Kissing the 19th Century Goodby : With “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ behind her, Helena Bonham Carter vows to get away from period movies. But she’s done so well as the prim and proper English lady. (Except for the stripping thing.)
Helena Bonham Carter, whose face one might think could save the British film industry if there were a British film industry, is sitting on a bench somewhere inside the secret gardens of the Hotel Bel-Air, yes, having tea.
But as you get closer, the picture of her is not exactly right--or exactly Edwardian at least. The late-afternoon light rests softly on her rising cheekbones; she is wearing a muted floral print dress that reaches down to her black socks and white canvas sneakers; the beguiling pair of dark eyes and eyebrows are acutely familiar from her roles on screen as E.M. Forster heroines. But, but . . . two of her fingers are down inside that cup, poking into the hot water, pinching the tea bag to squeeze the essence of Twinings more to her liking. It is a practical method, but one nonetheless that would never go with cucumber sandwiches.
“The English know how to make tea, but I’m not a great tea drinker,” she says. “We don’t have regular tea in the afternoon at home.”
Helena Bonham Carter would like to point out, in fact, that she is not nearly so English or proper as some people assume after seeing her in “A Room With a View,” “Howards End” and “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” not to mention in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet,” playing Ophelia to Mel Gibson’s brooding prince.
She has certainly done some other un-Edwardian things, such as play the wife of Lee Harvey Oswald in an American television movie, take off her clothes as a working-class stripper in a British TV movie last year and, most recently, be cast as the wife of a New York sportswriter in Woody Allen’s new film, which has started shooting in New York. Can this be true?
“My brother got married at the beginning of the month,” she says, retracing her recent jet-lagged itinerary. “I did the wedding, got totally drunk, then got on a plane the next morning and then started filming on the Woody Allen (movie) on Monday, which was stupid.” She says it was a nice wedding. “Very nice wedding. Very nice. Very romantic. You need to relax sometimes.”
But relaxation is over and now she has taken leave of the Allen set and flown into Los Angeles for the premiere of “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” director Kenneth Branagh’s foray into big-budget cinema for TriStar. She is the film’s leading lady, Victor Frankenstein’s adopted sister, Elizabeth, and the love of his life. Branagh himself plays Frankenstein and Robert De Niro the monster he creates in an attempt to cheat death.
A story this morning in the Wall Street Journal handicapping the fall movies has described her as an actress “known only to the art-house crowd,” a description she says suits her fine even though it was used against her in predicting the box-office potential for the picture. “I’m happy being an art-house person. I’d much rather that than the reverse. I’m not that famous, and frankly, I’d like to keep the fame in a sort of limited amount.”
Such words always sound eerie, as if sure to be followed by a crack of thunder and a lightning bolt when uttered within cruising range of Morton’s, and, as it happens, tend to carry an accent other than American.
“Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette?” she asks her interviewer. “I wonder if it’s illegal?”
Regular tea drinker or not, Bonham Carter, who attended the exclusive Westminster school in London, then passed up a university education to become an actress, comes from a prominent British political family. Her great-grandfather Herbert Henry Asquith was the last Liberal Party prime minister, the political leader of Great Britain at the outbreak of World War I.
“We’re not that posh, though,” she says. “There’s a misconception here that I’m very aristocratic, which I’m not. We have no country house, we’re not very blue-blooded. Another misconception about me is that I’m terribly English. But my mother is French-Spanish, and, in fact, my looks take after her, and yet (the British press) have resolutely called me ‘English rose,’ although I don’t have the blue eyes and the blond hair. I’m only 50% Anglo-Saxon, but they’ve been blinded by my name I guess. It sounds so English.”
She seemed the prime specimen of Edwardian nubility in the Merchant Ivory adaptations of Forster’s “A Room With a View,” in which she played the repressed young lady awakened to sex while on a holiday in Italy, and “Howards End,” in which she was Helen, the passionate sister driven to distraction by her concern for the unfortunate clerk put out of work by the imperious Anthony Hopkins.
