A conversation with Helena Bonham Carter
While on a long bus ride driving through the one section of New York that looks the least like New York (full of nothing but highways and tall tree’s) one cant help but wonder ‘what am I getting myself into?’ A long bumpy bus ride through traffic is an important part of the package when it comes to Film Festivals, however, along with the uncertainty of what you will see. In my case, that would be a conversational panel in a small village in East Hampton as part of the “Hampton's Film Festival.” This particular panel, “A Conversation With Helena Bonham Carter”, is held in a tiny theater right at the edge of the small friendly town right beside a small beach and windmill overlooking a vast grey ocean. Overestimating her fan base largely, I arrive about four hours early thinking there would be a huge line to attend the panel. There was only three hundred people in attendance however, giving the panel a very intimate and relaxed feeling.
Before bringing out the guest speaker they play a reel showing the actresses many faces, busting through her many stereotypes while doing so. Ones that say she is strictly a merchant Ivory actress, or that she only works for Tim Burton. The woman on the big projection screen doesn’t seem to be strictly anything, however. She transforms from a big headed queen to the queen of England, a tightly corseted child to a wicked witch, and a blonde haired cleaner to a conniving receptionist, The connection between them being a certain insanity. “I love insane people. I find I’m more drawn to them. There is so much more to uncover” The puffy haired woman on the screen announces in a clip from a 2010 interview.
The images on screen pale in comparison to the woman herself, who draws in the audience with her hilarious and charming yet shy demeanor. Her responses are given between gulps of her many drinks and between microphone adjustments as she shrinks further and further down the chair she claims to be too uncomfortable . “The lights are so bright I can’t focus, and usually the chairs are a bit more comfortable…” She critique’s the interview immediately, making the crowd and even the nervous interviewer laugh, breaking all the tension in the room. The celebrity gives off a comfortable and relaxed persona with crossed bare legs, a dark floral dress under a light green cardigan that continuously slips down her arm, and long chocolate colored dreads that drape over her shoulder like a messy veil. Effortlessness leaks from every movement and the conversation stays relaxed and casual throughout the hour.
We learn a lot about the actress’s courses of study, none of which involve actual acting classes. ‘Ape school’ and ‘singing school’ are among the most interesting and “surprisingly useful” classes in Helena’s life; both brought on from film collaborations with her partner, Tim Burton. “Planet of the apes” was their first film together and contrary to popular belief the two didn’t connect on the film set. “No” she laughs “ It didn’t really happen that way. Tim is very-very shy and he doesn’t speak much. He speaks more now. But then he would always just come up to me and (her hands spring from her lap to fly around as if she is signaling a plan) rather then speaking and he never finished a sentence, he was just this walking expression. So we really only had one conversation.” A lot of what draws her to the film is intuition and instinct “My agent asked me why I wanted to do the film and I told him ‘don’t ask me why, I just know I have to do it. And I was right…. And not because of the script. And not for Ape school. So take that as a lesson, always trust your gut and follow your instincts. That’s how I met the father of my children.” Eventually the director courted her in a very slow Victorian style, the actress recalls, but feels the need to remind us that things are different now obviously “Then we got two kids” causing the audience to giggle at the actress as she blushes and grins proudly.
The relationship started when Burton was in deep mourning over the death of his Chihuahua ‘Poppy’. She hesitates in the middle of her memories of her and Tim’s beginning “This is all really personal stuff…” but continues on, anyway, to the audience obvious relief. “So I phoned him just to give my condolences, we were just about to do British press, and he just said ‘Well do you want to go out to dinner?’ I said … ‘what? He finished a sentence!’ The audience laughs at the shocked look on her face now, showing us her exact expression after the phone call. “He swears to this day he had no ulterior motive. Only that he was touched someone cared about his dead dog. And I don’t know what happened but it definitely happened that night, but my whole world turned and I thought ‘oh my god this is going to be significant. That’s when it happened.”
In the mix with acting like an ape and learning to sing is learning to function in a tightly laced corset. Corsets were a huge part of her early life in Merchant Ivory films and after finally breaking free from that genre (most notably as Marla Singer in ‘Fight Club’) she hasn’t broken free from corsets themselves. “I’m a big fan of corsetry!” Helena admits, taking another sip of her diet coke, which spirals us into another story about her caffeine addiction, telling us she couldn’t function without it “I’m a total sloth. In fact I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed without my caffeine fix. Tim calls me ‘bush baby’ (a type of monkey that spends most of its days sleeping) for the amount I can sleep!” This shocks everyone since the woman in front of us seems bursting with energy…. The again she does sip from diet coke and coffee between responses.
When asked about her technique’s in acting, Helena shares a particularly interesting insight. “I always use a part of the director in the character I’m portraying. It is their movie and vision, after all, so bits of them are in each character, and it’s my job to show that. I used so much of David Fincher (director of fight club) in Marla…. He probably hates me saying this but he is so Marla Singer.” Many questions and thoughts spring forth from her statement, but before anyone can question her further she moves on to talk about what school she would open if she could, that being the school of ape singing and corsetry, of course!
The interview is not ended by the journalist sat across from her but by the film festival participants who have other panels and shows to rush to, and I cant help but feel upset that this interesting and entertaining woman is being walked out on. I soon realize, however, as Helena sits up in her chair to stretch and take a big drink from her water bottle that she is probably relived to be free of the crowd. Only seconds pass before audience members swarm around her, drawn to her friendly personality like moths to a flame. Her body guard gets her out of the crowd as quickly as he can as a few fans pass her notes or presents (the most notable being a large home made doll of Helena’s latest portrayal as a brothel Madame in ‘Lone Ranger’) earning them a sweet smile and a ‘thank you’ from the woman who seems to shrink in the crowd as she makes her way to the exit, leaving every person left in the small room with a smile on their face. Keeping up the tradition of years and years of Film Festival attendants, me and a couple good friends go out for coffee immediately after and find that we cant help but gush about how great the panel was and that we even learned a few things about good acting and film making, along with getting a lot of laughs. It goes without saying that the long journey to the Hampton’s was made completely worth it by Helena Bonham Carter.