Ophelia Is No Passive Wimp, Helena Bonham-Carter Believes

Helena Bonham-Carter was a bit wary when director Franco Zeffirelli cast her as the tragic Ophelia opposite Mel Gibson’s melancholy Dane in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

“I thought Franco would try to make me into this decorative thing,” the petite British actress explains. “But, in fact, he sort of allowed me to make her a strong character. She can be quite wimpy and passive. There is no space these days to play Ophelia too passive or too obedient or too vapid. She has to have spirit and character.”

Bonham-Carter, who previously appeared in “Lady Jane” and “Room With a View,” is annoyed with audiences’ usual reaction to Ophelia. “They want to dismiss her,” she says. “There’s not much compassion or respect for her. She is done a disservice and I wanted to champion her.”

The actress believes Ophelia goes mad because she is not allowed to have any sexual feelings. “Then Hamlet dumps on her all of these feelings about his mother,” she says. “If Hamlet had said, ‘I got a bit of a problem,’ it would have been great. He and Ophelia would have been able to talk about it. Instead, Ophelia thinks it’s all her fault--Hamlet’s madness and his rejection of her and his killing her father. She can just imagine it’s over her. I think it would be great to rewrite the play from Ophelia’s point of view.”


Ophelia’s death scene took four days to film. “I didn’t have any lines because I was dead, but it was difficult to stay still,” Bonham-Carter quips. It was also difficult not to laugh. “I didn’t laugh until it was my close-up. I had been lying there for four days and they had almost forgotten about me. Then Franco put the cameras on me and then he decides to have a wind blowing across my face. That was created by Franco blowing across me like a cherub. There’s a term called ‘corpsing’ in the business and that is when you break down in uncontrollable giggles. I gave new meaning to the word.”