Thanks to her many collaborations with her partner, Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter is now best known for eccentric, dark roles in such films as Sweeney Todd and Corpse Bride. However, as Emily Blunt noted after she starred in the royal drama The Young Victoria, “As an English actress, you have to don a bonnet at some point,” and this is Carter’s time to step into the House of Windsor: She currently stars in The King’s Speech as Queen Elizabeth, who encourages her husband, King George VI (Colin Firth), to overcome his devastating stutter when he has to make a public address announcing that England is declaring war on the advancing Nazis. We sat down with Carter, who was clad in anti-Queen chic (goth-goddess spiderweb tights, lace-up boots, black Anthropologie dress, and fingerless gloves) as she talked about balancing this queenly role with Harry Potter’s Bellatrix Lestrange, what Burton and Johnny Depp talk about that she just doesn’t get, and why Brits aren’t as fascinated by the royal family as Americans think they are.
You shot The King’s Speech simultaneously with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, didn’t you? On set for one of them one day, the other the next?
It was funny, my son would ask, “Do you have to play the witch or the queen tomorrow?” so that pretty much summed it up. It was interesting because Harry Potter is quite slow as a process, so I had a lot of down time. I was reading William Shawcross’s biography of the Queen Mother, dressed in my witch outfit! And you know what? It was a really good mix; it was a therapeutic mix.
How was it therapeutic?
Bellatrix is so externalized and out there, literally, that I thought it would be good for me to play a more self-contained character. And I’ve done Bellatrix for a long time, so she was kind of banked. But it was actually a hard decision at the time. I was like, “Hello, I have children, when am I going to see them?” But they survived.
Did they visit the Harry Potter set and play with the props and costumes?
Yes, my son, who is 7. Now he’s asking about spells and things. And Nell is 2, but she’s pretty advanced; she’s a witch, so she’s already out there.
Your character in The King’s Speech, the Queen Mum, comes across as more free-spirited than her daughter, the current Queen Elizabeth II. How did you convey her unorthodox spirit within the confines of royal protocol?
She was an expert public figure. She was born to be in that role, but she also knew that Albert wasn’t. She was also great at creating her own brand, the image she projected — the soft, charming cloud of vagueness, very much of that time, an Edwardian woman. She played a sort of quite low status, almost geishalike, with her head cocked to the side. But that was a pure veneer and underneath she was totally at odds, belied by her force of character. She wore the pants in the relationship.
The royal family recently announced that they have a Facebook page. They apparently already had Twitter and a website. What are your thoughts on that?
They are keeping up on the modern times; good on them. I personally never got the gist of Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps they’re trying to seem more with it, more approachable. I don’t think it’s the Queen’s idea; it’s “The Firm,” as they say. Maybe William had a say; you’ve got to relate to the younger generation.
Americans tend to perceive the British as being very interested in the royal family. Is that a misconception?
I don’t think we really are that fascinated; perhaps that’s the American perception. We’re way less supportive of our royal family than the rest of the world is, I think.
So your husband, Tim Burton … actually, not your husband. How do you refer to Tim: your life partner, significant other, boyfriend?
I don’t know; I haven’t got a satisfactory word! Father of my bastards, perhaps?
Do you feel like he has a separate language with Johnny Depp than you share?
They definitely go back a long, long way. They have a lot to bond them apart from the fact that they’ve known each other so long and they’ve got an intuitive understanding of each other. And they have all that cultural reference that I have no idea about; they were brought up on the same diet of television and just culturally American. So most of the time I have no idea what they’re having a laugh about. And also there’s a lot of things that I just don’t find funny — boys’ humor. So Johnny and I sort of have our friendship separate from Tim and his relationship.
How do you two connect since you don’t have all those cultural references in common?
Well, he’s the godfather of our children, so pretty much just like two normal human beings. We have similar tastes in certain things; we like dressing up, camouflaging ourselves.
Do Tim and Johnny bring out the darker part of your personality?
No, they’re not really that dark.
Okay, Corpse Bride?
Maybe artistically they are. With Tim, when I saw some of his drawings, I was like, “Oh, Jesus, it’s a bit disturbing.” And he said, “No, no, you’d be disturbed if I couldn’t draw.” If you get rid of it, you exorcise it. It’s therapeutic. They’re very happy, smiling, shiny people! Especially since having children, they are.
Depp does have those John Wayne Gacy clown paintings …
Oh yeah, he’s got that stuff. And Tim’s got a few shrunken heads.
Actual shrunken heads?
You don’t mind them being in your house?
I’m not worried about the shrunken heads because I don’t know where they are, actually.