Reprinted without permission

Boxing Helena

by Richard Johnson

Los Angeles Magazine, November 1999

Helena Bonahm Carter Seemed Forever Trapped in a 19th-Century Drawing Room. But with Fight Club, The Queen of Period Breaks Out of the Box -- For Good

Helena Bonham Carter, seated in the restaurant of the Covent Garden Hotel in London, easily holds a stranger's gaze across a starched linen tablecloth. Contrary to the impression left by a string of doe-eyed ingenues she's played on screen, Bonham Carter (the hyphen, she says, is optional) is not given to blushing or pushing garden peas around her plate. "People have lots of misconceptions about me," she says in her drawing room accent. "My first live interview was to promote A Room with a View on The Today Show. The interviewer said, 'Tell me what it's like to be royal!' 'Royal?' I said. 'I'm not royal. My family is posh, but only because my great grandfather [H.H. Asquith] was prime minister.' I could see my publicist shaking her head. After I finished, she ran over and said, 'Don't do that again! They love the royal thing in America!'"

Truth be told, Bonham Carter isn't royal, and she's not even terribly English. "My mum, who is half French and half Spanish, gets outraged when I'm called 'quintessentially English.' She says, 'What about our side of the family?' I owe my looks to my mum--which was 90 percent of getting my first job. And, some people would argue, 90 percent of my entire career. Journalists are always calling my features 'Edwardian' or 'Victorian,' whatever that means. I am small, and people were smaller in those times. I'm pale and sickly-looking. I look fragile, although I'm not--like a doll. But sometimes I just wish I had less of a particular look, one that was more versatile."

Her roles of late defy any typecasting that look might suggest. In The Wings of the Dove, which won Bonham Carter a 1998 Oscar nomination, she played a romantic schemer at the center of a love triangle with Linus Roache and Alison Elliott. In last year's The Theory of Flight, costarring her ex-boyfriend Kenneth Branagh, she is Jane, afflicted by motor-neuron disease and determined to have sex before she dies. And in her latest Hollywood foray, the controversial Fight Club, costarring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, Bonham Carter's Marla* is a desperate, dark-eyed, chain-smoking support-group junkie whose hair seems styled by a hungry rat. With any luck, this may be her turning point. "No matter how many modern parts I do, people still refer to me as Mrs. Costume Drama," she says. "I suppose it depends if the films are successful. Fight Club is a studio pic, and I've done very few of those. I've got a feeling it's going to change things for me."

Bonham Carter has proven fairly adept at making changes herself. For starters, she says, she didn't come into this world as an actress. "Lots of actors were born to do it," she figures. "Kate Winslet, for instance. I think she probably came running out of the womb saying, `Where's my mark?' Me, I invented myself as an actor. I'm not particularly emotional, except when it comes to laughter. I'm squeamish about emotion. I've got a very low sentimentality threshold, and I don't like people showing off. I haven't got that `exhibitionism of emotion,' which is what you're required to have as an actor." But an actress friend of the family made an early and indelible impression on young Helena. "She was immensely glamorous," Bonham Carter recalls. "Both my brothers had crushes on her. So did my dad. I thought, 'She's got the right idea.'"

Helena was five years old when she made her career decision. By 13, inspired by a friend at Westminster School who had an agent ("and was a terrible source of envy"), Bonham Carter sought her own representation and quickly landed a role as Juliet--in a stereo advertisement. Romeo came out of the other speaker. When subsequent parts in small features drew some critical acclaim, she indefinitely postponed her acceptance to Cambridge University to concentrate on acting. Her next film was 1986's hugely successful A Room with a View, the first of four she would make based on the novels of E.M. Forster. At the time, like Room's Lucy Honeychurch, the lovelorn romantic in James Ivory's beautiful adaptation, Bonham Carter was an innocent abroad.

"That year I was asked to present something at the Oscars with Matthew Broderick," she remembers. "I didn't know what to wear, so I just got a dress from my cupboard, a tulle thing from Miss Selfridge [an inexpensive clothing chain in London]. I shoved a skirt of my mother's underneath it and tied my own bow on the front. It had flair, I suppose, but looked a nightmare. I even did my own hair and makeup. I remember journalists asking me who I was wearing. They wanted to know the name of the designer. I just said, 'The skirt's from my mum.'"

