Queen Helena in her Wonderland
Helena Bonham Carter cordially invites Evan Fanning into the rabbit hole of life with director Tim Burton
Helena Bonham Carter is late. Her partner, Tim Burton, is also late. I suppose it makes sense that they would be arriving together, but nobody seems that surprised at their delay. It wouldn't be in keeping with their reputation as "the bonkers couple" if they were to appear bang on time.
When Bonham Carter does arrive she is full of apologies. "I am very tired," she mutters almost under her breath. "It was the premiere last night and I did stay out." That she has seen the film at all is a rarity as she normally can't bear the thought of watching her performances.
This time is different though. This time it's Alice in Wonderland, arguably the biggest and most audacious project Burton has attempted, and with a budget in the region of $250m, it is certainly the most expensive film he has ever made. This brings with it certain responsibilities, such as public appearances to promote the film, which in turn lead to headlines and stories exploring the lives of "Mr and Mrs Mad Hatter".
They've been together nine years now, and have two children (Billy, 6, and Nell, 2), having fallen for each other while Bonham Carter played an ape in Burton's reworking of Planet of the Apes in 2001. Together, they're not so much a gruesome twosome, as the sweet but odd duo in one of Burton's fairytales, living in some lopsided cottage on the side of a hill. (Before this, she had a relationship with Kenneth Branagh.)
In real life they are actually in three cottages on a hill (well, more of a heath in Hampstead), a living arrangement that brings its fair share of intrigue. Central to this are some articles which appeared recently stating that she lived in one cottage; Tim lived next door; with their two children holed up in a third with their nanny.
While she accepts that most people consider their living arrangements to be "freakish", the idea of three separate domiciles is technically incorrect. "The thing is, you have a very brief conversation with somebody and even if they've got this in front of you," she explains gesturing to the tape recorder, "then you read the interview and you think 'how could this have been misinterpreted?' [The kids] certainly don't live in another house, but there is a third house that we have which is attached.
"They're cottages, it sounds as if we've got a bloomin' village, but each house is about as big as this room. They're artist studios so they're just main rooms so the thing that you lose is privacy and sound. So we've got three, and the kids' big play area is the third one. But we haven't banished them." She then adopts a regal voice: "Children, leave. You're somewhere down the street."
She breaks into mock voices quite regularly. Sometimes it's the voice of the Red Queen, the wicked ruler with the bulbous head she plays to perfection in Alice in Wonderland, barking "off with their heads" with a Tourette's-like regularity. At other times, it's the posh-regency voice of the type of films and performances which dominated the early stages of her career, in the days before her personal and professional collaboration with Burton.
Now 43, Alice in Wonderland is Helena's sixth film with Burton (Big Fish, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd coming between Planet of the Apes and Alice). She says her taste in films hasn't changed with his influence, not consciously at least. "I think it's a lot to do with age. I'm not going to be playing ingenues anymore, or romantic leads, but luckily I'm really glad to be getting to play some character parts."
The gothic look that both Bonham Carter and Burton prefer is on view today. She throws her heavy black coat on the chair beside her as soon as she arrives and sits wearing a black print dress, calf-high leather boots, lace wrist-warmers and a selection of jangling necklaces hanging from her pale neck. Her hair, big and tied back, reveals shades of plum as the sunlight catches it.
I've read that she likes to have several drinks simultaneously. Today she has three. An assistant arrives with a steaming cup of black coffee to add to her glass of Coke and bottle of sparkling water.
She talks frankly and honestly in her low, well-honed London accent, revealing the different aspects of her relationship with Burton:
"He is a really wonderful father. He's got a real respect for kids and the thing is he doesn't patronise them. It's a bit like his movies I think. He's always remembered what it's like to be a child. I mean, he still is a child. He's got a big strong, not-so-inner child."
After nine years together there aren't many surprises on set, but Alice in Wonderland was a different experience, involving huge amounts of CGI and scenes filmed with green-screen background where Burton's vision of Alice's adventure would be added at a later date. "Seeing it was a lot like going into my own Wonderland going 'Oh, is that what was in his head?' It's my boyfriend's brain."
