“Let’s not even wait until I’m old to not give a fuck what people think.”
“… I’ve never been interested in being cast for what I look like, but inevitably you have to go with what you’re given. But I’ve done a hell of a lot to camouflage it over the years. Remember Planet of the Apes? I’ve been a chimpanzee, for god’s sake …”
Interview by Spencer Heyfron
Article by Chesley Turner
Photography: Sean Gleason
There’s a poem by Jenny Joseph that resonates with Helena Bonham Carter. It’s called, “The Warning,” and it contemplates what all of us self-aware, do-as-you-should, non-intrusive citizens of the world have to look forward to: a dotage where we do whatever the hell we want to do.
But for Helena Bonham Carter… well, why wait? “You just have to be comfortable and wear whatever you want. I never put too much thought into what other people are thinking, and that’s really the way to go. And having fun. And not taking things too seriously. The scrutiny of other people is to be taken lightly, I think. Does that make sense?”
Sure it does.
For a woman in a career that defines people by their looks, Bonham Carter admits there’s only so much control you have over being type-cast. “I’ve never been interested in being cast for what I look like, but inevitably you have to go with what you’re given. But I’ve done a hell of a lot to camouflage it over the years.” Remember Planet of the Apes? “I’ve been a chimpanzee, for god’s sake.”
As a mother of two—Billie, 15, and Mel, 11—Bonham Carter admits to the welcome change that motherhood brought to her career. “In a way, it’s a great relief because it’s no longer all about you. It’s a great escape, having children, because the acting profession can be incredibly, unhealthily narcissistic, I guess.” Having children means less flexibility with travel and film schedules, which culls the parts you can accept. “Originally you were out working because that was your passion and now it’s like, I’ve got a different passion. But you still have to work because [otherwise] you’d feel bored. As much as I love my kids, I couldn’t have [stayed at home] full time and I wouldn’t have been that good at it, either. It’s better that they had a happy mother that was stimulated. And that I had a use beyond not being able to cook.”
In one of Bonham Carter’s next big roles, she picks up the Netflix-funded mantle that was broken in by another actress. Taking over the portrayal of Princess Margaret in The Crown from Vanessa Kirby has been a challenge and a treasure. There is the dual challenge of portraying a well-known and well-documented woman, and carrying on with a character already begun by another actress. To prepare, she read biographies and viewed footage, but also found close friends of the princess. Roddy Llewellyn, the British baronet who was with Princess Margaret for eight years, was particularly generous with insights to help bring the portrayal to life. “It was a real testament to her, because [her friends] so loved her and wanted to talk about her. There was a lot of residual love and happy memory.” She found the princess’s perfume, learned her tastes, and listened to the music she listened to. “But I don’t think it was particularly her. It was very political, and what she thought they would like to hear. It was her behaving. She actually was very clear: she loved show tunes.”
But as the award-winning series makes clear, Princess Margaret’s circumstances in life dictated her behavior, even when she struggled against it. “She only spoke when she needed to. She moved very slowly. Frankly, that’s part of the job. Being a royal at that point was just being seen, getting out of the car, going from point A to B wherever there was an opening. You were there to be seen so you walked very slowly. It was a symbol of status if you moved very slow. She had a real sense of performance, too, and it would change depending on different periods of her life.”
Bonham Carter was careful with bringing Princess Margaret back to the screen. “When I feel like I know someone and I’m representing them, it’s a responsibility. You fill yourself with a lots of homework and then you let it intuitively sink in.” Returning to filming after a shooting hiatus, Bonham Carter was pleased that the character came back so quickly. “I thought I’d have to resurrect her, but it doesn’t take long. We just do a read-through and she drops straight back in. The little looks and physical things and vocal things. It’s like wearing a cloak. It’s an atmosphere that descends over your skin. You’re never lonely when you’re acting. It’s like being with somebody.”
Based in London and completely European by blood, Bonham Carter is depressed by the entire prospect of Brexit. “I think it’s catastrophic. This whole thing is a total nightmare and a waste of time. It’s been misinterpreted and it’s a mess and it’s so scary. It’s a terrible idea. I’m firmly a remainer. I don’t understand any argument for leaving other than some arrogant identity crisis. I can understand why people are very angry if they’re not listened to, but…I would like to say, ‘Ok, you work it out. Do you really want the reality? Do you really want all these things to happen? And how is it going to improve life for future generations?’”
Communication is lacking in political affairs on both sides of the Atlantic. “Some people haven’t been listened to, but there is no leader who got it right. No one can be understood if everyone just shouts at everybody, in any kind of conflict. We have to listen and work it out but with the lack of tolerance for someone else.” Sounding not unlike a mother counseling two children at odds to interact like adults, she reaffirms, “respect is absolutely paramount, particularly with people who are different. You don’t just berate someone or ignore them or overlook them or go your own way like an isolationist. It just doesn’t work.”
The consequences of isolationism and arrogance on a nationwide scale is front-of-mind for Bonham Carter, who has been working recently on a documentary called, My Grandparents’ War. In the film, actors recount their grandparents’ experiences of WWII, recording the memories of a generation who were children during the terror that rocked continents. “It isn’t much longer until we’ll have no living memory of what it was like. There’s a certain eloquence that comes from that sort of innocence of experience, too.”
Bonham Carter’s great-grandfather, Herbert H. Asquith, was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1908 to 1915. With that bloodline, she was often characterized as too posh at the beginning of her career. “I think people just thought it was easier for me because I’m posh and obviously, well, it didn’t help me act. But I had a privileged life. I mean, life is easier if you have some money. But we weren’t all that wealthy and I was never conscious of being posh, to be honest, until the papers started writing about it. There’s a perception, but you just let it go. You can’t do a thing about how people perceive you. You just let them carry on perceiving.” When it comes down to it, she was less concerned with what others thought. She was just trying to get past her self-perception. “I didn’t feel particularly talented. I think I probably took it personally because I thought, ‘Oh, they just think she’s bad because she’s posh.’ It doesn’t really matter. It’s just a label.”
With over two decades of acting experience, she’s played a Shakespearian ingenue, a lunatic witch, a classic film star, a slew of royals, and a madwomen who baked people into meat pies. “I’ve had East End, I’ve played Lovett, I did East End Jewish, I did Northern. I’ve done every single fucking accent there is, practically, in this country. It doesn’t matter. You’ve got to let go of whatever you’re perceived as.”
What’s much more important, what’s endemic, is who you actually are. And for Helena Bonham Carter, that’s the culmination of a remarkable cross-section of cultures and countries. “I’m very proud of where I came from. Not because they were posh but because they were amazing human beings. I’ve got a very English side, and then my mom’s side was French, Spanish, Jewish, Austrian…you know, total European. It’s a really very interesting mix.”
With the release of My Grandparents’ War in November, Bonham Carter isn’t only looking at those who have come before her in the family tree, but also those who will come after. “I look at my daughter and think, ‘You’re the receptacle of all these ancestors. All these powerful men, all stuffed into a young body.’ No wonder she’s a force.”
But perhaps most of all however because she has HBC as her Mum!