Helena Bonham Carter Profile 7
Helena Bonham Carter has made six films with partner Tim Burton. He’s cast her as an ape, a witch, a corpse bride, a psychopathic baker and a crazed queen with an oversized cranium. “I can never rely on Tim to make me pretty,” she once deadpanned.
It wasn’t quite this way to begin with. Her break came in 1985, when Bonham Carter was just 19, with the Merchant Ivory classic A Room With a View. For the longest time, she was the quintessential English rose, working with Merchant Ivory again a further three times and starring in big-screen adaptations of E.M. Forster novels and Shakespeare plays.
Even as her career began, acting was “an escape.” Her father Raymond had a stroke when she was 13, which left him paralysed and in a wheelchair. Acting provided an outlet, a way of reinventing herself. “I was just determined to have self-sufficiency.”
While her friends went off to university, she found her break and was encouraged by her father to grasp the opportunity. “I remember him saying, ‘you’ve got a break, and that’s something you can’t manufacture – you’ve got to go with it and see where it takes you.’”
It took her to those corseted costume dramas, which for the longest time defined Bonham Carter in the press. Her family connection to Prime Minister H.H. Asquith made it easy. “You’re always going to have an encapsulating headline – for me, first it was ‘Posh great-granddaughter of PM’, which I’d been oblivious to.”
Before long she seemed to tire of the label, but she says the roles never lost their lustre. “I was never fed up with those period parts. They’re good roles for women; leads. I think the press got tired of me in them. The dresses may have been the same, but the characters were very different.”
A Henry James project, The Wings of the Dove, would nab Bonham Carter an Oscar nomination and put her on Hollywood’s radar. She parlayed that success into a role in David Fincher’s Fight Club, bringing the twisted Marla Singer to life and forever burying the corset queen label that defined her earlier career. It was as radical an about turn as would have been possible.
“It was Brad [Pitt's] idea for me to be in it,” she said. “In the six weeks when you’re up for an Oscar, there’s a little window where you’re offered everything. Seventh week, when you haven’t got it, you’re fucked. Forget it. I was offered so many nice parts, and I went for Fight Club.”
When Fight Club first played it was given a rather cool reception. Bonham Carter brought her mum to the film’s Venice Film Festival premiere, where the crowd loudly booed. “David was so depressed by the reaction,” she revealed. “But he was cheered by mum saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be a cult film.’”
That prediction proved true, and her role in Fight Club opened a new chapter in her career that would lead to the odd character roles she’s played in Burton’s movies and beyond.
Younger audiences will mostly know her as another psychopathic witch, Bellatrix Lestrange, in the blockbusting Harry Potter franchise. “It’s like a rest home for British Equity,” she laughed. “And we’re all lying around and chatting. It really is 90 per cent waiting. You can’t look to huge job satisfaction, but it’s nice to be a part of it. And it’s fun to be a witch.”
These are the roles Bonham Carter seems to be most comfortable with. The new label attached to her relationship with Burton in the press is that of a ‘kooky couple’, but as the actress tells it, acting is her real outlet for slightly odd creative experimentation. “It’s taken way too seriously,” she said. “It’s all just dress-up and make-believe. It’s transforming – getting as far away from yourself as possible. That’s what makes me feel liberated.”
Now, her roles reflect that penchant for experimentation. She’s blended the crazy worlds of Burton and Harry Potter with mature and considered turns in films like Conversations with Other Women, Sixty-Six and The King’s Speech.
In the latter, she plays the young Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. “The Queen Mum is pretty hard because everyone has a fixed idea about her,” she revealed. “I met a lot of people who knew her; [the Queen Mother's biographer] Hugo Vickers, in particular, was very useful. I distilled what I learnt from them.”
The film is the tale of King George VI’s ascension to the throne and his struggle to overcome a stutter. Bonham Carter plays alongside Colin Firth as the King and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, the Antipodean speech therapist who worked with him.
In addition to receiving this evening’s Richard Harris Award, Bonham Carter is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her turn in the film. It looks to be the first of many nods to come for her performance, as the Oscar season warms up. “It’s sort of like a rollercoaster,” she said of the road to the Oscars for The Wings of the Dove in 1997. “Everyone is so excited for you, and of course you are too, but you can’t be excited perpetually. That’s something I’ve learnt.”
Her passion for self-deprecation does little to undermine the power of her work, and while she may have been uncomfortable in her own skin in the past she seems more confident than ever. “It took me ages to grow into being a woman, into being happy with [my body],” she said. “When I was young, I believed in being androgynous; you can’t flaunt it, you can’t use it. The whole thing was just something to be embarrassed about. Now I feel fine about shapes and things. It’s nice to have curves. To be a woman.”
But she still struggles to watch anything she’s in. “Johnny [Depp] doesn’t watch anything he’s in [either],” she laughed. “That’s slightly comforting. You think, ‘If Johnny Depp can’t watch himself…’”