Helena Bonham Carter: ‘People choose to sleep with powerful people. I got two children out of it’
The actor on her split from Tim Burton, friendship with Johnny Depp, and the Crown
Helena Bonham Carter: ‘My inner critic is strong and I am the first person to criticise myself’. Photograph: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Ding-dong, it’s the doorbell. And look who’s standing on my rain-sodden doorstep, it’s Helena Bonham Carter. In her stompy, clumpy boots and dark floral ruffled dress, curls piled on top of her head, she looks so exactly herself – which is to say, like a Victorian goth drawn in charcoal – that she could be an actor playing a character playing Helena Bonham Carter. Which, to a certain degree, she is.
“I love dressing up and creating myself, as it were, according to the day and the mood. But it’s an illusion, because then the Daily Mail photographs you, and you see it and think, that wasn’t what I meant at all,” she says as we walk into my kitchen and I compliment her outfit. Her fashion sense – invariably described as quirky (“God, quirky,” she says, as if repeating a doctor’s fatal diagnosis) – has made her a favourite of the paparazzi, and photos of her mooching around London in her distinctive outfits have been a staple of the tabloids for several decades. Does she ever think, “I’ll dress normcore today – that’ll throw off the paps”?
“I know, but I promise you, even when I think I’m being normal, somehow it comes out wrong. It really does! I later see the photos and think, what was I thinking?” she says. Her tone alternates between old-fashioned posh and a gentle millennial uptick, as if she were both a dowager from a bygone age and a sardonic modern teenager, often in the same sentence. Then it becomes a shriek: “Oh my God, your dog is ridiculous!” she cries, spotting my terrier, and promptly scooping him up. Bonham Carter loves dogs, because of course she does – what posh English woman doesn’t? She has two herself, and once she puts mine back down, gets out her phone to photograph him: “I have to send a photo to Tim – he’ll love him,” she says, referring to Tim Burton, her ex-partner and the father of her two children.
We are at my home because Bonham Carter wanted to meet somewhere we could sit outside for the sake of social distancing, but not a park, as it was predicted to rain. Did I know, her publicist emailed a week previously, anywhere that fitted the bill? I suggested either her garden or mine, thinking there was no way a hugely famous actor would deign to come to my place, meaning we’d have to do the interview at hers and I’d get to nose around her domestic detritus. Hurrah for my tactical brilliance! Or, it turned out, not: Helena would love to come to yours, the publicist replied. So now we’re sitting in my kitchen, next to the door to the garden, surrounded by my domestic detritus.
“Ah, children,” she says, looking at the piles of plastic crap everywhere. “It does get easier, I promise. But until then, work is the holiday.” Her children with Burton, Billy and Nell, are 16 and 12. “There suddenly came a point when they could look after each other, and it was like magic.”
You called my bluff because I wanted to go to your home, I tell her. “I was just a bit bored – I needed to change my envelope,” she replies, taking more photos of my dog. When she scrolls through them afterwards, amid all the pictures of dogs and children, I spot Olivia Colman, her co-star in The Crown, mugging at the camera.
Bonham Carter has come to my envelope to discuss her second outing as Princess Margaret in The Crown (“Oh right, The Crown,” she says, as if she thought she’d popped round solely to play with my dog). Bonham Carter is note perfect at conveying the hauteur and heartbreak that underpinned the princess’s character, and her Margaret is the deliciously sharp tonic against the Queen’s (Colman) somewhat opaque blandness. The new series – which is so good it might actually save Christmas 2020 – focuses on the next generation of royals, Charles and Diana in particular. Bonham Carter still gets to spit out some deliciously Margaret-esque lines (when told the young Diana Spencer shares a flat in Earl’s Court, she drawls, “Prostitutes and Australians – isn’t that who lives in Earl’s Court?”), but she has a somewhat reduced presence. Did she share Margaret’s frustration at – “Being marginalised?” she says, finishing the question. “I actually thought it was perfect, because the problem with Margaret is she was marginalised. It was enough for me because, whatever she does, she’s always so totally herself.”