Not long after, Bonham Carter countered her Merchant Ivory success with a stint as Theresa, a drug-addicted doctor in two episodes of Miami Vice. "Ten days in Miami," she says. "Why not? But I was only 19 at the time, and I didn't think I could look like I was old enough to be a qualified doctor. I met Don [Johnson] and Michael [Philip Michael Thomas]. Michael was pleased--major bonding because we had the same birthday. But the director looked at me and said, `You don't look old enough to be a qualified doctor.' It was a love story, and Don was worried about looking like a pedophile. So they started to put latex on me in makeup. You don't start wrinkling at the age of 25, so they gave up and let me get on with it."

Now 33, Bonham Carter still has the translucent skin of a woman half her age. When she was making 1995's Margaret's Museum, a small Canadian release about a coal miner's daughter in Nova Scotia, the cosmetics giant Yardley approached her to rejuvenate their brand image. "I thought, 'For Christ's sake, Hel, don't be so precious. It's just going to be a few photos-mostly for the Middle East market. It's great security.' But it didn't end up just for the Middle East market. It was worldwide. And you're advertising makeup, not what you look good in, so unfortunately, they put me in bright red lipstick." A scary combination with consumptive skin. The contract wasn't renewed, but last January, Tag Heuer filled the lucrative gap, offering Bonham Carter the gig as the face behind their high-end watches. "The advert has a picture of me in period costume," she says. "And a picture of me as a modern woman. It says, `I am what I am. I'm not how others perceive me.' So I'm exploiting the misconceptions. For once, I'm making a lot of money from them."

Despite her early professional and financial success, Bonham Carter lived at home in a suburb of London, with her mother, a psychotherapist, and her father, a banker, until she was 30 years old. When she did finally move, around the time she began seeing her Frankenstein director, Kenneth Branagh, she only went a short bus ride away, and she goes home for dinner whenever she can. Regardless, she still feels guilty about abandoning her father, who was left in a wheelchair after suffering a brain tumor and a stroke. "It took me so many years to move out," Bonham Carter admits. "I'm definitely a bit of a Peter Pan, reluctant to grow up. It all seemed really nice at home--why change it? Part of me would prefer not to have any responsibility whatsoever." But she has taken some on in the domestic department, and builders have finished renovating her new apartment in Belsize Park, one of London's prettier villages.

When it comes to a fashion sense, as her Oscar outfit illustrates, Bonham Carter often finds herself at a crossroads. The black jeans she is wearing today are from Paris, and the black cardigan looks like it may have had an interlude on a thrift-store rack. "I'll try things that look nice, but they're just never comfortable," she says. "I've got millions of shoes, but I always end up wearing these great clumpy things." She points at her black Buffalo sneakers. "They're comfy, and they add a few inches. Unfortunately, they don't go with everything. But you get the length of leg without the pain. I tend to buy things I would never wear--only because I would like to be the sort of person who would wear them."

While she allows that she is happy to live alone, since meeting Branagh, Bonham Carter has maintained a discreet silence about her private life. The couple denied their involvement for a long time--at the outset, he was still married to Emma Thompson, who is now expecting a child with her new beau, actor Greg Wise (Sense and Sensibility). Even after being photographed kissing in a park, Bonham Carter and Branagh remained tight-lipped about their relationship. "The press know we haven't really ever spoken about it," she says. "So all they get from me is 'Not going to go any further.' As soon as you begin to have a dialogue, it's an invitation to ask, and before you know it, it's a license to hang around outside the house. As it is, we've had remarkably little hassle."

