Helena Bonham Carter came to fame in 1986 with the film “Lady Jane,” portraying Lady Jane Grey who sat on the English throne for all of nine days in 1553. This year, she could well win the Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in “The King’s Speech” as Britain’s longest-living royal, Queen Elizabeth, consort to George Vi.
She spoke to Gold Derby from her home in London about the challenges of playing “a woman everyone knows — she lasted a century.” Carter admits, “it is always intimidating when you are playing a real person and doubly so when you are playing someone everyone recognizes.” To overcome this, the actress, who had only three weeks to prepare, scoured the many biographies of the monarch so that she “could get beyond the mannerisms.” But, as she wryly observes, “you can’t go to her daughter (Queen Elizabeth II) and ask about her, you have to wade through and distill what you think to get to the essence of the woman.”
In her research, Carter discovered, “It wasn’t love at first sight. She refused him twice and the third time she said yes. She did genuinely come to love this man and they had a very good marriage. They were somewhat opposites. She had a fundamental confidence that he didn’t.” And, because Carter was filming the final “Harry Potter” pictures, she says that, “like the Queen Mum, I turned Tom (Hooper, director of “The King’s Speech”) down three times. I want to see my children at some point.”
She eventually relented and was the devilish Bellatrix during the week and the Queen on the weekend. While she says, “I always love playing people who haven’t grown up” (like Bellatrix and the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland”), “the Queen Mother is a proper woman, a mature woman, a mother, quite apart from being the ultimate supporting wife.”
While she has spent much of the past decade making films with her partner director Tim Burton, including “Alice in Wonderland,” Cater says she is available for other work. Indeed, she cheekily reminded the audience of this at the Hollywood Film Awards in November when she picked up her first prize for “The King’s Speech.”
Since then, she has won the British Independent Film Award and is a nominee at the Critics Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards. Carter, who is all but certain to get an Oscar nomination on Jan. 25, currently ranks a strong second in our pundits predictions. For her performance in “The Wings of the Dove,” she contended for Best Actress in 1997 and was one of four Brits — along with Julie Christie (“Afterglow”), Judi Dench (“Mrs. Brown”) and Kate Winslet (“Titanic”) — to lose to the lone American in the race, Helen Hunt (“As Good As It Gets”).
To listen to the full transatlantic call with Helena Bonham Carter, click the right-pointing arrow below. Unfortunately, at moments during it, London really does come through as Foggytown.
Photo: Helena Bonham Carter at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA)