She didn’t go to drama school, but Helen Bonham Carter did attend ape school — and singing school for that matter — she revealed during an extended discussion at Bay Street Theatre on Saturday.
She spoke with Joe Neumaier, a New York Daily News film critic, in one of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s Conversation With programs. In it Ms. Bonham Carter delved into her latest role as Elizabeth Taylor in Richard Laxton’s “Burton and Taylor,” as well as many of the highlights of her career and her working and personal relationship with Tim Burton, a director who is also her husband and the father of her two children.
The actress has appeared in films since the 1980s when she debuted in “Lady Jane” and became instantly iconic as a pre-Raphaelite ideal in “A Room With a View.” She spent most of her 20s playing roles based on literary figures. She liked the complexity of the characterizations provided by the authors and loved to dress up, she said. “I like to be in camouflage in different styles of dress. I’m an actress because I don’t want to be me.”
Acting offers her the ability “to take a holiday from myself.” Yet, she finds that completely abandoning herself is not always possible. “I try my hardest not to be me and then find that I am. Even in ‘Planet of the Apes,’ I changed species, and I’m still me.”
“Planet of the Apes” was an important film for her on many levels. It gave her the opportunity to go to school for acting for the first time, even though it was to be an ape. It also introduced her to her husband, who had also directed such films as “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Batman,” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Their earliest interactions were inauspicious. Mr. Burton is very shy. “He never finishes a sentence. I’ve often said there should be a home for all the abandoned sentences of Tim Burton,” she said.
On set, “I would get into makeup at 2:30 in the morning and be an ape until 6 or 8 o’clock at night.” She spent some 60 days in the makeup. “One day I came out as me, and he jumped out of his skin in horror.”
A year later, she found out his dog had died. “I knew he was dear to him, and he was in mourning, so I called him up to offer condolences.” He asked her to dinner, which startled her. “He finished a sentence!”
There was no ulterior motive at the time — he just thought it was nice that she called — and Ms. Bonham Carter took her brother along to the meeting. Yet, “something happened. The world turned and suddenly I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be significant.’ ” Still, it was a long courtship, “very Victorian. . . . but eventually, we got two kids.”
She has since worked on a number of films with him, the most stressful being “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” She had to learn how to sing and then audition for Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the original musical and to whom Mr. Burton had given casting approval. Many other actresses were up for the role.
After several weeks of waiting to hear, Mr. Burton told her, “ ‘I don’t know what to say, you’re down to the last three.’ It was like being on the ‘X Factor’ or ‘American Idol.’ ” It became a subject they wouldn’t even think of mentioning at dinner. Then, finally, he told her she was the best for the part, but had the worst singing voice and would have to go in and audition again.
She ended up with the part but then came the critique from her husband. “He had a thing about my eyebrows. He thinks they’re all over the place,” even calling them “hyperactive caterpillars” when she thought she hadn’t moved them. She asked him in jest if she should get Botox and he said, “ ‘Well, maybe. You need to calm it down.’ ” He also didn’t want her to use her hands. “Try making a pie without using your hands,” she said, given that her character makes meat pastries from the barber’s murder victims. “He was tough on me.”
She doesn’t watch her own films and said she feels bad that she hasn’t seen that one in particular. She and Johnny Depp, who played Sweeney, made plans to see it together, since he, too, has a hard time watching himself on screen, but he cancelled at the last minute.
Recently, she has played two characters named Elizabeth — the “tough as old boots” Queen Mother in “The King’s Speech,” for which she received an Oscar nomination, and Elizabeth Taylor in the BBC America production of “Burton and Taylor,” which aired on television for the first time last night and was shown at the Sag Harbor Cinema on Saturday night.
“It’s a moral responsibility to play someone who actually was alive,” she said. Before taking on Taylor, she sought approval from a friend who is also one of Taylor’s goddaughters. “I know what it’s like to be well-known and have your privacy invaded.”
As Taylor opposite Dominic West’s Richard Burton, she captures the aging vixen in 1983 when she has just turned 50 and is weeks ahead of checking herself into the Betty Ford Clinic for drug and alcohol addiction.
Her portrayal is seamless and uncanny at times. Those making the film wanted to be sure it was not just an impersonation, and there are times she seems to actually be channeling the legend. She described her voice as very relaxed, stretching out her vowels. “There’s this whole openness and availability thing. . . . Halfway through I thought, ‘Am I channeling her or Rufus Wainwright?’ ”
There is a sense of the clash of the gods on Mount Olympus in the production, as she sends the mere mortals around her hurtling out of cars and Burton continues to be in her thrall, despite strong resistance and a happy relationship with another woman.
She had no desire to play the actress prior to reading the script, but was taken with her intelligence and “sheer guts.” She also liked her ability to clown around and her love of life. For all of her excess, Ms. Bonham Carter said, “she was down to earth and quite practical. . . . Very few parts have so many dimensions.”