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Helena Bonham Carter on Terrifying Children

In her partner Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Helena Bonham Carter plays a terrifying Red Queen, dressed in increasingly curious outfits that are still just barely more wild than what she wears on the red carpet. We spoke with her about how she terrifies her son — and why she resents Burton’s relationship with Johnny Depp.

So many kids are going to have nightmares about you, as Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films, and now as the Red Queen …
Yes! I’m certainly just imagined as a terrorist, really. An imaginary terrorist.

What do your kids say?
Nell is 2 now; she’s a robust heart. Billy’s a couple of years older but was more freaked out. Boys tend to be more fearful. I’m afraid, sir, we are the bolder sex.

What do you do to make the Red Queen scary, but not too disturbing?
She can’t quite say her R’s properly. I thought that would make her more a figure of fun than purely terrifying, and quite childish actually. But I’m always a little bit jealous because Tim lets Johnny do everything. With me it’s like, “No! Less! You’re way over the top!” And you’ll just be like, “Well, Johnny gets away with it … ”

Why all the beheading?
It’s like Tourette’s. Whether the floors are dirty or someone’s betrayed her, it’s the same resolution: “Off with her head!” It solves everything.

In the film, your head seems bizarre.
I had a special camera to make my head bigger. So she’s constantly jealous of anyone with a normal-size head — that’s why she keeps on chopping them off.

Was it tough to make Alice for Disney without drug references?
I know Tim and Disney had a problem with the smoking and the caterpillar. I think there’s a Disney edict that they’re not allowed to support a film that has smoking. Did they work around it? I don’t think they did. I said just tell them they’re not making nicotine — it’s not dangerous for their health. It’s a caterpillar! And you can’t have a nonsmoking caterpillar.

Exactly. But, still, I think whether or not he’ll be smoking [in the finished cut] is a big question mark.

Were you inspired by other Red Queens?
Tim said, “Did you watch Mommie Dearest?” And the Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, with Bette Davis.

You’ve sold your place in New York?
Yeah. Well, Tim hasn’t actually. He’s still got a place, you know. You never know when it’s going to go wrong, that’s what I interpret it as. Not that we ever stay there when we’re there — it’s tiny.

I love your red-carpet style at the Oscars and so forth, unlike most people.
That’s so refreshing from a journalist, because I’m in the stocks perpetually here: “What is she wearing now?” “How dare she?” Like, criminal acts.

Do you enjoy the outrage?
Now I feel like I have a reputation to keep. I have a responsibility now to dress badly, so it’s kind of liberating.

Have you cooked up something special for the Oscars and the Alice premiere?
Oh, yes. I’ve got nothing to lose now, so Vivienne Westwood and I have come up with something. It was basically a rough dress I was going to wear, made of canvas — the one they make before they make the proper dress. I said, “Can I just wear this?” They’re going to paint it and put some Alice objects in it. It’s going to be very fun. I hope it’s going to be fun, anyway.

What reaction do you expect from the tabloids?
Oh, they’ll be mean.

You recently told the Guardian you were embracing a new phase of your career. What do you mean by that?
I have no idea, really, but I do know it’s quite exciting. I do find that I have to turn some parts down in order to try something that I haven’t done before. The other day I was asked to play another Victorian serial killer … I said, “Oh, is that my type-cast thing now?” Yeah, that’s how they see me.

Related: Depp and Burton, DeNiro and Scorcese: Modern Cinema’s Most Prolific Actor/Director Pairs [Vulture]
David Edelstein’s Review of Alice in Wonderland [Vulture]
Alice’s Progeny [NYM]

Helena Bonham Carter on Terrifying Children