Exclusive: Down the Rabbit Hole with Helena Bonham Carter


Alice in Wonderland marks Helena Bonham Carter's sixth collaboration with her partner Tim Burton (though the actress might consider it their eighth, as the couple have two children together). In this 3-D film adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classics, Bonham Carter plays the Red Queen, the decapitation-fixated monarch of Wonderland. I sat down with Bonham Carter when she was in Los Angeles last week at the film's press junket for the following interview, in which she speaks about her love of fantasy, playing a big-headed villainess, and her upcoming final appearance as another baddie -- Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films.

With your character, you put Alice in Wonderland in a welcome comedic zone, balancing some of the madness.

Thank you. I had a lot going for me, like a big head. I was the sum total of a lot of other people's work. It's not like I did the whole thing because I have a big head and a tiny waist. I haven't actually seen it. So I don't know really. There's a lot going on, especially with the 3-D thing. There's literally a lot going on.

It would be easy to fall into the trap of portraying the Red Queen in a very shrill manner, as so many other interpretations have. How did you strike a balance between comedy and menace?

I don't really know. But it probably has a lot to do with the way Tim has edited me. [Laughs.] A lot of it was there in the writing, with Linda [Woolverton]. Because I thought it was a gem of a part, though at first my agent was like "I'm really hurt" – she's my oldest friend; I've known her for twenty-five years, way before I met Tim – she said, "I've read the script and I thought you should play the White Queen, because she's described as small, petite and beautiful; and you're the over-sized head person who's very angry." [Laughs.] I said, "No, this is a brilliant part." I don't really know. But it was there on the page I guess. I knew I needed to make her humane. I knew I needed to bring some humanity to it. With anybody you play, you've gotta be compassionate. That's the whole act of acting. So I had to like the person. The shrill thing is like… If you've got to scream all day, you've got to scream from your belly. That's one thing. It's exhausting. But you've got to open and just relax and let it out, because otherwise it would have just broken my voice. As it was, I had no voice after twelve o'clock, which kind of made me think, "Oh, that's convenient – I can't speak after twelve o'clock, which is exactly how Tim likes me – non-verbal." That's why he got me to play the Red Queen. Because my mouth will be at low-volume post-lunch.'" [Laughs.]

You've remarked that lately you've been called upon to play villains. Has it been difficult to strike different notes to distinguish them?

"Villains" is such a blanket thing. It's like me saying I was always typecast as a corset person. But  they weren't the same character by any means. They might have been born within the same twenty years. But as far as the character was concerned, they were wildly different. The difference is in detail too. So with each villain, I don't go, "Oh God, it's another baddie. How do I make it different?" It all comes from the writing. I do realize… There's a common thing with me in that I often end up being a child. I know that's just me. That's just a taste that I like. Bellatrix is definitely retarded. The Queen is age 2. I just like being a kid. But that's the actor in me. I like acting because it requires you to be a kid and dress up. And I was comfy being a child, even though I was probably a kind of old child. Now I'm a young adult, if you see what I mean. Not literally. But I'm doing things the wrong way around. [Laughs.]

Like Tim, did you grow up with a fondness for fantasy and horror?

Not horror. That's his area. But I'm developing a bit of a taste. Definitely Sweeney was horrific. Fantasy definitely. I'm so lucky to have landed in a period where there's lot of fantasy films being made. Because it's so me. And being a witch, as Bellatrix, is totally up my street. And having to wave a wand and make spells? I just love it. And not only that, but to have a son who's doing the same in his private life. That's all he does, wave wands and pretend. So I'm growing up with him again, and we've got a lot to talk about. He said the other day, "Mom, do you have to be a queen or a witch tomorrow?" (This is a different queen; I've just been another queen.) It's pretty much like that though – I'm a witch one day or a queen the other. It's just lucky. I love fantasy time. Then Wonderland, I really genuinely didn't think I was gonna be in it. But I just thought, "How lovely." Because if you live with the director you're gonna live with that subject for eighteen months or two years. I just thought, "Perfect. Love it!"

Have the two of you spoken about whether or not you'll be in Dark Shadows?

No, and I presume not. I just always do presume not. I genuinely do. So no, I haven't had a conversation. What I just want to know is if he's coming home now for the babies. Because he's been here. I don't even know who Tim Burton is anymore because we've been separated for six or seven months. I tried to rehabilitate him socially too. I just came a few days ago, and was just like, "Okay, now we talk." Because he's been stuck in his room drawing and directing and animating all this time.

I'm just curious, because Johnny mentioned that he liked Dark Shadows when he was a kid. I was wondering whether or not you were aware of it.

Not really. Culturally, it's an American thing. I had no idea what they were talking about when they first brought it up. I was like, "I have no idea." I mean I was aware of The Adams Family. But it's a soap opera isn't it?

Yeah. It's more or less Americans pretending to be Brits.

Which is exactly what Tim and Johnny are doing in real life. Why they have to go and act it out I don't know. [Laughs.]

One of the projects you are doing is a new animated film.

The Gruffalo?  Yeah, I did that. The kids love it. I also did something called The King's Speech where I played the Queen Mother. And Bellatrix in Harry Potter. There are a few things around now. But to be honest I should probably stop and remind my children who their mother is. And Tim.

Johnny points to different actors who have informed his work. What went into your portrayal of the Red Queen?

Stealing. "Who do you steal from?" Exactly. [Laughs.] Elizabeth I. I looked at a lot of the queens. Bette Davis was the one that I really sort of looked on. That was Tim's sort of choice. And Elizabeth the First of Essex. But I looked at Cate Blanchett playing her, Judi Dench. I did a lot of research. It was a long time ago… But each character makes you think of different people. It's not like you take somebody and think, "Who can I stuff this into?"

There was no single real-world figure that leapt out when I saw your character in the film.

It was definitely Elizabeth the First, with problems. Then Tim wanted Mommy Dearest, Joan Crawford, in there somehow. That kind of on-the-cusp madness in the hanger scene.

Because you and Anne Hathaway (as the White Queen) are, in a sense, playing opposite sides of the same coin, did you talk to each other about your performances beforehand?

We did a bit, I think. I think I started before her, so she came and watched a bit. We did actually, and we definitely talked about our early childhood together.

You've finished your work on Harry Potter

I'm finished. They finish in May, and I finished in December. Yeah, I've been killed. I'm dead. I kicked the bucket.

In exiting the role, did you find some interesting ways to punctuate it?

Yeah, there were some things. She's a bit looser [than the Red Queen]. But she is mad, so you could sort of go anywhere with that. Mad people are great, because you can kind of go anywhere. The field's open. And playing infantile people too, the field's pretty open. Which is what I've been playing. You get away with a lot of things that you wouldn't.

The audience gets an opportunity to live vicariously, and perhaps experience a second childhood, through you too.

Yeah. Well, we all need a pig to put our feet on. It's obvious. [Laughs.]