Helena Bonham Carter, The Sunday Telegraph

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Helena Bonham Carter, The Sunday Telegraph
INTERVIEW
Interview
with
the vamp
A quintessential English rose who blossomed into a full-blown
English eccentric, Helena Bonham Carter revels in offbeat roles
(and outfits). But even she balked at playing Miss Havisham. She
tells TIM AULD what changed her mind and why she might – just
might – soon be wearing a wedding-dress offscreen too
PHOTOGRAPH BY GUSTAVO PAPALEO
I am sitting in a café in north London, being taught
how to steal things by Helena Bonham Carter.
‘Try it when you get back to the office, right,’ she
says conspiratorially. ‘If anybody’s got something
in their back pocket, you drop something, they
bend down and Bob’s your uncle.’
Pick-pocketing, which she has mastered
while playing the role of Madame Thénardier in
a forthcoming film of the musical Les Misérables,
is just one of the 46-year-old actress’s new areas
of expertise. Another is prostitution (she plays
a madam in a new version of The Lone Ranger),
another entomology (for a film based on the
novel entitled The Selected Works of TS Spivet –
‘which is a real winner of a title!’).
She obviously loves her work and talks about it
with a dry, self-deprecating wit. She has a habit
of leaving off the final words of sentences, which
28
stella
may be something she’s picked up from her
partner, the director Tim Burton, whom she
has dubbed ‘a home for unfinished sentences’.
She also has an explosive witchy laugh, which
Colin Firth described as the ‘filthiest imaginable’
when working with her on The King’s Speech.
Talking of witchy, it’s traditional about now in a
Bonham Carter interview to make some comment
on her mad dress sense – what’s the queen of
wacky wearing today? Some slightly unkempt
hair apart, I’m going to have to disappoint you,
because she’s wearing a perfectly tidy patterned
cotton dress and red cardigan combo, in which
she’ll later trundle off to pick up her children (Nell,
four; Billy Raymond, nine) from the school gates.
Lest we should fear she’s lost her mojo, however,
she tells me, ‘It was Hallowe’en last night and I was
the only one who didn’t have to dress up because
stella 29
INTERVIEW
I’m already there.’ She describes it as a party at
‘a friend’s house’, which all sounds quite low-key,
but when I pick up a paper later I find it was
Jonathan Ross’s party, to which le tout showbiz was
invited. Photographs show her arriving with Tim
Burton, the latter dressed in a black satin dressinggown with a white, floppy-eared rabbit-head mask.
Previous page: jacket by Viktor & Rolf; trousers by Alexander McQueen, from Harvey Nichols. Stylist: Hew Hood. Make-up: Louise Constad, using Chanel Christmas 2012 and Hydra Beauty skincare. Hair: Carol Hemmings.
Studio and lighting: Snap Productions Ltd. Digital: Kelly at Republik Agency. This page: Rex. Express. Johan Persson
B
onham Carter and Burton have been an item
since they met on the set of his film Planet of the
Apes in 2001, and it’s hard to imagine a better
sartorial pairing, she and he matching each other
frizz for frizz with their wild locks. They’ve made a
pretty successful artistic partnership, too, working
together on seven films, including Sweeney Todd,
Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows in the past
decade. But our meeting today is not to discuss
another Burton/Bonham Carter venture, but
a new film version of Great Expectations directed
by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral).
In it Bonham Carter plays Miss Havisham, which
will come as a bit of a slap in the face to anyone
who still recalls first seeing Bonham Carter as the
quintessence of youth playing Lucy Honeychurch
in A Room with a View in 1985. Surely Bonham
Carter has a few years yet before she needs to take
on such elderly roles? It turns out I’m wrong.
‘Mike Newell kept saying, “You are exactly the
right age to play
Miss Havisham,”
which got a bit
irritating
because you
always think,
“Well, you have
to be a geriatric
to play her.” But if you do the
maths, she’s pretty much 45.’
Talking to the press isn’t Bonham
Carter’s favourite thing – she hates
all the red-carpet stuff (‘walking
around in front of a ton of press,
and people flashing cameras and
asking questions that aren’t very
interesting’). Towards the end
of her twenties she became fed up
with being pigeonholed as the
actress who wore corsets
(‘ingénues, wilting roses’, she says
wearily); and she and Kenneth Branagh kicked
firmly into touch any attempts to delve into
their private lives when they were dating in the
1990s. But I have to say I find her extremely good
company, and it’s clear she has managed not to be
turned into a robot by the Hollywood machine.
One of the phrases she repeats in our interview is
‘life’s too short’, another is ‘you’ve got to have fun’,
‘I thought, “You
have to be
geriatric to play
Miss Havisham.”
But if you do the
maths, she’s 45’
Clockwise from above:
an animated Bonham
Carter in Alice in
Wonderland; A Room
with a View; at Jonathan
Ross’s Hallowe’en party;
as Miss Havisham
another ‘I don’t care anymore’. Indeed, one of
the great things about Bonham Carter is the fact
she can be a bit of a loose cannon, marvellously
off-message in a world of controlled soundbites.
(Earlier this year, for instance, she rather rashly
described her friend David Cameron to
a journalist as ‘not that Conservative’.)
Today she can’t help airing her irritation with
the BBC when talking about Great Expectations.
It’s only a year ago that the BBC broadcast
a television version of the novel starring Gillian
Anderson as Miss Havisham, which does beg
the question: how many Great Expectations do
we need? ‘That was a bit appalling but Gillian
did a really good job,’ she says. ‘I’ll do a part if
there’s a different take on it and I thought, “Well,
it hasn’t been done,” and then a week later it
was announced that Gillian was doing it, who
is even younger than me, for the BBC, and, not
only that, the BBC was funding our film and doing
the telly. The lack of imagination!’ The film is,
despite this frustration, beguilingly made, with
a fairytale quality. Bonham Carter herself makes
a convincing psychotic hell-bent upon having
her revenge on the opposite sex.
