bad press. And you have to have that public face because no one could expect you to be perpetually pleased to meet everyone. The life is so potentially boring.”
Underneath Queen Elizabeth’s pleasant, charming exterior there was a strong, determined streak, says Bonham Carter. “She once said, ‘I’m not a particularly nice person’, which was probably a very modest and ironic comment. But she was definitely a tower of strength, and everyone says that Bertie could not have been king without her.
“She was equipped to be a public figure, whereas he wasn’t. She had the confidence and a strong sense of duty. I think she was the consummate performer. She had this incredible charm and knew how to project it.
“But underneath she had a great inner strength and a sense of self-preservation and also of fun. It wasn’t the most complimentary thing, but somebody once said that she was a marshmallow made by a welding machine – soft and yet hard underneath. There were two levels: she projected love, she was immaculately polite, and yet she was far from passive. She had great strength and she needed it.”
Bonham Carter once met Queen Elizabeth, back in 1985. “Yes, it was for the premiere of A Room with a View and I can’t remember what she said. But I do remember that smile, and she did have a light about her – there was definitely star quality.”
That stylish adaptation of E.M Forster’s novel launched Bonham Carter’s career and made her a household name. Recently, she was at the London home she shares with her partner, the American director Tim Burton, and their two children, Billy Ray, seven, and three-year-old Nell and A Room with a View was on television. “It was slightly odd watching it, but the one thing I realised is how much my son looks like me. I watched it and it was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s Billy up there!’ ”
If her early roles made much of her looks – Lady Jane Grey in Lady Jane, a wistful Ophelia opposite Mel Gibson in Hamlet – she refused to be pigeon-holed, preferring instead to take on character parts, often working with Burton and his favourite actor, Johnny Depp.
Bonham Carter first met Burton in 2001 on the set of his remake of Planet of the Apes. “I spent the entire time dressed up as an ape. Great fun, actually. Luckily he saw me before I went into make-up.”
She has also starred in five other Burton movies and worked with Depp four times. The three are close friends and all share a public persona that is somewhat eccentric.
“Johnny is a lovely man. He has a very good soul – he is so thoughtful and aware of other people. He’s a real gentleman – both he and Tim are – and they have a real respect for the people they work with and they have their values in the right place. But they can also be really silly and act like they are about seven years old. They have fun, and I love that.”
Bonham Carter and Burton are often portrayed as an unconventional couple. They live in two houses next to each other in north London and Bonham Carter’s eccentric style is a source of endless fascination for the tabloids.
“I feel utterly conventional but, apparently, I’m not. I suppose a lot of actresses wear what I call ‘glass of milk’ dresses, those long tube things. I don’t have the body for them. And I definitely have a low boredom threshold. Tim says I don’t put on one thing too many but seven things too many. It’s like dressing a Christmas tree.”
Their living arrangements are not as bizarre as some make out, she adds. “Everyone thinks we live in a weird house with an underground tunnel and our children live down the road. There are so many myths about us, but the reality is nothing more interesting than two houses knocked together.”
Recently, she has been a regular in the Harry Potter movies, appearing alongside a Who’s Who of British acting talent and, once again, those beautiful features are buried beneath a mask of make-up as the villainous Bellatrix Lestrange. The final instalment in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, has now been filmed although it won’t be released until later in 2011.
“Harry Potter was a cushy job and I loved it,” she says. “At one point I was flitting between The King’s Speech and Harry Potter and that was crazy. Billy would say, ‘Mum, do you have to be the Queen or the Wicked Witch tomorrow?’
“I loved playing that witch because she’s all over the shop and the films are just really good fun. Mind you, they were hard work, too. It sounds stupid to say it but the whole duelling with wands thing is exhausting. Me and Julie Walters were knackered doing it.
“Julie, who plays Molly Weasley, has to kill me and, I have to say, she was quite fierce. She held me up against the wall and finished me off. At the end I was exhausted and that was my final scene on my final day. All the cast and crew started coming up to me to say goodbye and I thought, ‘Oh, this is what it’s like, oh my God, this really is the end…’ ”
Since having children, Bonham Carter’s approach to work has changed, she says. “But actually I enjoy it more. And I think that’s because of having children. It’s such a relief to realise that it’s not all about you any more. And it’s not all about the work now. It’s got to be fun, otherwise, why do it? Because the price is too high and I’d rather stay at home with the kids.”
Despite her fears, playing Queen Elizabeth was simply too good to resist. And she finished the film with huge admiration for the woman she portrays so vividly. “Our present Queen has such a strong sense of duty, and I think that came from her mother. She has been an amazing Queen and she has the same genes as her mother, so hopefully we’ll have her for quite a bit longer.
“I think the Queen Mum was an optimist and Bertie was a depressive, so she balanced him out. She enabled him to do the job and she supported him through some very difficult times and that’s very admirable.
“I think happiness and having a happy disposition helps you to live longer. The Queen Mother had that sense of mischief – in some ways she was very girly, and she loved her horses and, of course, she loved to have a drink. But then, she was obviously fine on it because she lived to the age of 101.
“She was a trooper and one of the best performers that the royals ever had.”