Helena Bonham Carter interview

The 'Great Expectations' actress talks to Time Out about her private and professional life

From English rose to wand-wielding dominatrix, Helena Bonham Carter smoulders in every role. On the eve of the London Film Festival, Cath Clarke meets the actress bringing sex to ‘Great Expectations’.

Phil Fisk

We’re in the Everyman cinema in Hampstead and Helena Bonham Carter is being photographed. ‘It’s the slutty usherette!’ she giggles filthily and asks if I would mind getting her iPhone out of her handbag so she can take a picture. Aren’t there laws against rummaging through celebrities’ bags nowadays, I ask. ‘Oh, I don’t mind!’ Her tone is no-fuss breezy, the accent ‘Downton’-posh.

Ten minutes later, upstairs in the lounge, the 46-year-old (I had to double-check: she looks half that) is ploughing through a Wagamama takeaway. The bombshell curls are piled into a bird’s nest and she’s kicked off her heels. We’re five minutes down the road from where she lives with her sweetheart of 11 years, director Tim Burton, and their two children. They’ve made seven films together, him directing, her acting, though she is not exactly a muse (she’s too gobby to be a muse, she says).

Now, after playing witch Bellatrix Lestrange, the most unhinged of the scary baddies in the Harry Potter films, she’s a pin-up for a generation of teenage goth-girls. Something she loves. ‘Am I a good example?’ The idea cracks her up, but she adds thoughtfully, ‘Well, at least I’m not too thin. I eat.’

Helena Bonham Carter is funny and open to a fault. ‘I’ve got Tourette’s, practically,’ she says. I’ll tell anyone anything.’ Here she is, talking about her saucy turn as the Queen Mum in ‘The King’s Speech’. Did she deliberately make HRH a total fox? ‘Oh yes, my Queen Mum was sexy.’

She eyes the tape recorder. ‘I don’t want to upset the royal family again.’ She carries on regardless. ‘To this day the Queen says she never watched the film. She’s not allowed to, apparently. But she has and did enjoy it. I think she was moved.’

Bonham Carter can’t have offended too many grandees – she was awarded a CBE earlier this year. The actress is most definitely having her moment. She was Oscar-nominated for ‘The King’s Speech’. And of course, there’s Harry Potter.

Did she notice a Bellatrix effect? Kids avoiding her children’s birthday parties? She grins. One day a woman in Hampstead ‘literally screamed’ when she clapped eyes on her. Bonham Carter recreates the scene with her best horror-damsel shriek…

On the set of Harry Potter she shared Daniel Radcliffe’s make-up team (keeping watch while he smoked cheeky fags out of the window). Radcliffe interviewed her recently for an American magazine – although it ended with up with Bonham Carter giving him a gentle talking-to about his typecast fears.

‘I’ve had lots of conversations with Emma Watson, too,’ she says. ‘She is very very bright.’ It’s starting to sound as if she had a queue of Harry Potter kids lining up outside her trailer for career advice. ‘A bit.’ Her top tip? ‘Don’t read the bloody papers.’

Acting young is something she can relate to. Barely out of her teens when she starred in ‘A Room with a View’ in the mid-’80s, she was pigeonholed as an English rose. In her twenties she found fame ‘overwhelming’. ‘I’m a late developer,’ she says. ‘I only moved out of home when I was 30.’ What took her so long? ‘I think it was Dad’s illness.’

After a ‘happy childhood’ in Golders Green, she was 13 when her dad had a stroke that left him in a wheelchair. ‘By staying I was trying to make things better. Keeping mum going; keeping them both going.’ Her dad died in 2004.

Now Bonham Carter has her own kids: Billy, eight and Nell, four. She whips out her phone again (it’s in a bonkers pink rubber case with giant bunny ears) to show me pictures. ‘Here’s an unlikely photo of Tim brushing his son’s hair.’ She should sell it to the newspapers (the tabloids love portraying the couple as pair of hairbrush-dodgers). ‘I could, couldn’t I? “Tim Burton, with an actual comb.”’

The frock-watchers sharpened their knives last year when she waltzed up the red carpet at the Golden Globes wearing odd shoes: one red, one green. It was, she confesses, a bit of a two-fingers-up at the endless bitching about her wardrobe. ‘Probably not the most mature reaction,’ she concedes. Another howl of laughter. It turns out she couldn’t decide which pair of shoes to wear. ‘Mum said both, so I thought: Why not!’

She loves dressing up. The chance to slip into the most famous frock in literature – the decaying wedding dress of jilted bride Miss Havisham – is a big reason she agreed to star in a new film of Charles Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’ directed by Mike Newell. Wasn’t she miffed, being asked to play the mad old battle-axe? And her a mere slip of 46. ‘At the start, I was like: Huh. Already? But Mike kept on saying, “You’re the right age!”

Miss Havisham – hiding away in the dark, plotting revenge on men from the cobwebby shadows of her stately pile – is the kind of role she was born to play. Did she bring her own ideas about the costume? Naturally. ‘I went overboard! I had this idea that her veil would grow over the years, like her grief. It’s a bit pathological. Everything’s a bit overgrown.’

After leaving here, Bonham Carter is off to pick her daughter up from school. She met her partner Tim Burton on the set of ‘Planet of the Apes’ in 2001. In their first conversation ever (‘small talk, which he frankly isn’t very good at’), he told her that Hampstead was the only place he’d ever felt he belonged.

Eighteen months later, when they got together he bought the house next door – ‘He wouldn’t have fitted into mine.’ Ever since the pair have famously lived side by side, each in their own house (sounds perfect). But at the moment they’ve got the builders in and are all under one roof. How’s it going? ‘Surprisingly okay.’ Like a holiday? ‘Yes! There’s a lot to be said for being in shouting distance. And it’s cosy. The kids love it.’

Burton is boss on set. At home it’s vice-versa. ‘I’ve always done the cooking, which I love,’ she says. ‘He can warm up. He does his two-minute rice. And gets the drinks ready. He makes smoothies on a weekend. Our daughter once said to him: ‘Dadda, why don’t you make smoothies instead of movies?’ And with that she collapses into her biggest fit of giggles yet.

‘Great Expectations’ closes the London Film Festival on Oct 21 and is out in cinemas on Nov 30.

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