Other ways in which Bonham Carter defies the
Hollywood machine: where she lives. She and
Burton, who grew up in Burbank, California, have
turned their backs on Tinseltown to live in leafy
Belsize Park in north London. They own three
houses side by side (and, no, they’re not, as some
reports have suggested, joined by an underground
tunnel patrolled by bats): one for Bonham Carter,
one for Burton and one for their children to play
with the nanny. The children have Burton’s
surname. What do they make of the arrangements?
Do they pester their parents to get married? ‘Yes.
Actually, Billy was the one who was worried.
stella 31
Nell wants a dress. He thought, “Are you part of
our family?” And I said, “Yes.” And then he said,
“You were married, [what about] the wedding
photo?” And of course it was a photo of me in
costume for Sweeney Todd, where Tim and
I were just playing around, and he thought that
was our wedding photo.’
Will you do it, I ask. ‘We might do it,’ she says.
‘It’s the organisation. I can’t invite the world,
that’s the thing – how do you not offend?’
Then there’s how she dresses. She’s taken her
share of criticism over the years for her gothic,
grungy, Marie-Antoinettey, Vivienne Westwoody,
all-at-oncey style. Her look – call it eccentric,
call it individual – clearly got up some people’s
snouts. One journalist even felt at liberty to accuse
her of sporting a moustache. Such barbs used
to bother her but don’t anymore.
‘I’ve sort of given up on pleasing people,’ she
says with a laugh. ‘I remember I did one Oscars
ceremony and I got really bad reviews for the way
I dressed. If you get bad reviews it might affect
you personally, but is it going to affect you getting
the next job? If it is then I don’t want the next job,
you know. But Hollywood has been eaten up
by the fashion industry; completely hijacked by
the fashion industry. Oh, it’s a complete… and
they don’t even ask about the bloody films. Just,
“What are you wearing?”’
‘Hollywood has
been hijacked
by the fashion
industry. It’s
just, “What are
you wearing?”’
B
onham Carter may not like dressing for
Hollywood, but she still loves dressing up – always
has since her childhood in Golders Green. ‘[In
my mind] I was always in some costume drama.
I was a fantasist.’ That Bonham Carter had a vivid
imaginary existence is not surprising in the light
of her upbringing. When Bonham Carter was five
her mother had a nervous breakdown, then when
she was 13 her father, a merchant banker, suffered
a stroke that left him in a wheelchair. Bonham
Carter responded by getting herself an agent.
‘I was gutsy,’ she says. ‘But that was because of
Dad. It was a conscious decision. I did actually
think, “Right, I’m on my own.” It was a bit of an
overreaction. He wasn’t dead, quite.’
She moved from South Hampstead High School
to Westminster in the sixth form, where Nick Clegg
remembers playing opposite her in a production
of The Changeling (she had to kick him in the
nethers). It was around this time that the director
Trevor Nunn saw a picture of her and cast her
in Lady Jane (‘back,’ says Bonham Carter, ‘when
I had one eyebrow practically’). She was also
offered the lead in A Room with a View, and so
began a career in bustles and corsets, which
culminated in her Oscar nomination for best
actress in The Wings of the Dove in 1997.
32
stella
In the dress that she
wears as Miss Havisham
in the forthcoming film
of Great Expectations
Great Expectations
is out tomorrow
Throughout this period she lived at home with
her parents (her father died in 2004), only flying
the nest when she turned 30. Back then she was
defensive when quizzed about this arrangement,
now she’s able to see it more clearly. ‘Yeah, that
was big, aged 30. I postponed. I am definitely
a Peter Pan. I didn’t know why [I’d stayed] frankly
until I left and as soon as I left I realised I was
trying to make things better for Dad.’
It was while waiting for the Oscars ceremony
for The Wings of the Dove (she didn’t, in the end,
win) that she made a decisive move, taking the role
of the scruffy, chain-smoking vamp Marla Singer
in Fight Club. Bonham Carter revealed a different
her – the woman who loves disguise, who likes
to bring a bit of grit to those soft looks. It clearly
struck a chord with Tim Burton, who approached
her with an extraordinary
proposal for Planet of
the Apes. ‘Even though
he’d never met me
before, he phoned me
up and his first sentence
was, “Don’t get me
wrong, but I just had this
instinct, well, you were
the first person I thought
of to play a chimpanzee.”’
How did that go down?
‘Brilliant.’ She’s not
laughing. ‘No, I thought,
“Somebody gets me.”
He said, “I’ve never
met you, but I just have
this instinct that you
like to cover up.” And
I said, “You’re absolutely
right.” So, yep, it’s about losing yourself and
dressing up. Like with me I go over the top because
I put too many things on and I like teeth and
I like all that horrible…’
And so began Helena Bonham Carter’s life
with the ‘teeth’ and the ‘horrible’. It seems to have
served her and Burton well. But are they really
that offbeat? Well, maybe a little. But I think what
really makes people think of her and Burton as
weird is actually that they don’t conform to the
airbrushed norm, like so many of the rest of us –
only no one’s pointing a camera at us every day.
As to Bonham Carter’s future, she’s sanguine:
‘I do feel there are roles out there for me, but I do
touch wood because it’s an incredibly difficult
profession. I didn’t feel that confident in my
twenties, or frankly that much in my thirties, and
I’m sort of slowly getting there in my forties.
I know I’m definitely far more interesting now
than when I was younger.’ }
Gustavo Papaleo. Headdress by Claudia Moseley
INTERVIEW

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