Helena Bonham Carter has definitely gone a long way towards changing her image. For years she was stuck in elegant period pieces ranging from Room with a View, a (1986) to Howard's End (1992) to her Oscar nominated performance in Wings Of The Dove, THE (1997), a study in simmering sexuality. But with her role as a full-fledged talking chimpanzee in Tim Burton's upcoming remake of PLANET OF THE APES (2001), Bonham Carter had carved out a whole new niche for herself.
"I think it's quite an extreme statement - it might be my ultimate attempt to put the corset to bed," says Bonham Carter. "But I think I've still got a bit of a sado-masochistic streak in me, because if I'm not going to be restricted by corsets and covered in lace, then I still wind up wearing an ape-mask over my face. I do wonder how I get myself in these situations! "
Playing opposite Mark Wahlberg in what is his first leading role, Bonham Carter had to create a semblance of romantic interest in the forlorn human subject who winds up living amongst an ape-dominated culture after his spaceship makes a crash landing.
As Ari, Bonham Carter adds a measure of warmth and compassion to the cruel predicament in which Wahlberg and other humans find themselves. However, a love scene between Wahlberg and Bonham Carter's chimp character was removed from the final script and the actual film after the studio observed that any such bestial coupling would be too revolting to comtemplate. Still, Bonham Carter found enough interesting dimensions to her role to keep her from going crazy inside the hot chimp mask.
It's not every day that an actress gets to play a talking chimpanzee?
(Laughs) No, it's not. But it was a challenge to be able to create a character without being able to use one's normal set of expressions. All the rubber and makeup attached to your face left you with only a modest range of facial movements, although I'm told that our masks are much softer and more flexible than the masks that the actors in the original film were forced to wear. So I'm grateful for that.
How hard was it to work with all the fur and mask and such?
It was very cumbersome and crippling. Not only was it nearly impossible to hear because of these huge rubber ears we had to wear, but we also had these huge furry hands which were absolutely useless, especially if you had to scratch yourself somewhere. Sometimes it was unbearably hot under the mask and the costume and a lot of the chimp and ape actors were ready to kill at the end of the day's shooting! (Laughs) So it could be very unpleasant.
But it was fun also to gauge people's reactions to you when you walked up to them in your chimp mask and started talking to them. Some of my friends who came to visit me on the set were traumatized, I think. There was enough of me showing through the makeup that they could tell it was me under the mask but at the same time it must have felt terribly odd. So they would avoid looking at me when they spoke to me.
How long were you in makeup?
It seemed like forever. Usually about four hours or so which meant getting up at 2 or 3 in the morning so that you would be ready on the set at 7 am. That's hard to endure and by the end of the filming your nerves become completely frayed. You'd start to resent the actors who didn't have to go through the ape makeup process.
What about eating and drinking?
That was another nightmare. Because we had these huge teeth, we would have to remove them to drink through a straw. And when we wanted to eat, we would have to use these small cosmetic mirrors so that we could see exactly where our mouths were and didn't get food all over our faces.
The absolute worst part was going to the toilet. That was a huge event in itself and very exhausting. It meant removing your rubber furry hands and then struggling to open your ape suit - so basically we ate and drank as little as possible simply to avoid the incredible logistical problems of going to the toilet. Most of the time when we weren't shooting our scenes we tried to move as little as possible so as not to mess up our suits or waste any energy.
Is there a contradiction about being an actor and trying to impart a performance from behind a mask?
To a certain extent, I suppose it is. But you learn to rely on a few basic movements and use your voice to the greatest extent possible to convey your emotions. So there was a technical challenge there and a responsibility to create a character from behind the mask. But it's not something I really worried about. After all, this wasn't a film intended to wind up in film festivals or art house cinemas, and clearly it's being aimed for a younger and larger audience than any of the corset dramas I've been involved with in the past.
Were you ever aware of the existence of a love scene between your character and Mark Wahlberg's character in earlier versions of the script?
Yes, but I don't think anyone ever gave that idea serious consideration. It would have looked ridiculous, a lot of people would have been disgusted by it, and that's all anyone would have talked about.
The relationship between us is an emotional one that is conveyed in many ways and any kind of kissing or sex scene would have been viewed as something rather kinky or even perverse.