Bonham Carter resolutely refuses to be imprisoned by fame. Her friends tell her that she has stopped noticing when people stare at her, a coping technique facilitated by the fact that she's shortsighted. "Famous people come up to me, but I don't know who they are because my sight is so bad," she laughs. "It's always at the pool of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills when I don't have my lenses in and my glasses are in my room. The last time, it was 'Hi, Helena.' I could tell he was Caucasian. I said, 'Hi.' He said, 'How are you doing?' I said, "I'm fine. But I can't see who you are.' It was Matthew Broderick. The next day, the same thing happened with Sigourney Weaver. With the number of people I ignore, I'm lucky I work at all in this town."

Branagh doesn't think "Helly," as he calls her, will ever be hard up for gainful employment. "It sounds like a silly thing to say of a young person, but I sense a growing admiration for her longevity," he says. "I imagine it's quite hard for people like Helena, who are truly learning about what they do in the spotlight. The advantage of having such a significant success at a young age is that you have opportunities that other people wouldn't have. But there are disadvantages, too. You're more exposed and don't have the chance to make mistakes quietly, as you would in a career that starts off with less noise. People really admire the fact that she has stuck at it and dealt with all of that prejudice. I think she's finally paid her dues."

Fight Club director David Fincher, who also directed Seven and The Game, agrees. "Brad and I were watching The Wings of the Dove," he remembers, "and we thought if you took Helena's face and it wasn't in some period garb, it could really work for our movie. And what an actor. She's incredibly physical. She's not an intellectual actor, which is surprising, because in the past she's played such restrained characters. But [Fight Club's] Maria has her chin thrust forward with her head down. When Helena came on set, you could see she was either ready or she wasn't. When she was ready, no matter what you said, she wouldn't look at you; she was in Marla mode. She was like this little train burrowing along with puffs of cigarette smoke trailing behind her."

Fight Club is a smart, psychological, blackly humorous drama based on the novel written by Chuck Palahniuk, a Portland, Oregon, diesel mechanic and technical writer who jotted down plot threads while fixing trucks. Ed Norton stars as Jack, a disaffected office drone whose social life consists of attending support-group meetings for those afflicted with problems he hasn't got. He recognizes a fellow fraud in Bonham Carter's Maria when she shows up at a testicular cancer night, and she goes on to play a pivotal role in Jack's relationship with a maniacal, envelope-pushing alter ego played by Brad Pitt. "It's a real men's picture," says Bonham Carter, "about two young men who set up an amateur bare-knuckle fighting club and the woman who comes between them. It could be described as Raging Bull crossed with Harold and Maude. But I'm in the Harold and Maude bit, you see."

Working in Los Angeles opposite a pair of top-tier hotshots was slightly different from stepping onto a set with Ismail Merchant behind the monitor. "Ed and I tried to rehearse in a conventional way," she says, "but it all fell apart. The whole film is about boys being boys, and Ed and Brad were always playing basketball. When I suggested perhaps they could stop playing, because I don't actually play basketball, they were, `Oh sorry, sorry.' Ed talked a lot on set, and Brad took pictures. Brad just looked like a god in three dimensions but was nauseatingly normal. A lot of the time I didn't really understand what he was saying. He speaks in this street voice. I don't know where he picked it up. Fincher obviously understood him; they worked together on Seven. I think it's his own Brad language."

Presumably Bonham Carter's next film, Women Talking Dirty, which was shot in Edinburgh, will be less testosterogenie. Polly Steele, its producer, enjoyed working with her star. "I've seen her in so many contained roles that I didn't expect to find her such an ebullient person," she says. "All I've ever known of her is period roles with corsets and heaving bosoms. But she so isn't like that in reality."

She's not much like that in movies anymore, either. There is a possibility that Bonham Carter's next project may be Bridget Jones's Diary, based on the novel that's been a bestseller in Britain and the States. The story is a detailed look at thirtysomething life in London and scheduled to be made by the Four Weddings and a Funeral producers. Helen Fielding, the book's author, is convinced that Bonham Carter is Bridget Jones--a disorganized, insecure, weight-obsessed woman who is always trying to quit smoking (Bonham Carter once managed for six days) and can argue the pros and cons of nicely pressed sheets. Like Bonham Carter's recent spate of characters, Bridget is several generations removed from the hoop skirt. "It would be nice," says Bonham Carter, "to really shed the corsets."

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