Helena Bonham Carter may be a well-bred and utterly British polite young actress, but she’s lost the ability to hide her boredom. While she’s discussing her performance in the movie adaptation of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove, her eyes wander. Worse, the title of the film that won her critics’ accolades and a Golden Globe nomination — all harbingers of a Best Actress Oscar nod — becomes, repeatedly, a languid The Wings of the What’s-it,
No, Bonham Carter, 31, is not behaving ungratefully. The truth is the actress, with some 20 movies under her corset, is sick unto death of talking about herself. She would just like to return to her comfortable, fairly private life: to the large north London house where she still, incredibly, lives with her parents, to the work of renovating the home (not far from her parents) she bought more than a year ago, to hanging out and watching videos with her beau, Kenneth Branagh. “I know that I have to sell the films,” she confesses. “[But] I enjoy less and less the scrutiny of what I’m supposed to be like as a person.”
Especially when you’ve been pricked and poked at by the snappish British tabloids as much as Bonham Carter, who has endured near-microscopic scrutiny since her breakout role at 19 in Merchant Ivory’s A Room With a View. She’s been verbally lashed for her inexperience — she could have gone to Cambridge, and she skipped the traditional drama school — as well as for her physical appearance (“One journalist said my bum was too big,” she grins), and, most of all, for her bluish blood. “Since I come from what they perceive as an aristocratic background,” says Bonham Carter, who is the great-granddaughter of British prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith, “somehow I’ve got it easy. It’s a slightly inverted snobby attitude.” Making matters worse is Bonham Carter’s appearance in all those period dramas, which may create a warm Anglophilic nostalgia in America but are considered embarrassing by some in their land of origin.
But despite the upper-crust background and the gilded résumé, Bonham Carter is a pretty modern chick off stage. As she sits outside a café near London’s Regent’s Park, enveloped in a huge Edwardian-style gray overcoat, having a smoke and a coffee, she comes across as a girl’s girl, bitching about the snobbish “members only” policy at London’s much-hyped clothing store Voyage, and whipping out some “Rescue Remedy” aromatherapy oil at the slightest sign of a crisis. She has a deep, rich laugh that would be a belly laugh if she had a belly — a sexy ha-ha-ha that is at once intimate and infectious and often at her own expense.
And she quickly dispatches the notion that her childhood was like some posh walk in the country. “Yes, we are upper-middle-class and privileged,” she acknowledges, but all happy families have their sorrows. When Helena was 5, her mother had a nervous breakdown and took to her bed for a year before becoming a psychotherapist. And when she was 13, her banker father became paralyzed from the neck down during what was meant to be a routine operation. He has required round-the-clock care ever since. But they are all very close — so close that only now, to prove that she can actually boil an egg on her own, and to avoid feeling like “some retarded child,” as she puts it, she’s actually on the verge of leaving the nest. “On my 30th birthday, I thought, Hel, you’ve got a problem, you’ve got to do it or you’ll be here till you’re menopausal,” she says.