I’m not disputing that Margaret was rude, but often the reason people attack others is because they feel vulnerable
She spent months on her research. She wasn’t interested in anything that made the princess sound like a cartoonish snob, but looked instead for nuances. “I’m not disputing that Margaret was rude, but often the reason people attack others is because they feel vulnerable,” she says. To locate that vulnerability, she interviewed Margaret’s surviving friends, including her former lady-in-waiting, Anne Glenconner. “I’ve always been a swot. Honestly, you should see my Margaret file. Tim used to look at all my files and say, ‘You’re not an academic, you’re a flipping actor.’ But I have to suspend my own disbelief before I ask anyone else to suspend theirs. And it’s such an outrageous ask: I have to pretend to be Princess f**king Margaret?” she says, her voice rising.
She was helped in her research by her almost absurdly glamorous family, although she plays down just how glamorous it is: “You and me, we come from the same background,” she insists several times (she is of Jewish descent on her mother’s side). To which I can only say, well, kinda. Unlike her, I don’t have any former prime ministers (HH Asquith, her great-grandfather) or Rothschilds on my family tree. And also unlike me, Bonham Carter has not one but two connections to Princess Margaret: one of her uncles dated her, and she is a cousin by marriage to Glenconner. “She was dimly in the back of my childhood, people saying, ‘There’s a princess in the room.’ I remember once backing into her and her giving me one of her sharp looks,” she says. Years later, Bonham Carter encountered her again at “one of those dos”. The princess recognised her and said, “You are getting better at acting.” “That was so her. She used to put people down in a sort-of compliment,” says Bonham Carter, almost admiringly.
She has been working for so long that she means different things to different generations: to those who grew up in this century, she is Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films. For the generation before, she is completely entwined with Burton’s films. But easily her most enduring genre is period drama, starting with her glorious debut as the nervously rebellious Lucy Honeychurch in 1985’s A Room With A View; and her long association with Merchant Ivory films thereafter, in movies such as 1991’s Where Angels Fear To Tread and 1992’s Howards End. Both of her Oscar nominations were for period dramas: 1997’s The Wings Of The Dove and 2010’s The King’s Speech. For a while it looked as though she was trying to escape the corset, when she ran off to the US to make contemporary movies such as 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite and 1999’s Fight Club. But since The King’s Speech she has increasingly been dipping back in: she played Miss Havisham in 2012’s Great Expectations, and the bawdily amoral Mme Thénardier in Les Misérables.
She has since spent two years playing Princess Margaret. Did she feel hesitation about getting back into period drama? “Not really. Put it this way, when I see it all afterwards I think, ‘Why did I do that? I look exactly the same as I’ve done before [in other period dramas], with mad curly hair.’ But I do have a nostalgia for that time, and I love period dress. And the corset, as punishing as it is, if you know how to wear it, exhaling after they put it on, does sort out your posture. There’s a lot to be said for it, really.”
She has made so many period dramas that she occasionally bumps into her former selves on screen. Having also played the Queen Mother in The King’s Speech, she might be the only actor to have played her own character’s mother. In the new Netflix production, Enola Holmes, based on the detective series about Sherlock Holmes’ teenage sister, Bonham Carter’s character encounters the suffragette Edith Garrud, who inspired the character she played in the 2015 film Suffragette. “I’m very into all my ghosts following me around,” she smiles.
Other ghosts follow her, too. By this point, she has worked with pretty much every man in the business who has been accused of being, to varying degrees, a monster: Mel Gibson (1990’s Hamlet), Woody Allen (Mighty Aphrodite), Roman Polanski (2012’s A Therapy), Harvey Weinstein (The Wings Of The Dove, The King’s Speech) and, multiple times, Johnny Depp, who is also her children’s godfather.
I believe people are multicoloured, they’re almost never all good or all bad
As when she talks about Princess Margaret, Bonham Carter prefers nuance over flat condemnation. “I never see anything in black and white. I believe people are multicoloured, they’re almost never all good or all bad. Weinstein was a bully, full stop. But also, not full stop, really. He was a bully, possible sociopath and fantastically effective producer of films,” she says.
Is she saying that, just as being famous doesn’t excuse his crimes, so his crimes don’t cancel out his work? “Yes, exactly. It’s not about excusing him, but seeing the whole picture to understand him.”
