Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton have been dating for years, but that doesn’t mean the director just gave her the female lead role in Paramount Pictures’ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Burton had her audition on tape for him and composer Stephen Sondheim. Carter was so passionate about the project, she learned to sing for the role of the pie-making Mrs. Lovett.
She talked to ShockTillYouDrop.com in London about the audition process and what the experience of working with Burton again was like.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: It seems that the collaboration between you and Tim, both personally, and professionally – is a match made in heaven.Â Does he bring out the best in you as an actress?
Helena Bonham Carter:Â Though it couldn’t be said necessarily about every day on “Sweeney Todd.” There were some days where it was pretty hellish, frankly.Â I think he’s very good at getting a good performance out of me, even if I don’t agree with him all the time.
Shock: How do you settle these arguments?
Carter: I usually end up doing what he tells me.Â Yeah.Â If he’s the director, I’ll do what he tells me. But at home…
Shock: So, it’s true that you dreamed to be Mrs. Lovett since age 13?
Carter: Well, it’s true – it wasn’t like, consciously thinking, “God, I love Mrs. Lovett,” every single day of my life since 13.Â But I saw it when I was 13.Â When I first heard it, I was 13.Â And I loved it, and I loved the score.Â Before it had come over, it was in America, New York.Â And I loved it.Â I actually loved all the men’s tunes.Â They’re the beautiful ones.
Shock: What was the audition process like?
Carter:Â [Tim] came to me and he said over dinner once, “I am gonna do ‘Sweeny Todd,'”Â which we both knew we loved.Â It was one of our mutual passions was the musical.Â I remember when were getting together, we played it.Â We courted over “Sweeny Todd.”Â He knew that I’ve always wanted to sing.Â So, he said, “Look, how about this?Â I think you’re right for it. I want you to be considered, because you shouldn’t not be considered just because you go out with me.Â However, you’re gonna have to audition along with anybody else who wants to.” And so he said, “You know, it’s up to you.”Â And I said, “Of course I’ll go for it.” If I don’t get the part at least I’ll have learned to sing.Â Or, you know, had the voice lessons that I’ve always wanted to do anyway.Â So, I went to a singing teacher.
Shock: So, you had the voice lessons in order to prepare for the audition?
Carter:Â And [Stephen] Sondheim.Â That was the other thing.Â Tim said, “On top of that, I don’t have ultimate approval.Â It’s Sondheim who ultimately casts.”
Shock: Was that scary?
Carter: It was scary.Â I just had no choice, ’cause I so loved Sondheim.Â I love the part. And I love the material and the music and the lyrics, and he’s a genius.Â I just thought, “I can’t lose.” It’s a tall order anyway, to learn to sing in three months.Â I thought, if I don’t, I’ll have a good excuse if I don’t get it. So I did it. I auditioned for Tim on video.Â And he didn’t talk about it for five weeks.Â That was tough.Â Then he auditioned other people, didn’t talk about it.Â We didn’t talk about it.Â It was like the elephant in the room for five weeks.Â And then finally he said, “You know what?Â I think you are right.Â You can sing this part.” Then luckily Sondheim, a week later, saw them and he agreed with Tim.
Shock:Â Is it hard for you not to take it personal when you have a relationship with Tim, and you have to audition for him, and you guys don’t talk about it?Â Is it hard when you know he’s auditioning other people, and you want the part so badly?
Carter: Yeah. It was tough, but I also knew it was my part so I had to just swallow. I didn’t want to be cast if I was not up to it.Â I would have hated it. It would have been horrible for the film, and horrible for me and horrible for us.Â So we just had to go through that.
Shock:Â When you first saw the play at 13, what was it that you liked about this, the story?Â This was my very first time seeing it, and I thought it was disturbing, but I also thought it was so beautiful and so touching.Â But at 13, I don’t know if I would have felt that way.
Carter: I think, to be honest, the music.Â For some reason, viscerally, the music. There are such beautiful tunes, frankly.Â And there’s a yearning, and there’s a sort of romance to it.Â And humor.Â “Pretty Women” and “Johanna” – I loved “Little Priest,” too.Â I just loved the music.Â And it’s so heart-rending.