But even these roles, she says, have been too quickly relegated in the movie press to limited status as period-piece decoration. “Helen was absolutely bonkers,” she says of her “Howards End” role. “I loved her. She’s off the wall and very up front and expressive, and yet people are determined to talk about me as being in period costume drama playing repressed characters. Well, I don’t think that’s totally accurate.”
As Bonham Carter unloads these minor frustrations and sets the record straight, she does so with a minimum of anger or irritation. At 28, she seems to have retained a capacity to be amused by the trials of show business. She laughs easily, in a low rumble that can go on for a sentence or two.
About her role in the Woody Allen picture, she says, “I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s contemporary, it’s a romantic love story, a comedy, and I’m attempting to be American and contemporary--indeed, I’m attempting to be contemporary .” Big laugh. “I’m his wife--from Mrs. Frankenstein to Mrs. Allen.”
In “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” her feverish gentility gives way to some bodice-ripping ardor in a role that Branagh and his screenwriters largely invented to add a romantic dimension to Shelley’s original horror story.
“I wasn’t actually that enthusiastic about playing this part to begin with because, for obvious reasons, it was another period role,” she says. “I’ve done a few too many period roles perhaps for my own good. At least in E.M. Forster they tend to be the central parts and they tend to be stronger than the men’s roles. But with a Gothic horror story they tend to be passive and rather like the damsel-in-distress kind of part. They don’t do the interesting things--like make the monsters, you know.”
Branagh talked her into it by promising to make Elizabeth his equal. The director did this by reconceiving Elizabeth as more like Mary Shelley herself.
“The biggest part of the script development was bringing her on screen,” Branagh says. “This was a remarkable woman, who eloped at 16 with a married man with two kids; at 19 she had written this nightmarish tale, was married to a superstar (poet Percy Bysshe Shelley); she lost kids in childbirth, her mother died giving birth to her; she was haunted by all these images. And she was Percy Shelley’s equal intellectually.
“So that was my idea, to bring Mary Shelley on board, have an equal partner who gives him an alternative to his obsession: work versus home, ambition versus love.”
Bonham Carter and Branagh met in 1988 when both took part in a poetry reading on a boat floating down the Thames. She saw him again when she worked with Branagh’s wife, Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for playing her sister in “Howards End.”
“But we’d never actually sat down and had a proper conversation, we figured out,” the actress says. “When I went up for the interview (for ‘Frankenstein’), it was all very, ‘Oh, love your work’ and ‘Yes, love yours,’ and that was it.”
Was it different working for a director who, unlike James Ivory, was also the leading man?
“It certainly was because he’s wearing funny clothes when he’s giving you notes. And the first day or so I was a little paranoid that while acting opposite me, he’s meanwhile taking notes about my bad acting. But it got better. Now I’m getting Ken one day and Woody another; I’m getting used to the director being the leading man.”
“I’ve always admired her,” Branagh says, “because she started right in the limelight. The idea of being in a movie like ‘Room With a View’ when you’re 18, you know, and hanging in there and getting better and not sort of being thrown by the whole thing is indicative of a very strong and resilient artist.”
Yet despite the international reputation she established in the decade since “Room With a View,” she apparently still was not a big enough star to make TriStar executives thrilled about Branagh’s choice. “I don’t think they wanted an English actress, let alone me, because I was too sort of art-housey for them,” she says. “I think a bit of an argument went on, but Ken got his way.”
On the phone from New York, Woody Allen recalls how he came to cast her in his new movie.
“I had only seen her in passing in some of those Merchant Ivory films and someone suggested her to me,” Allen says. “The question was, of course, could she be contemporary? I saw no reason why she couldn’t, but I wasn’t 100% sure. But as soon as you meet her, you realize she is a totally contemporary person who’s really been playing roles over the years.
