Helena Bonham Carter is one of the greatest people on earth. I’ve only met her a handful of times, and the sum total of our interactions probably rests around one hour, but she’s a really lovely person. Her undeniable talent, currently on display in the highly-anticipated 3D extravaganza Alice Through the Looking Glass, is just part of it. She’s so humble, so inclusive, so unfazed by that greatness. It’s the polar opposite of her Alice character who has a gigantic and head and spends much of the movie screaming at people to do her bidding.
When I sat down with Carter at a hotel in West Hollywood, she was just as relaxed, chatty, and amazing as she always is. Amongst the topics that didn’t make it into the final cut of this article: her prosthetic leg from The Lone Ranger (which she deemed her favorite prop ever), and how excited she was to finally see Alice Through the Looking Glass.
At one point she took out her cell phone and started going through photos she had taken on the set. She had to ride her (mechanical) horse backwards because of the process used to enlarge her head. So there were amazing photos of her, under bright lights, and in a totally green room, riding a fake horse backwards. This is not typical celebrity behavior. Helena Bonham Carter is less a movie star and more of a kooky aunt. And that is amazing.
Read our interview below, where we cover her amazing history with Disney movies, what it was like working with Alice Through the Looking Glass director James Bobin and stars Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, and Sacha Baron Cohen, and what Disney remake she’d love to spearhead.
Do you have memories of Disney movies growing up? Do you remember your first Disney moment?
Probably like Snow White, Dumbo, all of the animated ones. Mary Poppins was my favorite, totally. I actually remember as a child, probably my daughter’s age, reading the Disney versions of the books, like Dumbo, Jungle Book—I loved. I always loved them and they always made me happy, and they still do.
When you made the first film, what were you borrowing from the animated Alice?
I don’t even think we looked at the animated—yes, we must have. We must have. But Tim had done his drawings, and that was what I had concentrated on a bit, and then we had a brief conversation. Bette Davis—it’s always Bette Davis with me—Bette Davis and Elizabeth the First, and then there was a bit of Gloria Swanson in there in Sunset Boulevard, the delusional feeling in this one; she’s still the queen and then it comes crashing down.
What can you tell me about working on Cinderella?
It was fun. It was hard work because it was all night shoots. You don’t think about that when you read it, but it’s all at night because that’s when she appears. And the costume, Sandy Powell is a genius. It was really nice to work with Ken [Kenneth Branagh, Carter’s ex-husband] again. We had a real laugh, and Lily [James] was amazing. It’s hard to plop in instantly, being on instantly for a week. You can afford to be bad, and not so great, and then you warm up, but you’ve got no time to warm up. But the dress was interesting because I had so many batteries up my skirt, which they never ended up using, they did it all in post, but I had this young man who would disappear under my skirt.
This was because your dress was supposed to light up?
Yeah, it was—all the time. It was interesting. But it was fun.
Alice Through the Looking Glass really explores the Red Queen. Was that part of the appeal of coming back?
It was fun. I was going to come back—I mean, you can’t not. She was such a gift of a part the first time. But then I read it, I thought, This is a gift. Because it’s all about me … well, not all about me. But there’s bits where I thought, Oh, how fantastic that we understand why she got such a big head and it makes total psychological sense.
Was the role easier to accomplish on a technical level?
It was so much easier, CGI-wise. I think definitely much less restriction, but I think [visual effects supervisor] Ken Ralston, who worked on the first one, really had things figured out. On the first one it was trickier because Alice kept changing sizes. And the way they made my head bigger was this one camera, but on this one they didn’t even have to do that, so I very rarely felt conscious of being restricted, except the only thing was that we were often in a blue room. We did have slightly more sets.
[This is when she showed me her cell phone.]
Were you alone most of the time?
Sacha was around. We often had each other, so that was good, stuck in the middle of Underland.
Would you do another movie as the Red Queen?
Of course I would. She’s a baby. She’s one of my favorite children; she’s misunderstood.
What was it like working with Sacha? You’ve done stuff together before.
We have, it’s good to work together. Sometimes Sacha feels he’s got [to be carrying the whole thing] so he improvises a lot of the time. He’s forever inventive, like an overactive child. But it was great to watch him work with James. He really trusted James, and they really know comedy, and they really know what they’re talking about. That was really interesting to see how they worked, and they do so many, many different choices.
How was working with Mia again?
She hasn’t changed. She was so young [in the first one], but she’s always been an old soul, Mia. That’s such an amazing quality. Sane, very sane. It was really weird, it was almost like being in Underland, the whole experience of being on set and a lot of people being the same, and a lot of other people not. So, it was weird, it was sort of this confusion.
And you’ve now worked with Johnny so many times. What is your relationship like?
I feel so lucky because I do so admire him, and we go back a long time now. We didn’t have that much to do [together] on this, I always had costume envy and accessory envy.
You had great costumes in this one.
Yeah, I did. Yeah.
James Bobin seems like an Alice in Wonderland scholar.
He really is a scholar. That’s exactly what he is. He’s an academic. He always brings real voracity, and he’d really help you because you’re in this complete vacuum, so he helped reach you in the fact, and in the world, and he knew exactly what was happening, even though it was already pre-visualized. He’d say, ‘This is happening over there,’ and everybody says, ‘Okay, okay, okay.’ He’s incredibly clever. He’s a historian. And he was always really well dressed, which was really nice to see. Overdressed, like, ‘Aren’t you hot?’
The Red Queen gets to have a cool new palace. How much did he show you of your set?
Quite a lot, and I think I had some ideas, too. Like, I remember a night working with some friends, I was on holiday with the script. And everyone really remembered the pig thing, and they loved the pig. So I said, ‘C’mon, let’s have a joke about the pig.’ Because everyone was like, ‘I need a pig here.’
Did you and James talk about what happened to Crispin Glover?
Yeah. No, we had a scene. That’s where it’s gone—with the pig.
Are there any other Disney things you’d love to tackle?
Bedknobs and Broomsticks? That would be fun.
Do you have a favorite memory of Disney movies you’ve done?
Um, I think I’ll always have affections for pig, but of course he wasn’t there, it was just a green cushion.
Alice Through the Looking Glass is in theaters now.