Get Carter

4th January 2013

As casting goes, offering Helena Bonham Carter the role of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations was probably right up there with Daniel Craig as Bond in terms of 2012 success stories, and the Hampstead-based actress delivered a sumptuous performance in an elegant reworking of the Dickens classic. Al Gordon joins her as she reflects on the part, and shares her own ‘expectations’…

Being with Helena bonham carter, I thought, would be like meeting royalty. She laughs at the very idea.

“People imagine I'm so cultured, intelligent and demure,” she begins. “I hate that. The truth is I'm not demure at all. I belch, swear, tell dirty jokes and arm wrestle!”
It’s not really what we expect from the young Queen (she’s 46) of costume dramas…

“If you look only at what I’ve been cast in, you may think I’m stuck in some sort of timewarp. But that’s what, taken to extremes, typecasting does to you,” she explains. “I’ve always said being typecast is not necessarily a bad thing as long as you’re happy to be put into that mould. If you live and breathe that type of personality and are happy to keep reinventing it within itself as different roles come along, then great. If you can do that, you’re fine.” It seems a reasonable philosophy, although, as Helena adds, “If you’re desperate to get out of it and fancy a stint in comedy, you may have more trouble. That is, unless you fancy appearing in Extras, in which case, fill your boots.” She laughs.

Her film roles have been certainly been more diverse than some care to remember. “It’s a convenient tag to say all of my films are the same. There was nothing ‘period’ about Fight Club!”

That said, the most recently released project, which sees her at her elegant best, in a corset and accompanying frilled sleeves is, of course, an adaptation of a Dickens classic, Great Expectations. Produced by award-winning partners Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen, it retells the story of young orphan Pip, who is given a chance to rise from his humble beginnings thanks to a mysterious benefactor. Moving through London’s class-ridden world as a gentleman, Pip capitalises on his new position to pursue the beautiful Estella; a spoilt and damaged heiress whom he’s loved since childhood. The shocking truth behind the acquisition of his great fortune will have devastating consequences for everything he holds dear.

The story behind Great Expectations is a curious one. First appearing in Dickens’ weekly journal All The Year Round in December 1860, it was written as a saviour for the author’s failing magazine, before being published in its own right. It went on to become the most widely read and universally lauded of all the writer’s works, a supreme novel about class, aspiration and misguided ambition, and for Bonham Carter, a perfect progression after numerous period successes.

As Miss Havisham, she is an eccentric, gentle, but tortured woman who has lived in seclusion, never seeing daylight, since being abandoned at the altar 30 years previously. She recruits young Pip to act as a companion and playmate to her devastatingly beautiful 12-year-old ward, Estella, and so the story develops.

“Miss Havisham’s influence steers the course of both Estella and Pip’s lives,” she continues. “It’s a lovely role to play even though it’s ridden with bitterness. She ultimate wants others to feel her pain, and in the end, questions what for. She ends up all too aware of the damage she has caused both to Pip and Estella. At the end of the day she is a tortured, anguished woman; troubled. She’s not malicious, she’s just fascinatingly ill, mentally.”

Bonham Carter does a lot of work on her characters’ inner motivations. “I did become a real swot when researching the role. Miss Havisham has been inside me for 15 years. There are so many interesting sides to this character. She is pathologically grief-struck, but is totally narcissistic. It’s all about her — people do get their hearts broken and most people survive. She didn’t.”

Acting, for her at least, is like therapy she contends (and you can almost hear the voice of her psychotherapist mother, whom she has on occasion apparently asked to read scripts for her, to help decode a character’s psychological make-up). “I get to be angry, to cry and laugh far more frequently than a lot of other people,” she says. “In that way, it's quite healthy.”

Throughout an acting career now into its third decade, Bonham Carter has gone about performing each role – from Fight Club to Sweeney Todd, Howard’s End to The Kings Speech – with the style and presence of someone absolutely at ease in her profession. Last year she was also working on Les Misérables, due for release in the UK in just a few days.

“I guess I’m at a really comfortable place right now; more than ever before,” she admits. “I’m at the age where I don’t care about my age, and with that, I somehow look better than I have done for a long time. And if my look changes, I’m assuming I'll have enough talent to keep me where I want to be.” It’s good to hear someone confident in their own skin.

“At the end of the day, when it comes to acting, everybody wants to be liked,” she sighs. “But you shouldn't confuse being liked as an actor, with being liked for being one's self. That's the thing with acting –you have to be careful not to prostitute yourself or give too much of yourself away. Giving too much away, especially in interviews, is dangerous. And I probably do say too much…”

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