Helena Bonham Carter Q&A

2010-03-10 15:42
Helena Bonham Carter Q&A

Helena Bonham Carter has starred in a wide variety of film, television and stage projects.  Most recently, she starred in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, reprising the role of the evil Bellatrix Lestrange, which she originated in 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and will play again in the upcoming two-part franchise finale, The Deathly Hallows.

She currently stars as the Red Queen in Tim Burton's epic 3D fantasy adventure Alice in Wonderland

Q:  Is Alice in Wonderland an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s books?

A.  It’s an original story, I’d say.  I think this is what Tim has brought to it.  We’ve got all the same characters as in the original story - but, genius as it was, it doesn’t actually have a story or plot of speak of.  Alice goes from one episodic encounter to another, and meets madder and madder people.  What Linda Woolverton has done is fashion a story with an emotional context for the film’s events to occur.  In this, there’s a point to the whole story and a journey for Alice.  The other thing that’s profoundly different is that she’s 19, and she’s somebody who’s trying to work out who she is.  So those things really make sense of the confusion that’s throughout Alice in Wonderland.  I love the main message, in that it’s okay to be mad - some who are mad make the best people.  I also think that the story resonates because, to a young child, everything’s incredibly confusing.  I can see that with my son, Billy.  As a parent, I’m constantly interpreting.  You can see that he and Nell, who’s now a year old, are in a state of wonder.  But then there is also the wondering, like, what does that mean?  When I read the script - my husband is going to spend two years of his life on it, you know? It made so much sense to me.  It was really lyrical and had great heart.  And it has a story, so you really do want to know what’s going to happen next.

Q:  Why are Carroll’s characters such wonderful subjects for Tim? 

A.  With so many different characters, I think it’s quite tricky for Tim, because he’s said that they’re all mad, so we have to make each of them mad in a different way.  The Hatter, the Red Queen, the March Hare, even the Rabbit’s got deep anxiety problems.  Everybody is in a state of deep, emotional instability, really, except Alice.  Alice is the normal one.  Personally, I find madness or any emotional instability fascinating.  Sane people are kind of boring to play, but mad people are always fascinating.  But for Tim, knowing him, he’s always had a compassion for and been drawn to outsiders.  This is a collection of outsiders, particularly Alice herself - at the beginning, she’s portrayed as somebody who’s always felt that she’s somewhat odd.  She has a different point-of-view on life.  But that’s something to be celebrated, she discovers, not something to be ashamed of.

Q:  Describe your character.

A.  Tim basically said, ‘Well, of course, you’re going to play the Queen.  Look, this is the first drawing I did.’  And there’s this picture of a really angry person.  [LAUGHS]  And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, really?’  And then he said, ‘Look.  All the artists even drew you.’  And there’s this horrible picture of this really old hag, with an oversized head, sort of growling.  So, I play the Red Queen, who is a queen, and I have a really, really big head.  She’s got emotional problems.  It takes nothing, practically, for her to lose her temper.  Her tantrums are that of a two-year-old.  She doesn’t really rule through any kind of justice or fairness, but through terror.  I chop off people’s heads.  That’s my solution to everything.  It probably comes from an underlying insecurity for the fact that she has got such a big head, and everybody else has a normal head.  Playing the Queen’s been fun.  I love being royal.  I love that it’s really all about her - basically, she’s like a spoiled child.  Everything’s done for her.  She has absolutely no compassion for anybody, and is totally oblivious to anybody else’s feelings apart from her own.  She basically has no heart, even though she’s the Queen of Hearts.  It has been really, really fun.

Q:  What were your references for putting her together?  How much input did Tim have?
A.  I looked back at the book.  Also, there was one of Lewis Carroll’s quotes that was really useful - that he saw her as somebody who was afflicted with an ungovernable passion, just full of this fury and rage.  No matter what the offense, little or big, her solution to everything is to chop off a head.  Tim said to watch "Mommy Dearest" which is one of his favourite films.  And Bette Davis was kind of an inspiration again, as her role as Baby Jane Hudson was an inspiration for Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and her portrayal of Elizabeth I - just a little on the outlandish, cartoony side - was a reference for the Red Queen. 

Q:  What is happening in Underland in the beginning?
A.  Underland, mistaken by Alice as Wonderland when she visited as a child, is under the Red Queen’s reign - the White Queen should have been queen, although I am the eldest - it’s just that our parents passed me by and gave the crown to my younger sister.  Everyone is in a state of unrest.  Meanwhile, all of the supporters of the White Queen are rebelling, and I continue to rule with the only person I love, Stayne, the Knave of Hearts, my right-hand man. 

Q:  What is the relationship between the Red Queen and the White Queen?

A.  Not good, I would say.  Everyone seems to like her.  I can’t quite understand it.  She’s got the small head.  I guess my parents preferred her, you know.  They didn’t like me, and they didn’t trust me with the crown, which is really unfair, because I am eldest.  And everyone loves her, so she’s in her palace with all of her herbs, probably doing a cooking program, and I’m stuck.  Really unpopular, no one likes me.  But I am Queen, and they have to treat me as such.

Q:    Who plays the Mad Hatter?  What do you enjoy about him?
A.  Johnny, no surprise, plays the Mad Hatter, and it’s another extraordinary character.  Not that I would ever flatter myself saying that I’m remotely like Johnny Depp, but in a few ways, we are quite similar - we never like to look like ourselves.  We like to grab every single prop and every single disguise that we can.  And Tim basically peels everything off.  So when I got to the set, I thought, oh God, he’s got lenses!  He’s got an amazing look and costume, and he has every accent going on, as well!  I’m sure Lewis Carroll wrote it for Johnny to play—he had a premonition that in 135 years’ time, Johnny Depp should play the Mad Hatter.  It’s really fun to get to work with him again.  He’s so brilliant in his choices, and he’s really truly inventive. There’s always a surprise element as to what he’s going to come up with, he’s got a real imagination as to how to invent characters and he’s a fantastic comedian.

Q:  What makes the work Tim and Johnny have done together so profound?
A:  I think that both of them are individually, fantastically talented in their areas.  There’s a huge amount of trust, and they seem to elicit the best out of each other.  There’s this empathic understanding between them—they’ve got the same taste, the same kind of perverse sense of humor.  And it’s not particularly sophisticated, it’s sort of an 8-year-old boy’s sense of humor.  So often, they’ll be laughing away, and then they’ll tell me what they’re laughing about, and it’s not so funny to me, but to them, it’s hysterical. They’re having a party all the time, so for them, it’s not really work.  There’s also a profound respect for each other, having done so much together, and that allows them to stretch and grow and develop.  Both have evolved as artists, because they’ve each found the other one to take risks with.  Johnny’s always taking risks for Tim, because he knows he’s got a huge safety net, and he knows Tim would never let him fail.  And Tim knows that Johnny always understands what he wants, and that he has everything that Tim admires in a performer.  They’re both real originals and they’re both unbelievably creative and share an almost lateral approach to things.   

Q:  What are your thoughts on Mia Wasikowska?
A.  She’s lovely, Mia, and was a real find.  She’s a really old soul, but without being precocious.  And she’s got real wisdom and is so kind, and is a really, really good actress.  She had such an intelligent way at navigating through the part.  She’s on the cusp of being between a woman and a child, and I knew that was so important to Tim, to find someone who had a foot in both ages.  That emotional stage informs the whole story, the whole dream. 

Q:  What are your thoughts on Anne Hathaway?

A.  Anne Hathaway is the White Queen, and she gets a really pretty dress.  And she’s lovely, Anne.  We had a good laugh.  We wish we had more together.  In a way, we make each other’s characters, we define each other, because we are the antithesis.  What’s so great about Anne—it could so easily be the good, dull White Queen, but she’s brought her own madness to it.  She’s a really clever actress.  It was really fun playing sisters who hate each other.  She looks gorgeous, too. 

Q:  What are your thoughts on Crispin Glover, who plays Stayne, the Knave of Hearts.
A. He’s hilarious.  And he’s just one of life’s true originals.  I don’t know quite how he navigates everything, because we’re in green land, and he’s on stilts, and he’s got one eye, because he wears a patch over the other one.  And he’s in the leotard, poor fellow.  You know, in our land, if you’re wearing green, you become invisible, so on the monitor, all you see is this floating head, like the Cheshire Cat.  It’s had its own perfect madness, working in green that translates directly into Underland.  So Crispin has all of these things going on, and he’s very funny.

Q.  What’s it like performing to green screen? 
A.  I got to act with lots of green people.  They’re the unsung heroes, all the actors who won’t ever be seen or heard, frankly, because we had a legion of actors in green leotards reading for the other characters.  And they’re brilliant.  We couldn’t do it without them.  You always have to have something to act with, otherwise, there’s a lot of looking at stray marks, tennis balls and things.  Alice always was changing size, so it was always about looking up or down.  It’s all about imagining, anyway, acting - they should just call it imagining instead of acting.  But you just have to do a bit more of it on this one.