At the time of our interview, the verdict hasn’t come in for Depp’s libel case, in which he claimed the Sun had defamed him by describing him as “a wife-beater”. Is she surprised how things have turned out for her friend, accused of assaulting his ex-wife Amber Heard and being a drug addict? “Oh, totally. There’s something quite old-fashioned about Johnny, with these manners – none of it makes sense. But the man’s not stupid. He wouldn’t have gone to this length if he thought he was in the wrong.”
Sex and power
We talk a little about sex and power, and whether it’s always exploitation when an older powerful man in Hollywood sleeps with a young actress. “Who are we to know? For years people have chosen to sleep with powerful people, and that’s their prerogative. After all, I got two children out of it,” she says, and cackles so loudly she scares the dog.
Bonham Carter met Burton on the set of 2001’s Planet Of The Apes. “I was very conscious when we met, even though he stuck me in a chimpanzee outfit, that my face was his aesthetic: dark, pale, tubercular,” she smiles. Years later, after they’d had their children, he showed her a sketch he’d made of her a decade before they’d met. “That was very touching. I thought, ‘Oh, so I figured in your imagination.’” And he in hers: in her early 20s she was obsessed with Edward Scissorhands.
Before Burton, Bonham Carter’s public image was that of an enjoyably punkish posh woman – Daphne Guinness crossed with Isabella Blow. He brought out her goth side, and she toned down his more Scissorhands-ish tendencies, smiling in photos instead of staring out with a haunted scowl. They were so well-matched they looked like one of his drawings come to life, characters straight out of Beetlejuice. She appeared in eight of Burton’s films, including Planet Of The Apes, Big Fish, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd. “Although, I never got a free ride with Tim because I was sleeping with him. I was always auditioning. And I gave him two kids and everything!” she cackles again.
The couple famously lived in two adjoining houses in London (“No, there was not an underground tunnel, although it’s fine for people to believe that because it sounds much more interesting”) and, for a while, they were Britain’s most endearingly eccentric couple. Then in 2014, they announced they had separated. “It’s taken us some time to adjust, but I think it’s really very good now,” she says. “And the kids are fine, they get to have a dual life. At first it’s a horrible thing to get used to, not having your children around [when you share custody]. The cruelty of divorce is extraordinary. But then you get to a point where you’re like, Oh, I get this week off! Some parts are very much to be recommended.”
Bonham Carter suspects that Peter Morgan, The Crown’s creator, asked her to play Princess Margaret because she, like the princess, had gone through a public break-up. “It was something I could relate to, that vulnerability. It’s a horrible thing to be in public and going through a personal fragmentation, and I’ve never been a pretender. The stiff upper lip, I find boring,” she says.
Burton is still, clearly, very much a part of her life in a way that goes beyond merely co-parenting. He frequently comes up in conversation, and even made the elegant black face mask she arrives wearing, decorated with delicate drawings of neon-coloured animals. Given their closeness, why did she leave the relationship? “Oh, I can’t talk about that. Good try, though, Hadley! I have a responsibility to the children not to talk about it. As well as to Tim, I respect him. But I didn’t leave, put it that way,” she says.
Assuming the subject is closed, I start to ask another question. But it is not closed. “Although I will say this in the positive sense: I do think there’s a point where people fit for a certain time, sometimes, and if you can, you recognise that you’ve given what you can, and you’re going to stop each other from evolving, and if you can afford it, well … So,” she says, picking up my Dictaphone and moving it closer to her, “I was reluctant at first, let’s say.”
It must be kind of a nightmare to live with your director, and you’ve done it twice, I say. “Well, there was Tim,” she says. And Kenneth Branagh, I say. They met when he directed her and co-starred in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; their affair contributed to the end of his marriage to Emma Thompson. He and Bonham Carter were then together for five years.
‘Blood under the bridge’
“Oh, Ken. I didn’t really live with Ken. Did I work with Ken? I can’t remember anything, although there’s a reason the memory goes,” she laughs. There was The Theory Of Flight, I say. “Yes, but he didn’t direct that, although it’s arguable that he thought he was directing,” she says, not very successfully suppressing a smile. (Officially, Paul Greengrass directed it.) “Me and Ken was very different from me and Tim. You know, Ken avoided directing me once we were together because it can be complicated and I think he didn’t want – anyway, that’s all blood under the bridge,” she says. By coincidence, or maybe not, when Thompson was asked about their affair in 2013 she also described it as “blood under the bridge”.