You've often complained about not being comfortable with your screen image and have tried to fight your way out of the corset closet. What did you expect from a role like this?
I think when I first agreed to do it that I saw it as this very odd and very intriguing project. Actors all wear masks of one sort or another, and here I was being given the chance to interpret a role from being a real mask and find some humanity in this woman. She has a rare beauty to her and for once I can look at my performance and not complain that it's just me being me again. Usually I'm frustrated when I look at my films and I don't believe that I've made a real transformation beyond my usual sets of gestures and expressions. I still have this nagging feeling that it's me, that I didn't create a unique character. Of course, in this kind of film, I have a huge advantage in that the makeup people have done most of the transformation work for me!
You and the other fur-bearing actors had to go to ape school to learn proper simian movements, didn't you?
Yes. It was very enlightening because I discovered that my normally hyper personality and movements are completely unsuitable for apes. I was in danger of flunking ape school at first until I began to get in touch with my inner ape! (Smiles)
This is Mark Wahlberg's first film as a lead actor. How well do you think he managed things?
I think he gives an outstanding performance. He's a very dedicated and decent man and extremely respectful of the acting process. He loves to get involved in creating the scenes and adding anything he can and learning as much as he can to improve a scene. Mark was a delight to work with and I'm quite confident audiences will fall in love with him.
Even though you became overly identified with brilliant period films like Room with a View, a (1986) and more recently with Wings of the Dove, the (1997), you have changed registers with work in films like Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Fight Club (1999) and Theory of Flight, the (1998)?
Yes, but I have to struggle to change people's perceptions of me so that I can find those kinds of roles. They're not just out there pleading for me to take them, I have to fight to get them. I grew very frustrated with the perception that I'm this shy, retiring, inhibited aristocratic creature when I'm absolutely not like that at all. I think I'm much more outgoing and exuberant than my image.
So most of the scripts that get sent your way tend to play on your corset image?
Yes, and you become very angry and depressed that you keep getting offered only these exceedingly demure and repressed roles. They're so not me. That's why films like Fight Club (1999) were so important to me because I think I confounded certain stereotypes and limited perceptions of what I could do as an actress. I also get fed up with the fact that casting agents and directors have this impression of me as being frail and petite. I find it very patronizing. I'm quite beefy and strong. I was a gymnast in school and I have lots of muscles.
I drink booze, I smoke, and I'm hooked on caffeine. I actually have been known to swear at times and belch and even raise my voice when provoked. And I'm not physically repressed!
You've tasted a measure of fame during your career, particularly after your Oscar nomination (she lost to Helen Hunt for As Good as it Gets (1997)). How did that feel?
I remember feeling very exhausted after the Oscars because it involves six weeks of non-stop talking prior to the event. You begin to lost all touch with reality by giving one interview after another and meeting hundreds and hundreds of people in which you're repeating yourself over and over again or reinventing yourself in new ways just so as not to be bored with talking about yourself or about your work.
You begin to feel rather superficial in the sense that you're obviously engaging in pure marketing and still trying to preserve a semblance of integrity in not making your self-promotional activities seem too flagrant and ruthless. (Laughs)
What's the downside of fame?
Most of the time people are very kind and I enjoy those small chats you have when people come up and talk to you about your work. It only involves a few seconds of effort to be nice to those people, and I am very grateful for the kind words that people have taken the trouble to express to me in person. Those are wonderful moments. The problems come when your personal life and relationships come under scrutiny in the press and often very uncomplimentary things are printed about you.
I've gone through that (during her relationship and subsequent breakup with Kenneth Branagh) and it was horrid. But aside from that, the thing I hate most is when I hear catty people who notice me making comments like, 'Oh, she's so small,' or 'Her hair is a mess,' or things of that sort. There are some days when you feel like shit and absolutely don't want anyone to recognize you. My favourite line of that variety is "Isn't she that period-actress person?"
What's been the toughest role of your career?
Probably in Theory of Flight, the (1998). It was a very hard road for me to go down because of my father's illness. Emotions came out during the making of that movie which I had effectively repressed for a long, long time.
When I researched the character and met a woman who had the disease, I saw that whatever complaints an actor may have or petty concerns they're nothing compared to what someone like that has to suffer. It puts things in perspective