Interview | Helena Bonham Carter and the Fine Art of Yelling
If you’ve seen her movies, you know that Helena Bonham Carter is a master thespian, and one of the all-time great screamers. In franchises like Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter she has demonstrated the ferocious power of her voice, time and again, and she seems eager to outdo herself in the latest sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass.
And although I talked to Helena Bonham Carter about her masterful yelling technique, we also touched upon the unusual way that these Alice movies adapt the works of author Lewis Carroll, and what it’s like to scare small children. And when pressed, the star of Alice and Cinderella says that the other Disney classic she would like to remake is Bedknobs and Broomsticks… which is actually a fantastic idea.
Alice Through the Looking Glass is in theaters now.
Crave: These films are very odd to me, because I’m a big fan of the books and yet the interpretation is so radically different in some regards. How do you respond to these? When you got the script for the first one and then this one, what was your reaction?
Helena Bonham Carter: Well, I always loved Lewis Carroll and all his ingredients, and the White Rabbit and “Drink Me” and all those images, and the’ve always sort of lived in me. But I couldn’t actually remember the story of the first book. So in a way, he’s sort of talking about some nonsensical, mad world, and possibly like a dream that didn’t really have any chronological order. I thought it was okay for Linda [Woolverton, screenwriter] to off and invent a whole new plot, but paying tribute and being loyal to the original ingredients and characters. So I loved it. And also I was really chuffed to play The Red Queen because it was such a great part.
Were you aware of how much yelling you would have to do?
Not at the beginning. I didn’t realize the impact of the yelling, actually. You just go, “Oh, I’ll be fine,” but actually repeated yelling can be difficult! [Laughs.]
What’s the secret? Do you drink a lot of tea?
You drink a lot of water. I drink a lot of water. But you know what? You lose your voice.
You can’t not. There really isn’t much you can do.
What’s the secret to good yelling?
Well actually they often kept it till the end of the day. Good yelling? Really think very, very precisely who you’re yelling at and why. It’s not just generalized yelling. You’re really getting mad. It’s like when you’re doing a wand, like a spell with Harry Potter, David Yates was very demanding about the precision and focus, your mental focus on who you’re throwing at. So it’s not actually about the physical. If your thought is precise about who you’re killing, or chopping their head off, that’s precise. See?
And yet we see moments of The Red Queen in this movie where she’s alone.
And she’s kind of yelling to herself.
Yes, she’s deluded. [Laughs.] She’s having a psychotic moment. She’s in a psychosis.
We find out more about her and yet the motivation for what drove her to madness, aside from a bonk on the head, really doesn’t seem quite extreme enough to justify genocide. What does that do for an actor?
[Thinks.] You just have to get your way there, where it is justified.
So where do you go? It started off with a simple children’s quarrel…
Well, I think I probably had my own story in the first one, because… it can start off and then grow. I think she had that episode where she felt betrayed by her sister, and she ran off in a huff, she hit her head, which was an accident, and then grew a tumor.
It was a tumor. So the tumor… it’s not just an episode, it’s a tumor. Then she had brain damage that grew and grew and grew.
Is that how it was described to you?
Within the first one, yeah. I [asked] Linda, the writer. I said, “Take me through the big head thing.” And she said, “Well, it’s a tumor, and if you have a tumor in the front of your head you’re going to have this thing of frontal lobe disinhibition.” Which is, you just have no edit, and go from one to a hundred instantly, and it’s the same as the emotional immaturity of a two-year-old. It’s completely emotionally labile. There’s no control. You’re completely available, totally vulnerable as a result, and that’s why she keeps on shouting at everyone because if you’re that vulnerable you’re going to have to try to keep everyone at bay somehow, you know what I mean?
I think so, yeah.
To keep yourself defended. Because she’s so vulnerable. She’s damaged! She’s walking around with a great big tumor on her head.
Obviously, unless the makeup is incredible I imagine there’s some CGI involved in getting your head to that size.
They make my head big, yeah! I don’t push it. [Laughs.]
What does that do for your performance? Are you careful not to use it too much?
It’s funny, because that shows how much the CGI had got more sophisticated. Like in the first one we were much more restricted about things that you could do, and I basically, when it came to my head – making my head bigger – there was this one camera, one of two cameras in the world that made my head bigger. So I had to just always be filmed on that camera, and we had to be careful about hands, and things coming between me and my head [and the camera].
On this one there was far less restrictions, but we still had to be told, you know, be careful about putting your hands up because then they’re going to just literally take your head and make it bigger. So I couldn’t really put my hands up to my face. That was tricky. And sometimes, they just always reminded me, sometimes, “Remember, your head’s a lot bigger!” So coming through the door, or with Sacha [Baron Cohen] definitely, when we were working together, because it’s like “Oh, you couldn’t get THAT close.” Or his shoulder was a bit of a liability because he had those huge shoulders. So a lot of the time we would have to just remember to give each other much more… he had to give me more wingspan.
Between The Red Queen, and I’m thinking particularly of Bellatrix LeStrange…
Do you ever run into small children who are scared of you?
All the time! Yeah.
Is that great?
No, I don’t enjoy it. I don’t mind it, I just try to reassure them. I mean I think it’s fun, and funny, and I love that I sort of still occur in their imaginations but… it’s lovely. It’s great to sort of make them… but then also I’m also The Fairy Godmother, so that helps.
I feel like Disney might one day try to combine these movies into a massive Avengers kind of thing…
[Laughs.] That’ll be hilarious!
You’ll have to be The Red Queen and The Fairy Godmother together, and won’t that be awkward.
That’ll be hilarious. That would be funny. No, I should have two faces, that would be good, wouldn’t it? Just flip ‘round.
That would be cool. You’d be two sides of the same coin.
You know what? The dress is so big I should have the head underneath. That kind of doll…
Where you flip them upside down?
Yeah, that would be really good.
That’s good. We got this.
Yeah, we got that. Sell it.
When you were doing Cinderella and you had already done The Red Queen, was there an element of “Do I get to be in all of these now?”
No, I felt really privileged that they wanted me back, [that] Alan Horne wanted me. You know what? I felt like it’s fun working for Disney. I love it. To be wanted.
Is there a particular Disney role that you would love to tackle?
I would have to seriously think about it. [Laughs.] It’s not usually down to me.
It should be though. I think you’re owed one.
Okay, let’s try it out. Let’s think. Do you have any ideas? Come on, come on, come on…
If Angelina Jolie hadn’t taken it you would have made a great Maleficent. She was always my favorite.
She was a good one..
I’m trying to think of the weirder ones like Race to Witch Mountain or…
Ooooh! Maybe Bedknobs [and Broomsticks]. We should do it!
That would be wonderful!
Do it again!
We’re due for a new Bedknobs.
Yeah! That would be good. Okay, sell that one.
Thank you. And the doll! Yes, good idea. Very good. Thank you…
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.