Helena Bonham Carter 20 years ago when she was just Tim Burton’s better half

                             July 2003  By Philip Berk

Helena Bonham Carter has experienced more high and lows in her 37 years than anyone you can name.

Born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, she could boast an ancestry that included a celebrated British Prime Minister  (her great grandfather Herbert Asquith) and an equally famous director (her uncle Anthony Asquith.)

She never traded on their names; instead  as a teenager she toiled in her chosen profession.

Her first great fortune was being selected to play title role in Trevor Nunn’s historical drama Lady Jane

The film misfired, but a year later she appeared in James Ivory’s A Room with a View,  which established her as the most promising English actress of her generation.

Soon after she played Ophelia to Mel Gibson’s Hamlet.

And the next year again for James Ivory she costarred in Howards End, which earned an Academy Award for her lesser known co-star Emma Thompson.

By the time Thompson was ready to cast her celebrated version of Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility, Helena was rumored to be in a relationship with Emma’s husband (wunderkind Kenneth Branagh) so guess who was passed over for the role which won Kate Winslett an Oscar nomination!

Helena had met Kenneth when they worked together on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. 

Their love affair lasted five years and precipitated career high and lows for both.

Branagh won high praise for his three hour Hamlet but eventually settled for supporting actor status in film. In l997 Bonham Carter was the odds on favorite to win the Oscar for Wings of the Dove but that accolade slipped through her fingers and she settled for lesser roles. Eventually she and Branagh ended their relationship.

A turning point for Helena was Fight Club in which she was pursued by both Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.

The film won her renewed interest in Hollywood, and she was cast to play an ape in Tim Burton’s disappointing remake of Planet of the Apes.

The critics might have torn the film apart, but it made money and launched the most unusual love story of the year. 

In a scenario worthy of Tim’s many films, where the love triumphs over rejection, he and Helena fell in love.

Now, the two of them are not only living together, they are the parents of a healthy baby boy.

Both of them are in New York for the press junket of Tim’s latest movie, Big Fish,  in which Helena plays a one-eyed witch.

How did she come to be cast?

“Well for one, I sleep with him,” she jokes. “Actually I was one of the last people cast and in fact it was (producer) Dick Zanuck’s idea, although Tim later confessed that secretly he thought it was a good idea but was embarrassed to suggest his girlfriend. And that’s how it came to be.”

Was working together easier the second time round?

“It wasn’t that much different from working with him on Planet of the Apes. He’s very easy. He’s very light footed. You don’t do too many takes. He’s very specific about what he wants. The one thing that was different was the first day of shooting. He didn’t talk to me. He would walk straight past me and talk to Ewan (McGregor, the star of the movie.)  It was as if I didn’t exist, and at the end of the day he’d give Ewan lots of compliments and it would be just, ‘Ah yeah it’s all right,’ but then he admitted that he didn’t want to be seen to have any favorites, so I said I really didn’t think Ewan would mind.  But then he took it too far,  it was just too many compliments, so I had to say, ‘Stop it. It’s okay, it’s okay.”

So how has becoming a mother changed her life?

“It’s changed everything. Everyone told me it would, and, of course, I didn’t really listen, and there’s no real way of describing it. It’s like an explosion of everything, heart, love, everything – and it’s extraordinary. Maybe because I’m still in the early days, and I am very obviously breast-feeding so you live from feed to feed. It is all-consuming.”

Will they live in London or move to Hollywood?

“I think we’ll always live in London but you never know where your life is going to take you, but we’re very happy and he’s always felt happy there. When we were just sort of director and actress doing small talk on Planet Of The Apes, he asked me where I lived, and when I told him Hampstead, he said that was where they shot Sleepy Hollow and that was the place he really felt he belonged. Not Burbank, California, Hampstead.”

What is the baby’s name

“Billy Raymond Burton.’

How helpful is her mother?

“She’s been helpful but prefers them when they get to the toddler stage.”

Is this her first grandchild?

“No, it’s no.7. My brothers have six children, so she’s a grandmother for the seventh time but it’s lovely for me. It’s opened up another realm in our relationship, me and mum. I perceive her in a different light altogether now that I’ve had a baby of my own.”

What can she say about Tim. Is he as shy as he appears?

“Obviously not with me, but he’s more verbal than you think. It’s just that sometimes he gets so excited, his mouth can’t keep up with his brain. And because he’s very physical, he expresses a lot with his hands. He’s also so mobile he paces up and down. On the film they gave him a pedometer because he was constantly pacing up and down – and just on the set he did 200 miles in three weeks.”

Has becoming a father changed him?

“He is very warm, very tender, and, like me, he is utterly changed by becoming a parent. The obstetician said he had never seen someone so completely transformed by becoming a parent, and it was lovely to watch.”

(In his separate interview Tim, who was in the delivery room, jokingly called  the delivery his “personal Alien.”)

In Big Fish Ewan McGregor expresses his love by showering his betrothed with a hillside of daffodils.

What romantic thing does Tim do for her?

“That scene is very autobiographical. He’s very romantic and does long-stemmed velvet roses whenever he feels guilty, and even when he’s not feeling guilty. There are lots of thing in the film that are very personal but not something I’ll share with anybody.”

Big Fish is about parents and children. 

Since her mother’s a psychotherapist, she must have given her a lot of advice. Can she remember any?

“You’re right my mum’s full of advice. And she’s pretty good. She’s always banging on about living in the now, which can take a lifetime to work out. Another piece of advice she dispenses, ‘There’s not just one day. There might be many days. You can’t always do something for yourself or help yourself, but there’s never a day you can’t do something for somebody else. That’s a good one when you feel a bit fed up.”

Is she still as rebellious, even eccentric, as she once was?

Somewhat surprised by the question, she ponders.

“Rebellious? Yeah! Eccentric? Possibly. I don’t know because I think I’m normal just like Tim thinks he’s normal. I guess, everyone else thinks he’s eccentric but actually he’s very normal apart from a few things. His glasses, maybe. But  I don’t really think about what I’m like.”

For the record, when she made Frankenstein, Branagh was still  married to Emma Thompson, and when she worked on Planet of the Apes, Burton was in a ten year relationship with Lisa Marie, who appeared in a number of his movies including The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, Mars Attacks!, Ed Wood and Planet Of The Apes.

At the time she was called a home-wrecker and husband stealer. 

She of course denied both allegations.