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Alice in Wonderland - Helena Bonham Carter interview

Alice in Wonderland

Interview by Rob Carnevale

HELENA Bonham Carter talks to us about getting into character for The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, working and living with her real-life partner Tim Burton, working with Johnny Depp and how her children feel about having the actor as their godfather…

Q. How did you approach your role of the Red Queen?
Helena Bonham Carter: Well, Tim sort of gave me a couple of pointers. He said watch The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex… It was Bette Davis playing Elizabeth. Then Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. The main thing was… I spoke to Linda Woolverton, who wrote the script, and she told me about the big head and it made sense that she chops off other people’s heads because she feels jealous of their normal sized heads. I thought that she’s probably a toddler. She’s a toddler tyrant – toddlers are tyrants! They’ve got no sympathy for any other living creatures… the toddler thing was a big thing.

Q. How did you maintain her humanity?
Helena Bonham Carter: Well, you don’t judge her as a bad person. Your job is to have compassion for them and understand how on earth did they get to be so damaged. You always find the vulnerable part of them. There’s always a vulnerable core. Everyone wants to be loved inside… any bully – they have to put other people down because they’ve felt so tiny inside. So, I looked for the vulnerable child.

Q. So why do you think she’s so bad?
Helena Bonham Carter: I don’t think she’s bad. She’s very pissed off because her parents ignored her and favoured the younger sister. They gave the crown to the younger sister.

Q. Why is Alice in Wonderland such a timeless story?
Helena Bonham Carter: I think it’s a classic. I guess because it’s dealing with the unconscious and your dreams. Everyone dreams as long as they sleep. I think it’s all the imagery. But I’ve always loved everything. It obviously works on a really powerful unconscious level. I remember as a child so many different episodes – falling through the Earth and that dream when you think you’re falling and you’re never going to… that’s just so vivid. And the little door – not being able to get in somewhere and everything being out of reach as a child – and not really being confident with your body because, as a child, it’s always changing… the growing pains. The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – I’ve always loved tea parties and that whole cup cake thing, which is strangely in vogue now. They’re everywhere now. What happened? Anything tiny… I’ve always loved tiny-land.

Q. Why do you think Tim always casts you as witches or murderers?
Helena Bonham Carter: I don’t know… it’s exciting. A chimpanzee. He’s broadened my range – and my head size. He obviously thinks my head’s too small in real life and he’s been dying to make it bigger for a long time. But I love it… and I love the fact he’s given me the chance to transform again. Right from the start, before he even knew me, when he phoned me up for Planet of the Apes, he said he had this strange hunch that I’d be interested in playing a chimpanzee. He had this hunch that I like to transform myself as an actress.

Q. Do you enjoy working together with Tim, your partner?
Helena Bonham Carter: I love it… as long as you abide by certain rules. We’ve got the hang of it a bit more now. It depends on the type of film you’re working on. Sweeney [Todd] was a bit… we came a cropper a few times. But we’ve learned. Definitely prior to this I said: “Do you know what? We can’t go to that… we have to abide by our commandments.”

Q. Such as…?
Helena Bonham Carter: Don’t bother talking about it at home, try and listen to each other – because sometimes we take ourselves for granted. I need compliments, just like any other actor! So, I need to get my daily compliment [laughs].

Q. And how is working with Johnny Depp?
Helena Bonham Carter: Johnny is very easy, very professional and I really love it. It’s also really funny because you never really know what he’s going to do next.

Q. How is Johnny Depp with your children? Because he’s their godfather, isn’t he?
Helena Bonham Carter: Yeah, to both of them. We doubled up because I knew Nell would kill me later on if she found out: “How come he got Johnny Depp!” He’s colossally generous. But it’s funny… he changes every single time Billy [Raymond] sees him, so he has no idea what he looks like. He calls him ‘uncle Johnny’ but we’re always saying: “That’s Uncle Johnny.” But he always looks scary – he was Sweeney Todd, he was Willy Wonka… it is scary. So they’re both a bit scared of him I think. He does great things, though… there was a pirate birthday, so he sent a full-on best Captain Jack outfit with an amazing wig. But he [Billy]‘s not interested in that… he wants to wear the Woolworth nylon version! We’re like: “You’ve got the works!”

Q. How did you enjoy working with Anne Hathaway?
Helena Bonham Carter: I thought what she did with the part was great. It wasn’t there on the page. It could have been so dull and boring, but she had a really good, witty, inventive take on it. She had so many nuances.

Q. And Mia Wasikowska?
Helena Bonham Carter: Mia’s just fantastic and she’s seriously talented. But she’s also such a nice person. She’s got such interesting qualities: she’s wise but not precocious, delicate and yet strong.

Q. Why do you and Tim live in two separate houses?
Helena Bonham Carter: I guess the banality was that I had a really nice house that I really liked, which was like a cottage, and when I met him he couldn’t fit in it because there wasn’t enough room! So, he bought the one next door and connected them when I got pregnant.

Q. Would you recommend it? What are the advantages?
Helena Bonham Carter: Oh yeah. I can’t think of any disadvantage. The advantages are that he gets to do his house up in the way he likes, and I get to do my house the way I like. We see each other when we want to, rather than because we have to. If somebody wants to watch the football… I can watch my girly TV, like Crapford, as he likes to call it, or Lark Rise To Candleford. We can just follow our own… be entirely selfish and not be that considerate towards each other. He always visits… it’s not like we don’t see each other. But we’ve been living in different countries, let alone houses, for the last eight months, while he’s been completing Alice.

Q. How do you view your own career to date?
Helena Bonham Carter: I was very lucky because I got to work with some great scripts and some great characters.

Q. Do you have any favourites?
Helena Bonham Carter: I don’t watch them, so… but I’ve had a pretty good run of joy doing them. There were a couple of stressful ones.

Q. Are you looking forward to seeing how the fans react to the final two Harry Potter movies [The Deathly Hallows]?
Helena Bonham Carter: I am. I love the fact that the films have excited so many kids’ imaginations… and other people’s. It’s a great part and I miss her [Bellatrix Lestrange] actually.

Read our interview with Johnny Depp