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'Ocean's 8's' Helena Bonham Carter says it's about time she did a heist film

'Ocean's 8's' Helena Bonham Carter says it's about time she did a heist film
Actress Helena Bonham Carter, a two time Oscar nominee, stars in "Oceans 8." (John Ascroft)

“There’s no reason we were stretching credibility in being con artists,” Helena Bonham Carter says of “Ocean’s 8,” a new addition to the stylish “Ocean’s” franchise that sees eight women planning and executing a heist at the Met Gala.

The actress is sitting in a private room at London’s Soho House, stretched out on the couch as she reflects on her experience. “We can be as morally bankrupt as men,” she says and laughs. “That’s all we want to prove.”

Bonham Carter plays Rose Weil in the film opening Friday, a down-on-her-luck fashion designer whose financial troubles mean she’ll do anything — including join a crew of criminals planning to steal a Cartier necklace during fashion’s biggest night.

With two Oscar nominations (for “The Wings of the Dove” and “The King’s Speech”) and credits ranging from “A Room With a View” to “Alice in Wonderland,” Bonham Carter has been in the acting business for more than four decades, largely focused on film, and she is still astonished by the fact that it’s taken Hollywood this long to make a heist film with several female protagonists.

The main reason she agreed to the role is because she’d never done a heist movie before. But the idea of working alongside a female-led cast, which also includes Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Rihanna, was an unusual bonus. The cast assembled under the direction of Gary Ross (“The Hunger Games,” “Seabiscuit”), with Steven Soderbergh, who unexpectedly kickstarted the series with 2001’s hit remake “Ocean’s Eleven,” serving as a producer.

Bonham Carter, who calls Rose “the most unconfident con artist,” learned how to sew for the role, spending time with designers such as Gary Graham, Simone Rocha and Erdem. She also came in with some very specific ideas for the role.

“I played her Irish for absolutely no reason,” the actress says. “I had to convince Gary of two things: That I would go Irish and that I would have pink hair. He thought they were stupid ideas, but I got my way and by the end he was like, ‘You were absolutely right.’ The whole idea of a con artist is that they’re invisible, so I thought I’d make her as loud visually as possible.”

She adds, speaking with an Irish lilt, “When in doubt do an accent, that’s what I say. It can give you a whole different way of being.”

 
(L-R) HELENA BONHAM CARTER as Rose and MINDY KALING as Amita in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Village Roadshow Pictures' "OCEANS 8." Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros. Pictures

“She told me early on she wanted to ‘play Irish’ to capture a more fanciful quality in the character,” Ross says. “Helena can seem so wonderfully scattered that you don’t always realize how much thought and thorough preparation has gone into her process… She went to school on the craft of costume and fashion design. She was very specific about her pincushion and her bifocals. I embraced almost all of her ideas with the possible exception of large taxidermied animals.”

Though Bonham Carter is a fan of fashion (she regularly dons Vivienne Westwood for events and red carpets), she’s never attended the Met Gala, where the film’s heist takes place.

“I wouldn’t fly to New York for a party,” she says and shrugs. “I had been asked years ago and it was just like, ‘No.’ I do love fashion and it’s interesting how they collide — the fashion and film industries. It’s been completely hijacked by the fashion world. It’s all about who you’re wearing.”

She’s never been interested in having a stylist and, at the time of this interview a few weeks ahead of the film’s release, Bonham Carter is hoping to just wear her Dolce & Gabbana costume from the movie to its premiere instead of finding something new.

When told that most actors don’t select their own ensembles she looks horrified. “I do,” she says. “You can tell. People probably say, ‘That’s the problem.’ I couldn’t not. How could you not wear what you choose? I don’t want to let somebody dictate it. You’re being used.”

 
Helena Bonham Carter's character Rose at the Met Gala in "Ocean's 8." Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.

Despite the actress’ strong belief in being herself in the public eye, she often finds that acting is a way of trying to escape who she is. For her, acting comes from “generally wanting to get away from myself.” In a film you have complete control over a character’s fate.

“It’s on the page,” she notes. “How lovely is that? And you can leave all yourself behind. Or you can have the illusion of leaving yourself behind.”

Bonham Carter, who is readying herself to play Princess Margaret in seasons 3 and 4 of the Netflix series “The Crown” (opposite Olivia Colman as Elizabeth and Tobias Menzies as Philip) loves the beginnings of a role, where she can search for all the possibilities of playing that person. Her specificity with Rose, which also included asserting that she can speak fluent French for a key scene, is simply part of this discovery.

“The better the writing the more options and choices it offers on the page,” she says. “That’s the exciting thing. The hate bit for me is watching [the finished product] and one of the bliss moments is dissecting and looking at the page and coming up with choices and possibility and opportunities. It opens little bubbles of wonder.”

But that’s right, she can’t stand seeing the results of her work. “It’s revolting,” she elaborates. “It’s just like slit-your-wrists time. It’s like, ‘How can I ever get up tomorrow morning? I must give up. Note to self: Give up acting. Find other job.’ And then, of course, because nothing occurs to one the next day, it carries on. It happens every time. At least you have the knowledge of ‘OK, I’ve been through this, maybe this is a pathology.’”

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Bonham Carter is aware that “Ocean’s 8” arrives at an unprecedented time in Hollywood. She’s hopeful that things are changing for the better, and that Hollywood will continue creating stories that are led by women.

“I think there’s massively more awareness,” Bonham Carter says. “I think it’s massive what’s happening and it’s so exciting to be around, particularly having a daughter. By the time she grows up hopefully there’ll be more [equality]. But everyone has to keep on pushing and continue pushing. You can’t change a history or the habits of thousands of years in a year or two years or however long this groundswell has been going.”

The actress has also worked repeatedly with now-disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, including on the projects that brought her Oscar nominations, although she’s reluctant to say anything specific about him. She says he never crossed a line with her, nor has anyone else in her career. She’s stayed out of the #MeToo conversation, she says, because she doesn’t have a story to tell and doesn’t want to detract from the potency of others’ voices.

“I’ve been pretty vocal if people have got out of line,” Bonham Carter recounts. “I’ve had people make passes at me, but — this is when I was younger — when I made it clear I wasn’t up for it, they listened. So, luckily I haven’t had anything [happen]. It’s very lucky because I’ve been around a long time.” She pauses, thinking. “I’ve racked my brain, you know,” she continues. “And I don’t think so. Like, ‘Is one so brainwashed that one has whitewashed one’s memory?’ But no.”

 
Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna and Helena Bonham Carter in "Ocean's 8." Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.

Being part of a film like “Ocean’s 8” and exemplifying that women can rule the box office is all the stand Bonham Carter needs to take. Although she feels slightly behind the times with her younger, hipper co-stars like Mindy Kaling and Awkwafina, Bonham Carter recognizes the power of this group of actresses, who were put together specifically by Ross.

“We wanted this cast to reflect what the world really looked like – different ages, different cultural backgrounds,” the director notes. “Having said that, they all had to mesh and to complement one another. The ensemble itself was like a living organism. It’s the dynamics between them that makes it fun.”

“It was fun,” Bonham Carter confirms. “We’ve all got this ridiculous text group. They never shut up. I never understand a word they say, though, collectively. I think there is a cultural divide. Particularly with Awkwafina. I really have no idea what she’s saying. They all have these jokes. I’m a bit like Rose – I’m a step behind.”

She shrugs, gesturing to her phone, which has dinged several times in the past few minutes. “I’m like, ‘What’s everyone talking about?’”

calendar@latimes.com

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