Exclusive: Helena Bonham Carter on The King’s Speech

When you talk to actress Helena Bonham Carter, it’s easy to feel like you’re in the presence of film royalty, which may be why this year, she’s played two very different royals, the Red Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and now Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech.

Her role in the movie, which many already feel will earn her a second Oscar nomination, is as support to Colin Firth’s Albert, the Duke of York, the son of Michael Gambon’s King George V whose impedimentary stammer keeps him from being able to speak to the people and live up to his father’s expectations. His wife Elizabeth finds her husband an unconventional speech therapist in Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue, and the relationship between the two men evolves over their months working together until Albert inherits the throne and must lead his country at his greatest tie of need as it enters into its second war with Germany.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Ms. Bonham Carter for a fairly brisk and casual interview with her lounging on the couch before a day of TV interviews, and we were able to cover a lot of ground including her working relationship with her regular directing partner and whether she might appear in one of his upcoming projects. Like her character in The King’s Speech, she answered our questions with her wonderfully dry wit.

ComingSoon.net: How were you approached to play…
Helena Bonham Carter: The Queen Mum? Tom asked me to do it. He sent it to me, pretty certain, and I said, “Wow, great part for the boys.” (laughs) But I did think she was written with great wit and dryness, but I did have other obligations and duties, because I was doing “Harry Potter” at the same time, so I did say, “No.” It’s kind of like the Queen Mum turned Bertie’s marriage proposal down twice and the third time she accepted, and that was kind of like me and Tom really. I kept saying “No.” In fact, I don’t think I said “Yes” but I ended up on the set, dressed as the Queen Mum.

CS: Were you able to get around your “Harry Potter” schedule?
Bonham Carter: You know what they did? It was completely illegal and really quite risky. In fact, fantastically risky. “Harry Potter” never released me. They said “Even if you work on weekends, we get first choice,” so potentially, I could have brought down “The King’s Speech.” (laughs)

CS: They were obviously shooting two movies but you aren’t in every scene, but they also have these big battles featuring everyone…
Bonham Carter: They have mega-scenes, but there was a lot of weather problems on “Harry Potter” and David Barron, who is fantastic and a great friend, he did everything to try and release me, but he said, “It’s just not working, there’s just too much risk.”

CS: It’s a great role and you’ve played queens before…
Bonham Carter: Yeah, I just do queens lately and witches.

CS: When you get a role like this for a queen who has living relatives…
Bonham Carter: Yeah, it’s hard. You have a responsibility. Also to everybody else, because there’s so many people who know her and have a perception of her, so you’re sort of treading on semi-sacred ground, but having said that, everyone tends to remember the Queen Mother in her latter years. It never occurs to them that the Queen Mother had a youth.

CS: You may not have been alive then but was she very prominent when the King was in power? For instance, right now, you rarely see or hear much about Phillip.
Bonham Carter: No, I think it was very different because well, she was a Queen, he’s not King, and she was a very different relationship and they made a real partnership. There was a very strong relationship there, and I think our Queen is innately a very strong, dynamic woman whereas the whole issue with Bertie was that he wasn’t really born with the self-confidence that was needed to be King. Whereas the Queen Mother did have it, and it was a very symbiotic relationship where she had what he lacked and he drew from her in strength. And she was born to be public. She really was an expert at it. She was called the “Smiling Monarch.” She had to do a lot to bring back the monarchy into good grace and favor, because after the abdication, it was very shaky, and people thought it might go down. There’s a lot of post-revolution–all the revolutions in the 20th Century–it wasn’t looking good for the monarchy, and then the abdication happened and there was Hitler, it was looking very unstable, so she did a hell of a lot with the fact that she stayed in London during the war in the blitz–Buckingham Palace was bombed–there’s a lot that made her incredibly popular.

CS: You weren’t alive back then but had you heard any stories about King George and his stammer?
Carter: It was quite well known that he had a stammer obviously, because people heard him, and also, there was sort of a common belief that the Queen Mother always resented the brother-in-law and particularly Wallace (his wife), feeling that were it not for them, her husband would not have been King and would not have died quite so young, because it felt like the double duty of being King and a wartime King was just too much for his constitution.

CS: There was a moment of irony where you almost did this junket at the Waldorf Astoria where they have a Duke of Windsor suite.
Bonham Carter: Oh, did we? Oh, that would have been so beautiful. Which is so funny because I’ve stayed at the Ritz, and they have a Duke of Windsor room, too. Of course, he was in exile, so he spent so much time here and there were so many hotel rooms named after him.

CS: I assume you’ve met the Queen and I assume Prince Charles as well. Do you expect to meet them after they’ve seen this. What would you say to them if they tell you they’ve seen this?
Bonham Carter: I hope so. I mentioned it to Prince Charles–he was at the premiere of “Alice”–and he was very intrigued, very interested. I can’t but think that it’s all done with immense respect and compassion, so hopefully they’ll approve of it. Having said that, I’m sure we got so many things wrong. I find that would try to be a travesty of my father – if I saw a biopic of my Mum or my Dad, it’s bound to get things wrong, and it all ends up being a bit of a cartoon, but I hope they’re moved by it as much as anybody else.

