Helena Bonham Carter is not exactly visible at the moment, yet she’s at the Toronto Film Festival with not one, but two films: Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride and the new Wallace and Grommit film. Always fun to talk to, here in Toronto she was cheerfully discussing the benefit of sleeping with a director, not that that will necessarily guarantee a role in your better half’s film. Garth Franklin caught up with the delightful Brit throughout the Festival.
Questions: With two animated films at this festival, do you use different acting muscles for both of those movies, and what is your attraction to doing them
Carter: Well I will just sort of preface this with the fact that I started – and this is just an indication as to how long they take these things – when I was pregnant with Billy I was getting steadily fatter, which meant I was sort of inappropriate for any kind of part where they’d see my body. So that’s why suddenly I sort of started getting stop-motion animations – sort of almost a monopoly on the stop-motion. In fact THE monopoly because there were only two stop-motion features going on and I got parts in both of them. Having said that, I had to audition. But, you said different acting muscles – well, I mean, the way I sort of approached them was exactly like the same approach that I would use to real life – or whatever normal movies are called – in that they’re both different parts so… I mean I just treated each part the same. I analysed the characters, did choices and everything and just went – I even learnt the lines, It wasn’t because I was so starved of any acting opportunities because I was pregnant that I just really went full, overboard with it – but I find it easier to learn my lines rather than read it. You have to be as committed and act as much as you would even though you’re not actually being filmed but your voice, you still have to act basically. You can’t phone it in.
Question: How was it working with Danny Elfman on Tears to Shed?
Carter: I loved it because, I’ve always wanted to be in a musical and, no one would let me up till now. So I had these two verses and I’ve always been an admirer of Danny and his music – I just think he has genius – but he’s a real modest man and also he’s a great teacher and he’s a singer. I mean, I think he’s not given enough credit.
Question: You’ve been in Tim’s last four films, I believe. How does that work in terms of… is it just an agreement now that you will participate in his films – or do you think that you’re able to bring something to a project that happens to be a Tim Burton movie?
Carter: Well, I hope so. Yeah. I hope that just because I sleep with a guy he gives me a part. But you know what – actually it’s quite the opposite – because I sleep with him he asked me to audition, you know, so it obviously doesn’t work for me.
Question: So when did Corpse Bride come around to you?
Carter: Well, first of all he gave it to me to read I think just because I’m a friend obviously – and one would hope (laughter). He just wanted me to read it anyway, just to see what I thought and I did think it was a beautiful script and really moving and actually a brilliant script because – and that’s the thing with animated films – I often feel that puppets get the better parts, compared to, us normal actresses. So he gave me that and then, he wanted me to play Victoria actually. He let it slip that, “maybe you… could you poss… would you be interested in playing…”, Of course I’d love to. But he wanted me to play Victoria and I was kind of like, hmm, because it was sort of another period drama ingénue I kind of did that, you know – to death. I felt like I was going to be type cast as a puppet as well, so, he said “well what… who do you want to play” and I said “well, Corpse Bride”. So then he went away and thought about it and then he came back and he said, “You know what, I’ve been thinking about it” and finally I said “you want me to audition, don’t you” and he said “yeah”. (Laughter) So I went off and did my little audition and, luckily, two weeks later – because nothing was said between us for weeks, I thought, is he going to mention it, and then finally he came up to me very solemnly into my house… we have the same house, it’s just a weird house with my bed and then his bed… (Laughter) and, he came in – it was kind of like a sweet marriage proposal, you know – “we would like, be very honoured if you would consider playing the role of Corpse Bride”.
Question: Helena, you’ve got a real ability to make things sexy that aren’t necessarily at first glance sexy – like the monkey in Planet of the Apes and now a corpse. How do you approach a role like that?
Carter: It’s just the same with any part, you try and find the human aspect in it… but it’s just a part of you, you know. I mean, the ape… I went to ape school, that’s what I loved about it. With Corpse, you know – what I loved about playing the corpse is that obviously, somebody else got to do the physical part. It appeals to the part of me that likes playing character parts, and getting the chance to get around from own physicality. but you still have to make it real and human and, just find that…
Question: Did the eyeball freak you out at all?
Carter: The eye – I wish my eye popped out. I mean I… I wear lenses actually so – as long as it does drop out with a lens…
Question: But no maggots?
Carter: I have maggots – I do have maggots. I think we all have maggots, you know. They don’t necessarily pop out but they certainly – mine certainly chats away. You know…
Question: So, um – maggots aside you’ve worked obviously with Tim you’ve worked with multiple times – do you like the idea of working with a director more than once and the opportunity to get to revisit some things or yell at them on areas you didn’t get to? And what do you see as the difference between the comedy and the drama –
Carter: Oh… I definitely like working with the same person twice, and three times and four times – particularly if they’re Tim, because he’s pretty good. On a film, it takes a few months so by the end of the – and it goes with not only the director but everybody involved – it takes such a long time just to get to know somebody and trust someone and work out how they communicate and what they want and feel safe with them. So then you have to start right back at the beginning with a new job, you know what I mean. So why does Johnny and Tim and Danny and the whole lot of us seem to be just a bit too bordering the incestuous – it’s like, oh, god, it’s the same shebang again. But, for all of them I mean it feels like you’re never going to able to repeat yourself because everybody wants something different and you all grow together and evolve together and they all feel safe together – plus it’s fun and you get to see each other; that shouldn’t be taken, lightly… I’m glad I was in Charlie and in Corpse Bride – apart from personal reasons – the parts themselves. I don’t think I’d ever do anything, and Tim would never ask me to do anything – he’d never ask me if it was inappropriate, you know.
Question: Now as far as humour is concerned versus doing the dramatic roles, like what the differences – and how you prepare mentally?
Carter: I don’t think you do… you certainly don’t want to be conscious of, the comedy. You can’t… you just have to play everything as truthful as possible and then it might come out funny. But a lot of it has to come from the text – if it ain’t funny on the page, it ain’t gonna be funny.
Question: Do you have any insight into what makes Tim think of these kind of dark stories?
Carter: You know I argue that, and may be that I’ve lived with him too long, but I wouldn’t say it’s that dark, you know. I mean, it’s about death but actually it’s an immensely hopeful, outlook. Because, all the… the people in the land of the dead have the great… they’re colourful, they’re having fun. And the end is very poetic and hopeful and beautiful. He’s got a black sense of humour and a non-politically correct sense of humour. But put it this way – I’m just so glad he gets it out of his system, because sometimes I look at his little notepad and he just jots around – and sketches incessantly.
Question: What do you think of the film’s theme of love surviving death?
Carter: Oh, I’m sure that’s true. I mean I hope that’s true. I don’t think it’s that dark – it’s a terribly romantic notion that we’re going to meet the people that we miss and the people that have gone before us, after. That I dearly hope would be true, you know.