Anyway, b****cks to all the blood, because Bonham Carter has moved on, gloriously, and for the past two years has been in a relationship with Rye Dag Holmboe, who, as the tabloids repeatedly stress, at 32, is 22 years younger than her. (Scandalising the media with a younger lover is another experience Bonham Carter shares with Princess Margaret.) “I can’t say much about Rye, because he’s a psychoanalyst so he needs his anonymity,” she says. Again, I think the subject is done and start to move on and, again, I am wrong. “He’s magic, and that’s all I’m going to say. I met him at a wedding,” she continues, clearly unable to help herself. “A totally random thing, which both of us nearly didn’t go to, so it was one of those moments that was so chance and ended up determining so much. A really happy accident, and it’s an amazing thing.”
Bonham Carter grew up in north London, a mere bus ride from where she lives now. The daughter of a banker, she went to some of the most prestigious private schools in the city, yet the privilege is only part of the story. When she was five, her mother had a nervous breakdown and was ill for three years. After she recovered, she became a psychoanalyst, and still helps her daughter understand the characters she’s playing. Then, when Bonham Carter was 13, her father had an operation to remove a tumour, but it went disastrously wrong and left him semi-paralysed. “My father was really ill, to the point that I don’t think I grieved until much, much later, because I was so determined to see the happy in the situation,” she says.
Shortly after that, Bonham Carter found an agent. Was acting an escape? “God, yes. I was like, I’m going to make my own world. I have this thing on my wall that says, ‘F**k this, I’m off to Narnia’, and it’s absolutely that: going into a world that’s ordered and where you know what’s going to happen and who you are meant to be,” she says. Fashion, too, is part of that impulse, she says: “You can create your own story.”
Secrets in attics
Bonham Carter has been thinking more about her own story these days. Last year, she appeared on the Channel 4 show, My Grandparents’ War, in which she researched the way her maternal grandfather, Eduardo Propper de Callejón, a Spanish diplomat, helped Jews escape from France. “Now I’m just completely obsessive about finding out these things, looking for secrets in attics,” she says.
Tim is innately shy and Johnny is innately shy. They’re artists and private
I tell her that’s her Jewish side asserting itself. “I’ve always felt very Jewish, even though we never practised. But we grew up very conscious of my mother’s Jewish family, and we were always brought up to be very proud of that. Whenever I play someone older, my forbears pop up. When I played Enid Blyton [in 2009’s Enid], I thought, ‘Oh God – it’s granny!’”
Before she arrived, I worried that Bonham Carter might be a little stiff, so accustomed to meeting new people that she would rely on small talk, like the Queen (“Have you travelled far?”). But she is the complete opposite – utterly lacking in shyness and reserve, and for pretty much every answer she gives me about her life, she asks a question about mine: “Tim is innately shy and Johnny is innately shy. They’re artists and private. But I love people,” she says.
By now, we have gone well over our allotted interview time, and her car and driver have been waiting outside for 20 minutes. But Bonham Carter is in no hurry. “Can I have another coffee? Are you sure?”
I tell her I had so much fun rewatching all her old films before our interview. “That is my idea of a horror fest,” she says, looking far more pained than when we were discussing her divorce. How can she say that of A Room With A View and Howards End, two of the greatest films made? “Are they very dated? I’ve been thinking of showing them to my daughter. But she’ll probably just be like, ‘Oh Mum, you’re so embarrassing …’ I’m always an embarrassment.” Would Bonham Carter watch them with her? “I don’t know. I am allergic to watching myself, and I mean that. My inner critic is strong and I am the first person to criticise myself. Everything I’ve done has been to get away from myself, really.”
It is now, alas, undeniably time for her to leave. So, while scattering a slew of promises to stay in touch, like a blizzard tossing about snowflakes, she pulls on her Tim Burton face mask, re-clips her giant hair grips for maximum effect, and opens the door, ready to face the world, her very own version of Helena Bonham Carter. – Guardian
The Crown season four is on Netflix from November 15th.