It’s been a grand year for madness and royalty in castle corridors for Helena Bonham Carter. “Oh yes, I do know a good stone floor,” the actress said with a thoughtful nod. “Queens and witches, that’s what I’ve done lately.”
Bonham Carter was a scene-stealer of highest order in March as the raving Red Queen in the billion-dollar Disney hit “Alice in Wonderland” and now as the gleefully sadistic witch Bellatrix Lestrange in the latest “Harry Potter” film, which may end up the highest-grossing movie of 2010. In a far more stately mode, the 44-year-old star is also being called an early Oscar favorite for her deft screen portrait of Queen Elizabeth in “The King’s Speech,” which opened Friday as the period piece to beat in Hollywood’s trophy season.
That’s all lovely, Bonham Carter says, but really she will look back on her 2010 films as great successes because she was able to do work with sparkling costars and filmmakers but also limit her actual time on movie sets so she could focus on the parenting class she’s taking back home in London to tamp down her anxieties (more on that later) concerning her two young children.
“Alice” was a lightning-fast shoot because so much of the green-screen film was made by computer and animation wizards, and for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1,” she plays a character who successfully sears her way into the audience’s memory with some particularly wicked scenes but does so with surprisingly limited on-screen time.
“It’s been perfect for me as a mum,” Bonham Carter said over lunch during a recent whirlwind visit to Los Angeles. Her suitcases were already packed for a return flight home, and she apologized for any passport punchiness. “Darling, I’m a bit bedraggled today, but I’m going home this afternoon. I was barely here at all. It’s been a quick in-and-out for Los Angeles this time.”
Bonham Carter, like many working mothers, learned early on that quality time is the key whether it’s at home or at the office — even if that office was “Potter” set at Leavensden Studios just outside London. The second part of “Deathly Hallows” will (by all appearances) close out the franchise next summer, and Bonham Carter will have appeared in four of the movies. The series has been a signature moment for British and Irish actors and, with eight films in 10 years, the flagship of the British filmmaking industry. For Bonham Carter, it was something akin to working with an elite theater group that just happened to make blockbuster special-effects movies.
“There’s nothing like it, it’s been a nice tribe,” Bonham Carter said. “I love going back year after year. It’s refreshing. A lot of times in this business, it’s so transitory — it’s just 10 weeks here or there on a movie and then it’s over – but to see the same people over all that time, a decade, makes you feel really safe and secure. It was fantastically well-organized, the [assistant directors] are simply unbelievable, the best. The communication has always been seamless. It’s been a way for me to have work I can count on; I knew I was going to be working but the [screen time for the] role was limited and that was perfect, anything more than part-time takes away such a chunk of time and space and focus. It has been perfect for me, and I will miss it.”
Bonham Carter lives in the fashionable Belsize Park area of London in a house next door to the home of filmmaker Tim Burton, the father of her two children as well as her director in “Alice in Wonderland” and five other films since 2001, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and ”Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” among them.
The couple’s son, Billy, turned 7 in October and their daughter, Nell, will be 3 on Dec. 15. Over lunch, the woman who now portrays the Queen Mum on screen — and has spent so much time watching the young “Potter” stars grow into young adults — frequently framed her life pursuits and career with the imagery of parenting. “The roles I’ve been playing seem to be mad children or mothers, I wonder what that means,” she said, putting her palm to her cheek in mock alarm.
The Red Queen of “Wonderland” falls into the mad-child category, clearly, with her tantrums, jealousies and screaming id, all based firmly in the 19th century bookshelf of Lewis Carroll. For her “Potter” role, there’s also a Screaming Mimi personality and startling body count, but Bonham Carter took the role to places that weren’t made evident in the wizarding-world novels of J.K. Rowling.
“Bellatrix has really good fun, and she’s been a bit of surprise to me, in fact,” Bohnam Carter said. “It wasn’t really there on the page. When I took it on, I found there wasn’t a huge amount to go by in the script, and I read the book and she wasn’t necessarily on the page there either, so I did ask [four-time "Potter" film director] David Yates if I could bring a bit of other things or are these the Bibles? And he said yes, certainly, and apparently J.K. Rowling was very pleased with it when she saw it, and the childish dimension and the fact that she’s totally savage, that was a bit of departure.”
There’s often nervous laughter when Bellatrix is on screen, and for the actress, that’s the sound of success. ”I just felt she had to make an impression because there wasn’t much time in which to do so. And she had to be terrifying. She needed to be somebody you didn’t know what to feel towards. One moment she’s horribly revolting but then also weirdly sexy, maybe, or just disturbing to the mind when you watch her. There’s a lot of decaying, too, with the bad teeth. She’s been in prison for so long. The mad hair. She’s someone who has seen better times but still carries herself with the memory of what she was. She’s almost like someone who’s had too many surgeries and thinks they’re beautiful but in fact has gone way wrong. There’s a lot of people like that now. For some reason, I can’t live with the joke that now you can either be old or you can be creepy. That’s the choice. Sad, isn’t it?”