“And when she’s free to play who she actually is, when she’s not bound in by corsets--not that she hasn’t done that great, she has--but in fact, I think she’s more potent, more interesting and more beautiful as a contemporary heroine. If I had known her then, she would have made a good character for ‘Bullets Over Broadway.’ ”
Bonham Carter has spent what she describes as a “really minimal” amount of time in Los Angeles, mainly for publicity purposes from time to time. “I can’t say that I know Los Angeles,” she says inhaling a cigarette deeply and pondering the subject at hand. “I wonder if there’s anything to know? I sort of feel there’s an empty center to it. It seems incredibly attractive and is very seductive given the weather and everything, although I don’t think I could live in a place that is quite so seasonless. And it is so completely different from where I come from, which is London.”
Back in London, she has attracted more than a little curiosity over the fact that she still lives with her parents in the house she grew up in. Her mother is a psychotherapist, her father a retired merchant banker.
“There’s no great psychological thing to it, though people try to make it into something more significant than it is. I mean, I just get on with them. My brothers moved out, married, and I didn’t. Also, I never went to university or drama school, which is when most kids move out. So it never really occurred to me. I always had a great amount of freedom and privacy--and I move around a lot. And they are exceptionally nice people.”
Still, this arrangement must propose a challenge for suitors? “Yes,” she says, “a bit. But once they meet them, they want to move in. My parents are very liberal and deeply unshockable.”
The movie in which she played the “strip-o-gram” stripper, “Dancing Queen” (which has not been seen in the United States), she insists is “definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
“But there’s nothing salacious about it. I got to be contemporary and working-class and took my clothes off--for obvious reasons. A lovely script, very funny. The attitude is so different toward television in England. We have very good television, very good writers, maybe because we have no movie industry.
“I did a strip to that ABBA song, ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Do You Want to Touch Me?’ by Gary Glitter. Haven’t you heard of Gary Glitter? He’s an icon of campdom. And it was a good thing to strip to. It went, ‘Do you want to touch me? There? Where? There? Yeah.’ It was pretty direct. It got the point over.
“I had Velcro hearts stuck in various strategic places that came off. It was great fun to do, although I could never get my bra off. It was probably deeply psychosomatic, but it had to happen on the beat, and I thought it would be quite funny to have a ‘strip-o-gram’ who couldn’t get her clothes off. But the director, for some reason, thought it was less effective than achieving the full exposure. Not that you see that much. You have about two frames worth. And I only had to do the top. Because frankly the bottom would have taken me so long.
” . . . I’m not a sort of natural show-off type, I don’t think, and I’d prefer, frankly, to lose myself or hide behind a character. And if I’m terrified, then that’s what saves me. Because you’re concealing yourself or you’re bringing out another part of yourself that you don’t show in your normal existence.”
In her normal existence, if it can be said that even art-house heroines have a normal existence, Bonham Carter listens to songs from Fred Astaire musicals, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong.
“I’m pretty un-hip. I’m not a particular fan of rock and roll and certainly this acid, migraine-inducing monotonous thing that’s going on. I don’t get it. I’ve got a bit of credibility with Eric Clapton. I’ve been listening to Jacques Brel, but he’s a bit for the suicide hour, I’d say.”
Judy Davis has been her role model since she saw her in “My Brilliant Career,” when she was 12. “That was my favorite film,” she says. “She’s been a heroine of mine.” The two finally acted together in the 1992 film of Forster’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread.”
“Jennifer Jason Leigh is somebody I admire a lot because she’s known for being different in her range of choices. That kind of sequence of roles I’d love to have access to. Which I think is getting there bit by bit. If I play it right. . . . I’m leaving the ingenue, girlie type and graduating into womanhood.”
And the fame thing she would like to keep at a comfortable distance. “Somewhere this side, miles, light years away from Julia Roberts, I think. And I think you can. The fame wasn’t the thing that attracted me in the first place, and it’s less attractive the more famous I seem to have got over the years.
“It’s true that people get trained in acting, but they don’t get trained to deal with fame. And they may be great at taking on other people’s personalities, but their own personality could use a lot of work.”