Helena Bonham Carter: ‘I love my home, my bed, my book, and sleeping’

The Hampstead resident on her home comforts- and playing a deranged Dickensian character

When Helena Bonham Carter was asked by director Mike Newell if she would like to play Dicken’s tragedy queen Miss Havisham in his new film, Great Expectations, the first thing he said was that she was not actually 78 years old.

‘If you look at the book, she’s probably only 37 when we meet her,’ says Bonham Carter, 46, the ninth actress to play Miss Havisham on film. ‘She’s an icon but she’s not a crone. She is a lonely, tortured, anguished woman, troubled and fascinating.’

The iconic Miss Havisham, who was swindled out of her money and left at the alter at twenty minutes to nine, spent her last years, still dressed in her wedding dress, in her decaying country mansion.

‘Take away the age thing and there’s still a lot going on with her,’ the actress points out. ‘She’s very ill, mentally, for a start. I became a real swot when researching the role, and spoke to several psychiatrists and experts on osteoporosis. She has been inside for 15 years, so she would have had no vitamin D in her body and she’d have a failing eyesight.

‘I like all the illness, because when you play characters who are so damaged you really wonder what made them get to this point.’

As is her way, she had a perfume made up that she thought Miss Havisham might wear. Her co-star Jeremy (War Horse) Irvine, who plays Pip, describes it as floral but not bright.

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‘There are so many interesting sides to this character,’ Bonham Carter continues. ‘She is pathologically grief-struck, but is totally narcissistic. It’s all about her — people do get their hearts broken and most people survive.’

As has Miss Bonham Carter, admirably.

First discovered playing English roses and ‘corset bimbos’ in films based on E M Forster’s novels made by people like Merchant Ivory, Helena Bonham Carter, with her recent choice of wild and wonderful films like Alice in Wonderland and Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, has definitely planted her feet in the “kooky” zone. And, she remarks firmly, she’s very pleased to be there.

‘With my brown eyes, full lips and dark hair, I hardly look like an English rose,’ she says with a smile. ‘After all, my mother’s side of the family is French and Spanish.

‘I don’t know how the rose “thing” happened! For years I was trapped as a corset bimbo with a parasol and layered with petticoats. Now I’m “kooky”. However, every so often a fantastic and well-written role requiring a corset, bone china cups and cut-glass accent comes up and tempts me back into English rose mode and I can’t say “no”.’ A role like Miss Havisham.

Bonham Carter is still as beautiful as she was when Trevor Nunn cast her in the title role of Lady Jane as she was finishing her A-levels in 1985. With her soulful eyes, pale porcelain skin and singular pout, hers is a face you tend not to forget.

She never did any formal training but aged 13 overheard a school pal who had a job in the TV series Grange Hill, talking to her agent on the phone.

‘I got an overwhelming surge of envy,’ she says. ‘It was enough to propel me to phone the agent myself and get on her books.’

She then won a poetry contest and used the money to pay for photographs and an entry in the actors’ directory “Spotlight” and at 16 made her debut on TV.

Since then Bonham Carter has worked successfully on both sides of the pond, Oscar nominated in 1997 for The Wings of the Dove and 2010 for The King’s Speech. First she captured the best corset roles and then expanded her range from big studio pics like Fight Club with Brad Pitt to small French films like Portraits chinois (she’s fluent) and even played Woody Allen’s wife in Mighty Aphrodite. And, of course, the witch Bellatrix Lestrange, in the Harry Potter films.

Born in London, into one of Britain’s best-known families (her great-grandfather was Lord Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister between 1908 and 1916), she didn’t leave the family home, a large London “country house”, until she was 32. She now lives in North London, with Tim Burton, 54, the American director of many Oscar fame. They met in 2001 making Planet of the Apes in which she played a chimpanzee named Ari. She has since appeared in several of his films, although she hastens to add that “nepotism gets nowhere with him”.

‘If we work together we have to abide by a set of rules. We try to keep work talk out of the house and away from the family.’

She and Burton split their lives between London and Los Angeles and have endeared themselves to many couples by choosing to live in adjacent houses with a connecting doorway because they felt they could not live in the same residence.

‘Tim needs his own sense of space. He is very private, shy and contained,’ she says. ‘He’s an insomniac and watches TV all night. I adore silence. I love my home, my bed, my book, and sleeping. He’s always visiting me and the children.’

They have two children, Nell, 5, and Billy Ray, 9, whose godfather is Johnny Depp. Both children have had cameos in Burton films and their mother says they aren’t afraid of the monsters and fantastic CGI scenes in their dad’s pictures.

Burton and Bonham Carter have the distinction of being one of cinema’s most important couples. She was awarded a CBE by the Queen earlier this year and last month they received the hallowed BFI Fellowship for their services to film.

And, also, with their wild hair and eccentric outfits, they are one of the most striking couples in the industry.

‘People seem to think I’m an eccentric dresser and have unusual dress sense,’ she says with a shrug. ‘I don’t think I’m oddly dressed. I’m always happiest pretending to be someone else. Preferably someone a bit strange,’

Great Expectations is released on Fri 30th Nov