Q:  How did having a big head affect your performance?
A.  One thing I couldn’t do was put my hand up to my face, which you do more than you realize, because then the hand would be inflated along with my head.   But the big hazard was I lost my voice pretty much every day by ten o’clock, because she shouts a lot. 'Off with his head! Off with her head!'  It’s quite exhausting losing your temper all the time.

Q:  Was the makeup process a difficult one?
A.  It’s basically a weird cartoon version of Elizabeth I, so they took my eyebrows away and gave me a high forehead.  I had a bald cap that extends from the fold of my eyelids right across my head.  And then, on top, I had this glorious red wig, and on top of it, a glorious crown.  And I had lovely blue eye shadow, which is Tim, because he thinks that blue is sort of a bit trashy color.  She’s not a natural Queen.  She’s somebody who really puts it all on, because she shouldn’t really be Queen at all.  So blue eye make-up and painted eyebrows.  There’s a bit of Toulouse Lautrec, too.  Both Johnny and I have clown elements as well, white make-up.  My lips are perfect, a bow mouth, a little heart.  It’s a strong look.  It takes about three hours.  I’d get my head pasted down, my hair wrapped.  Then, they’d wrap me in a cocoon, and I’d get to lie down and sleep while they painted me.  When I wake up two hours later, I’m a really unattractive bald alien. Then they’d put my beauty make-up on, my eyebrows, my eye shadow and my lovely, big eyelashes - that was my idea - and my lips with a stencil.  Then wig and crown.

Q:  Describe your costume and props.
A:  I’m in a sort of Elizabethan costume, which is funny, because I remember playing Lady Jane Grey.  It was my first part ever.  And she was in Elizabethan costume.  So, after 24 years, I got back into Elizabethan shape.  I’ve got a scepter that I always carry around, just to remind everybody that I am Queen.  And then, I’ve got the crown.  I’ve got lovely pink spectacles, my idea, to play croquet with.  I always drink with a straw, because my mouth is very, very tiny.  I always have lots of props.  I wanted an axe, but Tim said no.  Too literal. 

Q: What do you like about Tim’s work?

A:  It’s always a surprise to see what he’s had in his head.  He’s so private when it comes to his creativity.  He doesn’t let on.  There’s a superstitious silence around it, and he does a lot of unconscious marinating - he doesn’t want to talk about things, because it’ll stop his process.  So I know now to give him a wide berth and I’ll never ask questions.  And he will let me know the essentials.  Sometimes, I feel very privileged, when he actually asks my opinion and wants to discuss things.  He’s got an amazing emotional intuition about people and about what fits and what is needed.  His taste is impeccable.  His eye’s impeccable, too, and his sense of humor.  It’s always intensely original. 

Q:  Is it difficult to work with your significant other?

A:  It’s always interesting, working with your boyfriend.  Sweeney Todd was quite stressful, but there was a lot of pressure on us, and I’d never sung before.  And he’d never done a musical.  But Tim was very relaxed on Alice. I think maybe we’ve matured as people, or not.  I don’t know.  But, it was definitely fun.

Q: How do you balance family and filmmaking?

A:  I think that it’s definitely made easier, because the job that we have is essentially child-like.  We’re just pretending, you know?  So my son Bill and I are on the same level, really.  And Tim’s always been on that level, anyway.  It makes it easy to explain to Billy why I can’t be with him.  It is hard work, yeah, but it’s fine, because it’s a finite job.  And you have to have understanding children.
Q: What has been most rewarding about being in this movie?
A:  Working with Tim and Johnny.  It’s always fun to work with them.  No, it’s a privilege.  And also, Alice in Wonderland is one of my all-time favourites.  To be a part of Wonderland, and playing Queen!  The fact that we have our own daughter, too, it seems really serendipitous.  It’s amazing.  It’s also amazing, because Tim bought this house, not long ago, as a production office.  And it’s Arthur Rackham’s house, and he did his own illustrated book of Alice in the early 1900s.  So, 100 years later, for Tim Burton to be in the same house to re-imagine Alice, it’s kind of extraordinary.  Rackham’s drawings are so part of Tim’s imagery, too.  Rackham also illustrated Sleepy Hollow.  So there’s been a creative connection across time, something weird and wonderful going on, so it all feels right.  And when Tim asked me to be Queen, I was really touched, and I felt so privileged to be in that position.  And it was a great part.  I had this hilarious moment, reading the script and coming across my character description, something like ‘Queen, small, but has very large-size head.’ So I loved being her.  I miss being Queen.

* Alice in Wonderland is currently at cinemas across SA - and in 3D at selected cinemas.

The British star of Alice in Wonderland on playing a big-headed evil queen, Johnny Depp and working with her husband, Tim Burton.

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