Asked about leather-loving Bellatrix’s lust for Lord Voldemort (portrayed by Ralph Fiennes), the snake-faced ”Potter” villain, Bonham Carter pointed out that attraction is a dark and unpredictable magic of its own. “She is so obsessed with Voldemort. He’s not the most obvious obsession for a love affair, you might say, but he was beautiful in his youth and that’s what she wants and thinks about. He has yet to grow a nose. For some reason, I find the no-nose actually sexy. Everyone to their own. No, but, if you think about it some people get off on power. There are many, many powerful men who were not blessed with the most attractive envelopes.”
Next month marks the 25th anniversary of the release of “A Room With a View,” the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel that gave Bonham Carter the breakthrough role of Lucy Honeychurch, established her somewhat as a specialist in period pieces (“Lady Jane,” “Howards End,” “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” etc.) and memorably teamed her with future “Potter” costar Maggie Smith. Her filmography has been an eclectic one, certainly, with roles in “The Wings of a Dove” (which earned her an Oscar nomination), “Fight Club,” ”Terminator Salvation,” Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet” and Burton’s “Planet of the Apes.” The affinity for parlor-room and corset-era roles, however, seems more fitting for a woman who is the granddaughter of Sir Maurice Bonham Carter, a leading politician in the Liberal Party and turn-of-the-century cricket star, and politician Violet Bonham Carter, a close confidante of Winston Churchill and the daughter of H. H. Asquith, the Earl of Oxford and Asquith and the prime minister of Britain from 1908 to 1916.
That heritage can only help when it comes to a role like the one she played in “The King’s Speech,” and to working with director Tom Hooper (“The Damn United,” HBO’s “John Adams“) to portray the Queen Mother as she was in the 1930s, a woman of resolve and energy as world events darkened with the rise of Adolf Hitler.
The axis of the well-reviewed film is the spiky relationship between a maverick Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (portrayed by Geoffrey Rush) and his patient, Albert, the Duke of York (played by Colin Firth), the reluctant royal who was thrust into global events with his 1936 coronation as King George VI. Albert was tormented by a stammer that made public speaking a nightmare — a colossal problem considering the British public’s need to be rallied and reassured as they watched the newsreel footage from distant Berlin. Bonham Carter said that for her performance as the duchess — and queen-to-be — she latched on to the youthful vigor and wittiness that is often forgotten since the public image of the Queen Mum is of her in advancing years leading up to her death in 2002 at age 101.
“She was quite strong and dynamic and born to be in public, and her husband was not born with that innate confidence needed to be a king,” Bonham Carter said. “He drew on her strength, and I tried to show that strength.”
Bonham Carter said that on her home front, she found strength wasn’t enough to came to parenting. The actress said she grew weary of “becoming this policewoman, this negative being and nagger” when dealing with her children, especially her son, so she sought out some therapeutic assistance of her own.
“The parenting bit is much harder than the acting bit,” Bonham Carter said. “You just never know what to do. So me and Tim were sort of fed up with getting hurt. ‘What do we now?’ But the parenting class has been really useful. It’s a bit like Parenting Anonymous. There’s a group of parents just spewing out their latest trauma of the week. ’I'm Helena, and I’m a mother.’ But there are some basics that are so helpful. Every child knows what they want; it’s your job to tell them what they need. There’s a liberalism that we’ve sort of just plodded with; it’s not a good idea to ask them what do they want to do or begin sentence with ‘if’; you want to start it with ’when.’ A lot of times they don’t want the choices, they can be overwhelming. It’s not your job to know everything, it’s your job to get them to answer questions for themselves. You don’t need to be omniscient. Your job is to be a teacher and a trainer; you teach them and the training they get automatically.”
What did she take away from the experience? She answered the question with precision and specific example — which, in fact, was part of the answer.
“You learn these skills and there are three main ones: Descriptive praise, preparing for success and reflective listening. Descriptive praise really works. It’s not evaluative — ‘you’re doing great, well done’ – instead it’s praising, with real precision, the absence of negative behavior. I’ve got a real problem with whining, for instance, so when Billy isn’t whining I say, ‘You’re not whining, that’s really helpful.’ You give them positive attention and then they start to crave it. The key to this is you get out of the parenting habit of rewarding bad behavior with attention. When they are naughty, you actually turn away and they realize very quickly that to get your time and engagement they need to do something different. It absolutely works. Billy is lapping it up. And as a parent, you become happier because you’re observing all these good things about your child, if you’re being specific about what they’ve done — ‘You folded that so well and that’s really helpful.”
Bonham Carter may be a better parent at home, but at airports, restaurants and red carpets she is recognized most often for her mad-child performances, especially Bellatrix, now that the “Potter” films have crossed the $6-billion mark in worldwide box office and her character is responsible for two of the most infamous murders in the epic tale about a boy wizard facing down the magical forces of darkness. Bonham Carter knows most young moviegoers today will always associate her with the witchy woman.
“The young kids recognize me, and they are terrified, genuinely terrified, but also drawn toward you,” the actress said with a grin. “I always find that is one of the privileges. You get to be so vivid in children’s imagination. The little girls feel ambivalent too; they kind of love her, and they like dressing up as her and, believe me, it’s honestly fun to wear the costume. I made her childlike deliberately so kids could relate to her as the ultimate naughty one. And there is fun in being naughty. She is a total version of age 3. There’s no parenting class on handling that one.”
– Geoff Boucher
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