Shock: How tough a character is this to play?Â She’s very tormented and very tragic.
Carter: Well, what I loved about it [is that] she was so complex.Â She could have so many different colors.Â You could still play it billions of different ways.Â That’s always the exciting thing with a part when it’s well-written, is that so many different ideas occur to you.
Shock:Â Do you think she’s the baddie in this story?
Carter: I don’t think she’s a baddie.Â I think they’re both victims, in a way. She’s got no excuses for what she does.Â He’s obviously innately a victim, given what’s happened to him.Â So you can kind of justify his killing. You see a reason behind it.Â You know, a powerlessness, and he goes off the end.Â And she’s amoral, and it’s not quite explained why she’s quite so – innate – she’s pretty mad and delusional herself.Â
Shock: But also she’s so in love with him.
Carter: Well, she’s totally in love with him and that’s her tragedy.Â She’s in love with somebody who doesn’t even notice her.
Shock: You do a bit of baking in the film.Â Do you do that in your life as well?
Carter:Â Not a huge amount. I did get taught how to make pies.Â I love that bit.
Shock:Â Were those real insects?
Carter: Those bugs?Â Yeah, they were – they had some real ones.Â I wasn’t into picking them up and there’s some worms. I had fun choosing them, because I just thought at one point we were going to have a rat. But then when they came to the real ones, they had a dead…they had frozen the cockroaches, so they were actually technically dead flies. But a lot of them were CGI.Â Because – you know, everything had to be done to beats.Â To the rhythm.Â We couldn’t find any musical flies.
Shock: You know, Angela Lansbury said years ago that this character not only has intricate lyrics and melodies to deal with, but there are times when she has to integrate them with very detailed stage business.Â And you had the same challenge in the movie.Â How tricky was that?
Carter: You had to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse it, and practice it.Â Because it’s different.Â Because on stage, you have to do it all in one.Â On film, you know it’s going to be cut around.Â But because it’s cut around, you have to do it in continuity.Â So you have to really learn it back to front, to know when you’re gonna pick up the rolling pin.Â When you’re gonna smash it – smash the dough.Â It’s all written into the music.Â The pie making is written into the rhythm of the music. All the off-beats are smashing the pasty, but it all had to be decided which bit was I gonna roll the pastry out, and which beat had to be what.Â And you obviously had to do it immaculately the same every single time you did it. Â It’s hard.Â It was hard.Â
Shock: Â Do you find it increasingly difficult to balance your duties as a mother to finding challenging work as an actress, and getting that balance right?
Carter: Well, I will now, now that the number two’s coming.Â I sort of felt I got a bit off balance now, and then I got pregnant again and it’s gonna be difficult the first couple of years.
Shock: Â Have you discovered a new legion of fans now that you’re a member of the “Harry Potter” clan?
Carter: Lots of young people.Â It’s sweet. It’s touching how little kids are just like, “Oh my God.”Â [They are] a little bit scared of me, for no reason.
Shock: Â Would you do another musical?
Carter: I’d like a shot.Â I wouldn’t necessarily do one on stage, because I think you’d have to do it on a stage every night, the vocal strength and stamina you need is totally different.
Shock: Can you talk about working with Johnny Depp in this movie? There’s not one moment in the film, I think, where he’s happy at all. Was that challenging at all?
Carter: No.Â Kind of like Tim. Back home. On set he was smiling.Â At home, it was – you know…
Shock: Back in their reality, they were lovers.
Carter: No, I think in her head they were lovers.Â They weren’t really lovers.Â I was thinking, “Well, she wishes…”Â He never even looked at her.
Shock: I read a story that they were a couple and lovers.
Carter: I think that was a myth that they existed at all. There’s no real evidence that they ever existed. It would be fun to think that.Â But there are some productions that they play them…that after “Little Priest” they become lovers.Â And they’re lovers ’til the end. [He’s] not very interested, but he just goes along with it. But in this one, obviously, Sweeney barely notices me or even answers my questions.Â No.Â I’ll say he was much more thoughtful off-camera. He did answer me.