03.02.10

How Helena Became a Freak

In the new movie Alice in Wonderland, Helena Bonham Carter plays the big-headed Red Queen—her latest over-the-top role. How the British goddess began playing freaks.

In the new movie Alice in Wonderland, Helena Bonham Carter plays the big-headed Red Queen—her latest over-the-top role. How the British goddess began playing weirdos.

Helena Bonham Carter is talking about her inner child, nestled as she is in yet another romantic and whimsical getup, this one reminiscent of Madonna circa Like a Virgin. She was "an obedient child" whose early film roles, A Room With a View, Howard's End and The Wings of the Dove, were rooted in the rigid mores of English society's Edwardian era.

She can't bear to watch those movies now. There's little trace in them of this vivacious being here, a woman whose cackling laugh surely echoes down the hall of her Hollywood hotel. Only the corsets of those roles foreshadowed the Gothic babe she would become, the tousled muse to the phantasmagoric Tim Burton.

Alice in Wonderland marks the sixth time that Bonham Carter has worked under Burton’s direction, which isn’t easy for either one of them.

Today, Bonham Carter is better known as the white-haired witch Bellatrix Lestrange of the Harry Potter series, the blood-thirsty baker Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and the evil Red Queen with the oversize head in this month's Alice in Wonderland. "I didn't think, 'Oh my God! How do I break out of my corset?'" she says, tucked into the sofa of her hotel room, playing absent-mindedly with the copious ornaments around her neck.

Indeed, that urge was more of a subliminal whisper from her past. Bonham Carter's youth was overshadowed by her mother's nervous breakdown and her father's disabling stroke. She lived at home until age 30. She was 35 when she met Burton on the set of Planet of the Apes. And by then, she was ready to reclaim some of the playfulness she'd relinquished so young.

"I'm definitely always drawn to being a child again," says Bonham Carter, 43. "I think that's probably why me and Tim get on. He's a kid too. Johnny [Depp] is too. We're all self-affirming arrested development.… So maybe I'm having a second childhood. A real proper childhood."

She certainly looks like she's having fun. At Disney's Alice press conference last month, Bonham Carter was lively and candid, speaking in rapid-fire bursts that seemed aimless but somehow nailed a punchline.

One moment she was laughing hysterically into the microphone after an earnest Crispin Glover (who plays the Red Queen's paramour the Knave of Hearts) told a roomful of reporters that he hadn't read Lewis Carroll's book until recently. "What's so funny?" he asked his overcome cast mate. The next moment Bonham Carter was griping about how Burton's special effects made her less attractive. When someone asked her about her penchant for her macabre roles, she quipped, "As I get older, I only get villains at the moment."

Bonham Carter is clever with the press. As she has made the rounds promoting Alice, she's shared quite a bit about her eccentric relationship with Burton. There is, it turns out, a lot to talk about. She told the Daily Mail about their pet nicknames for each other (Big Chief Little Patience for him. Little Squaw Running Mouth for her) and The Guardian about what she sees as Burton's autistic tendencies.

She and Burton don't exactly live together. Bonham Carter has her house and next-door, Burton has his. The children, Billy Ray, 5 and Nell, 2, share a third in between and their parents come and go. (At the slightest hint of a prompt, Bonham Carter pulls up a photo on her pink iPhone of Nell, barefoot in a poufy skirt, her features a perfect amalgam of her parents.)

Alice in Wonderland marks the sixth time that Bonham Carter has worked under Burton's direction, which isn't easy for either one of them. In fact, she says they bickered constantly during the filming of Sweeney Todd. Burton, she says, took her for granted. So she issued some commandments in an effort to stem their rows: Don't talk about work when you're at home. Don't short-change each other on the set. (Burton had the habit, she says, of refusing her the same takes he gave Depp.) And listen even when it feels unnecessary.

"The more and more we've worked together, the more I've worked out how to be with him creatively," Bonham Carter says. "It just takes time. And now I understand a lot more what he needs from me when we're working together."

And what is that?

"Sometimes it's almost two acting jobs," she says. "I have to act the wife, that's not quite me. And then I've got to act the work part."

As work goes, Bonham Carter has done her share. In five years, she has starred in 10 feature films and two animated features. She has given birth to two children. It's no surprise the actress hasn't booked another role after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II due out in 2011.

"I want to be a mom for a bit," she says, "remind them I am a mom. And I am their mom. Be in the real world. For five minutes."

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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.