Red Queen = Leona Helmsley? ‘Alice’ director Tim Burton says maybe so

Feb. 12, 2010 | 11:58 p.m.

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” COUNTDOWN: 21 DAYS

Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with their “Alice in Wonderland,” a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor — but is she, in fact, the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex, we’re counting down to the film’s March 5 release with daily coverage. Today Burton talks about the Red Queen.

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The first thing you notice about Helena Bonham Carter in the role of the Red Queen is the size of that noggin.

 “Oh, it’s true, I can’t even look at Helena anymore because now her real head just seems like a small orange,” director Tim Burton deadpanned in reference to his “Alice in Wonderland” star and real-life romance. “It’s like she’s got some shrunken head. It’s sad.”

After some chuckling, the filmmaker found some more reasoned descriptions of the abrasive character who makes life difficult for the denizens of Wonderland.

Leona Helmsley

“In lots of illustrations and incarnations of Carroll’s work through the years, it always seems like she had a big head. It was an interesting challenge for us to find the right size and weight and proportions. One of the things we wanted to do was to use the actors and their performances — to use the real them — and then make them different. It’s still their performance but it’s just made weird. We wanted to achieve this blend. That was an important dynamic.”

There are some strange and subversive characters roaming Wonderland. When Burton looks at the nasty Red Queen he thinks of two people — one of his own relatives and the infamous real-estate baroness known as the “queen of mean.”

“In a lot of children’s literature and other literature it’s kind of the same thing over and over — there’s good queens and bad queens, and here you have that but the elements are a bit blurred,” Burton said. “Everybody’s weird and has weird qualities to them. She’s kind of a mixture. When I look at her now, she reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of Leona Helmsley. There’s a tiny bit of elements of my mother in there too, for some strange reason. And Helena brings her own things to it too.”

The very large skull (a visual effect, obviously, added after filming) presented some challenges on the set as actors and crew had to remember to account for Carter’s imaginary melon when it came to her interactions with other actors, moving through doorways, etc. It was one more challenge on a green-screen set that demanded the actors picture all sort of things that the audience would be seeing.

“This was not a place to work with method actors,” Burton said. “I was very lucky to have a cast that was willing to just go for it and be manipulated, so to speak. Luckily there was no head-size requirements in their contract clauses. ‘No you can’t make my head more than 70% larger.’ “

– Geoff Boucher

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CREDITS: The Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland” (Walt Disney Studios). Leona Helmsley on her way to court in 2003. (Reuters)

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