Lunching with Helena Bonham Carter at London’s exclusive Groucho club is quite an experience. A fabulous one. I intended eating, but after finishing her dish, the British actress whips mine from under me and proceeds to devour its contents. (She did ask.)
In between mouthfuls, she splutters: “Yeah, can you believe I’ve just done yet another one?” She’s talking about filming her third E.M. Forster novel. Her first, A Room With A View, was the vehicle which shot Helena to international stardom (and straight into psychoanalysis, she says).
Her latest is Forster’s masterpiece Howards End in which she stars alongside such greats as Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins and the “incredibly funny” Emma Thompson. In this Merchant Ivory production, Helena plays Helen, one of the orphaned Schlegel sisters who becomes involved with the materialistic Wilcox family.
Helena was never a fan of Forster’s at school “because teachers made it all rather clinical.” But making these novels come alive on screen is slightly more fun. Decking herself out in Edwardian period costume is something she’s become accustomed to, but certainly does not relate to. Her personal choice of clothing is a mess of bohemian rags, to say the least.
In fact, it would be an extreme error to mistake Helena for being anything like the romantic heroines she so often portrays.
“People always patronize me because they presume that I’m this fragile little person. It makes me so angry because I’m really rather bolshy,” insists the diminutive star (who has the tiniest hands I’ve ever seen).
So bolshy is she that, on a live TV show, she announced that Mel Gibson (with whom she starred in Hamlet) was very definitely unsexy! “He’s not a perfect male specimen,” she argues, “but he is hysterically funny.”
Helena loves anyone with humor. She herself is yearning to act in a comedy, but until recently has usually been typecast as the demure English rose. It dumbfounds her.
“English roses have blue eyes and blonde hair,” says the brunette with doe-like brown eyes. “I’m not even a true Brit because my mother’s half-French and half-Spanish.”
She wishes she was chosen for more zany roles like the one she played in Getting It Right, but realizes she’ll never be offered conventional sex-symbol roles because “I don’t have a great body – I’m short and I don’t have long legs.”
She also swears that she does not have any relatives in South Africa (although a certain guy is constantly featured in local society pages claiming to be her cousin).
“Weird! Maybe he says it because he’s under the common misconception that I’m an aristocrat, which my family most definitely is not! The only reason why we had a title is because my grandfather was made a prime minister,” explains Helena, who still lives with her parents in their London home.
Her mother’s a psychotherapist, her father – who’s been confined to a wheelchair since a brain tumor operation – is a merchant banker, and both her older brothers are investment managers. Acting did not run in their veins. Helena caught the bug from her school friends at Westminster School.
“There was a sort of fever in our class about wanting to become an actress,” she remembers. While the others went the “long and probably more sensible route” of going to university and drama school, Helena plunged into the deep end when at 18 she was offered the title role in Lady Jane Grey.
Now, in her mid-twenties, Helena recounts that her biggest nightmare in films has been baby scenes and she just had to complete one for Howards End.
“Either they upstage you or they cry… or you want to cry,” she laughs. “Think of the pain my arms are going through during the final scene of the movie – that baby boy I’m holding is really a very hefty 14 kilogram little girl and that shot took hours because the sun kept coming and going.”
The long monotonous hours spent waiting around on film sets are an aspect Helena would rather do without.
“But for now I’ll endure the tedium. It’s taken me so long to actually believe I belong in this profession that I think I should give it my best hot!”
UPDATE 2020: I interviewed Helena Bonham Carter several more times over the following few years – sometimes in hotel rooms with other journalists, other times on location. I have such fond memories of playing a board game – I don’t remember which – with her and Richard E Grant in her trailer on some movie location in England. They used to play it every day and were very good at it! It was so cosy, sitting on benches at a tiny table, looking out the misty trailer window onto the movie set on a grey English day… drinking coffee, and playing, laughing, talking and just being. Sometimes she’d spot me in a hotel, walking along a corridor to interview one of her co-stars and would jump out and say with genuine glee: “Hello, how are you?” She’s someone I would’ve loved to have become friends with – just because she’s so warm, interesting, interested and alive and funny… but I just never crossed that line. She also lived in Hampstead, where I lived, although I never told her… and I spotted her in I think Monsoon once, in the High Street. That was my moment to say “hey, hi, would you like to go for coffee”, but if I recall she was with a friend and so I ducked out the shop without her seeing me. If I had a Top 5 Best Celebrities in the World to Interview list – she would be in that list. Always gorgeous. One of the easiest, most gracious, funny, honest people to talk to. Conversations with her tumble as easily as a stream flowing down a mountain pass. And she listens. I’ll never forget the time she took to help a heartbroken journalist from Asia who was trying to understand love and the pain of a break up.