CS: When Tom approached you, had he told you his own story of how he found the project?
Bonham Carter: Well, he told me about his Mum and he told me about the Australian, sort of his own national schizophrenia…

CS: Did he tell you how his Mom saw a reading of the play and told him it would be his next movie?
Bonham Carter: Yeah, yeah. It sounds a bit like my Mom. “This should be done, this should be done.”

CS: What about David, the screenwriter’s story?
Bonham Carter: I think it’s so inspiring. I love the fact that David was so inspired and given hope by this man who felt such a failure, and hopefully in turn so many people out there will now be re-inspired by this man and his courage and feel okay about their own… whether it’s a stammer or something else that makes it difficult to communicate or makes them feel like they’re different. Or produces terror. I mean, everyone has a degree of terror. We all suffer sometimes from disabling terror, so I think it’s not just a Royal Family story. It’s very humane.

CS: I’ve always been fascinated by the connection between actors and royalty, especially British actors, because invariably, whether it’s doing Shakespeare or a film, there’s this desire to play royalty. What’s the draw of it?
Bonham Carter: For me? Well, I can just sort of order people around and have my way, so it was really fun playing the Red Queen, I can tell you that. It is really fun, but I think as your job, which is always the job of an actor, is to humanize them and to get past the veneer, the exterior that everybody else is privy to.

CS: I guess when you’re playing a queen and you’re bossing people around, you can just say that you want to stay in character.
Bonham Carter: Yeah, I loved it. “Coffee!” They’re commands, you don’t need to have your manners, but the Queen Mother was an expert at being so polite and her grace was extraordinary.

CS: At least from the movie, it seemed like she was better at being in touch with the people.
Bonham Carter: She had that common touch. I mean, everyone goes on about Diana, but she was the one who initiated it, partly I’m sure because she felt she had a duty to bring it back in fashion or popularity.

CS: Because I’m not in England, I don’t really see it as much. My only experiences with the Queen is when I’m in Leicester Square and I see all these people gathered there to see her car go by.
Bonham Carter: Well, she’s very present at Christmas, because she has to do her broadcast, and we’re pretty conscious of her, but it’s mostly at royal occasions and things. I have a lot of time for the Queen, and I think she’s a very natural person when you meet her, who does her job very well. And ironically, I think she would have been Queen anyway, because Edward VIII would never have had children because he had mumps.

CS: Going back to the difference between actors and royalty, there’s a thinner line now because actors are treated like royalty…
Bonham Carter: Yeah, probably much better than royalty, yeah, yeah. We’re given freedom, we can get out.

CS: But then royalty has become almost tabloid fodder, which is strange to me, because the monarchy is the highest authority and power in the country but the press can still put them in the tabloids and get away with it.
Bonham Carter: It’s free speech… I think it’s called “bitch speak,” which is just ridiculous, because I think everybody is up for it because it’s legitimate.

CS: I wanted to ask about working with Colin and Geoffrey, because Tom mentioned there being a “triangle of man-love”…
Bonham Carter: There was, I was completely left out!

CS: And he mentioned that you were somewhat jealous because the two actors were so close.
Bonham Carter: They were. I was just totally irrelevant, I was in the background eating my marshmallows yeah. (laughs) I ate for comfort.

CS: So how many days did you end up coming in to do your scenes with them?
Bonham Carter: I was basically… when Geoffrey was on, which was the first five weeks, I was only on for weekends really, because I was doing “Harry Potter” and then he left and then finally Colin noticed me.

CS: I know actors tend to hate being asked about the Oscars, because there’s very little you can say without sounding ungracious…
Bonham Carter: It’s out of my hands.

CS: How do you feel, having done this a few times and having gone through that circuit?
Bonham Carter: I dunno. It’s a bit early to say, because nominations haven’t even come out.

CS: Oh, you’ve already won according to some people.
Bonham Carter: Oh, really? No, actually, a friend did say… But how do I feel about it? Look, if I get another job out of it, I’d be very happy. That’s really why I’m interested in it is that it’s another nice job.

CS: Are awards sometimes a necessary evil to help movies get seen?
Bonham Carter: I think in this case, yes, and there are lots of films that… well, no, it’s completely a marketplace, so any film… it’s word-of-mouth, so if more people get to see it, yeah. I mean, you’ve got a responsibility because filmmaking is so incredibly expensive, you need to get people to see it, try and make your money back.

CS: Speaking of other jobs, is it safe to assume you’ll do more with Tim?
Bonham Carter: No, it’s not safe to assume. (laughs)

CS: Because I know he’s doing “Dark Shadows” and “Frankenweenie” and I figure either could use your talent. How does it work in terms of when you decide to do something with him or vice versa?
Bonham Carter: I think if it’s appropriate, he’ll ask me, and if it isn’t, he won’t. I think there’s also other issues to consider. We have children and is it wise for both of us to be working and things like that.

CS: Do you generally have your respective agents come by and meet in the hallway connecting your houses and work out the deal?
Bonham Carter: Most of the time, yes. No, no, no, Tim will go through official routes. He won’t actually just… we never abuse our position of intimacy.

The King’s Speech opens in select cities on Friday, November 26. Stay tuned for our interview with director Tom Hooper.

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