Even for his partner, and the mother of his children, Burton can remain something of an enigma. "I'm sure he hasn't revealed it all," she says. "He's essentially very private. What I've learned is that our working relationship -- now that we're together -- is always something I learn more about; how to do it. I would say he's very private, but I don't ask questions. I'm a naturally curious person but I have to just muzzle my curiosity."
She now possesses a list of "commandments" detailing how they can remain amicable as they spend time on and off set together. This list was born after a particularly difficult time making Sweeney Todd, about the demon barber of Fleet Street. "When he asked me to be in this I was really touched and amazed that he wanted to work with me again, because Sweeney Todd wasn't harmonious. It was OK, but we had bad moments. I said 'I will do it but we have got to observe certain boundary lines and respect each other.'
"It was much easier this time. I think it's a different subject matter. Sweeney was very dark for Tim. He almost became Sweeney, and he so identified with Sweeney. Unfortunately, I was Mrs Lovett and he didn't have much time for me. And I was pregnant and I was trying to sing, and I live next door so he couldn't get away from the practice.
"Then I really did talk a lot. Obviously I talk. I do talk. He doesn't really like me talking when we're at work so now I've learned to stay schtum. I've taken notes learning from mistakes. There are things that we just never talk about at home. We can't take each other for granted. I think often with somebody you know, you often don't listen to people because you think you know them, but you're not actually hearing them."
The vagaries of her relationship could fill a psychiatry book, but then her upbringing would need several chapters of its own. Her great-grandfather was the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith, who led Britain into the First World War. Her father, a banker, suffered a stroke when she was just 13 leaving him severely disabled. This came on the back of a breakdown her mother (who later became a psychotherapist) suffered when she was just five; it led to a situation where she didn't move out of the family home until she was 30. She moved to a house in Hampstead, and five years later Burton arrived next door.
These days she intersperses her roles in her partner's films with turns playing Bellatrix in the Harry Potter movies and the odd indie film which she admits "nobody ever sees".
The dynamic between actor and director in the household has its own difficulties and demands. "I finished the acting bit in December of 2008, and then he had to move to LA to do all the post-production because it was too complicated. He didn't think he'd have to, but he's been living there since July so we've just Skyped. All he has seen of me, apart from on Skype, is the Red Queen's big head. He came back last week and said, 'Oh, you have a small head'.
"Usually as an actor you say goodbye to a project, but obviously I'm with him so it's with us all the time until he finishes. It's different. I have a great friend who is a biographer and he takes years to write a biography -- like 10 years -- and his boyfriend has said he's always worried about who he's going to pick because he's going to have to live with that person for the next ten years. It is like three people in a relationship. Likewise, when Tim decided to do Alice I thought 'Yes', because I love the subject matter. I didn't realise it was going to be so complicated."
If there is a literal third person in their relationship it is Johnny Depp. Alice in Wonderland is the seventh time Depp and Burton have teamed up. It's a partnership that Bonham Carter feels is born of their shared eccentricities. "That's the thing with Johnny and Tim. They're really lucky but they've done something with their own eccentricity and are able to express their own madness. They've got the very same tastes and cultural references, I have no idea what they're talking about most of the time. It's an absurdist sense of humour."
Anne Hathaway, who plays the White Queen, sister to Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, likens the triumvirate of Burton, Depp and Bonham Carter to a rock band with whom she's been allowed to sing backing vocals. The tune of Alice in Wonderland, much like the relationship between Burton and Bonham Carter, is that happiness comes from the ability to forge your own path, however unusual it may seem to others. "I think it's about being prepared to embrace your craziness. If you do that then you won't actually be insane.
"Tim draws all the time, and early on in our relationship we had an argument and I saw this really disturbing drawing of me, in fact with a huge head with lots of question marks. I said, 'I think that's a disturbed drawing'. And he said, 'No. If I wasn't able to draw you, then you should be worried.'"
And with that she pops up and leaves the room, taking her coffee and her Coke with her. Seconds later she reappears and grabs the sparkling water. Because having just two drinks would be kind of odd.