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A pie-in-the-sky dream come true

Helena Bonham Carter wanted to be 'Sweeney Todd's' baker, but some convincing was in order.

December 28, 2007|Mark Salisbury | Special to The Times

LONDON -- "I remember courting over 'Sweeney,' " says Helena Bonham Carter, 8 1/2 months pregnant, perched on the edge of a sofa in a hotel room in late November, looking as if she might give birth at any second. "I remember us listening to the whole score one Saturday, six years ago, and him even mentioning then, 'One day . . . .' It was definitely something we had in common."

The "him," of course, is Tim Burton, Bonham Carter's off-screen partner of six years, father of her two children (Billy, 4, and their infant daughter, born in mid-December) and director of "Sweeney Todd," in which Bonham Carter stars opposite Johnny Depp as Mrs. Lovett, a widowed baker in Victorian London who uses the flesh of the victims Todd murders as the filling for her meat pies.

In Burton's film, she's younger than her onstage counterparts, more flirtatious, less "Broadway," with a touch of Baby Jane about her. "You can play it so broadly and quite crudely, and in a way she's been played almost like straight out of music hall," explains Bonham Carter, 41. "But it wouldn't play well on film. Certainly Tim wouldn't allow me, because his tastes are so anti-theatrical."

Restraint, quite literally, was a hallmark of Bonham Carter's early career, which began in 1984, when the actress made her film debut as England's nine-day queen in "Lady Jane." For the next decade, she would earn a reputation as Britain's "corset queen," Merchant Ivory's doe-eyed, alabaster-skinned, go-to girl for E.M. Forster adaptations -- appearing in "A Room With a View" as the parasol-twirling Lucy and a string of other period costume dramas, including "Maurice," "Where Angels Fear to Tread" and "Howards End."

Bonham Carter's career trajectory began to change after a turn as an unfaithful wife in Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite" in 1995, though she would earn an Oscar nomination three years later for yet another period costumer, the Henry James adaptation "The Wings of the Dove." Since then, though, she's played an eclectic mix of characters -- a junkie in "Novocaine," chain-smoking femme fatale in "Fight Club" and leather-clad Bellatrix Lestrange in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," a role she's set to reprise in the next installment of the franchise, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

Of course, her portrayal of a chimp in Burton's remake of "Planet of the Apes" affected her life most profoundly -- given that it led to her relationship with the director. But it was only after that film was released and Burton had moved to London after splitting with his long-term girlfriend, actress Lisa Marie, that the pair became romantically linked. Six years later, in addition to two children, they now share adjacent properties in north London, as well as a similar taste for birds' nest hairdos.

The couple's shared affection for unkempt coiffures is readily apparent in "Sweeney Todd," but they also agreed on the way Bonham Carter wanted to approach her character. "I wanted to bring out [Mrs. Lovett's] sexuality," says Bonham Carter, who, along with Burton and Depp, received a Golden Globe nomination for her work in the film. "She's often played older and more maternal, and what's so fantastic is she's got the potential to be anything and everything. . . . She's a tough, pragmatic survivor, but she's as vital and zestful as Sweeney is sensitive and depressive and introverted. And she's completely delusional."

Landing the role, however, wasn't easy -- Burton was aware of how it might seem, hiring his girlfriend. In fact, according to "Sweeney Todd" producer Richard D. Zanuck, Bonham Carter stood less of a chance than anybody to play Mrs. Lovett. Nevertheless, she spent three months working with a singing teacher, learning the entire score, before auditioning for Burton -- who then auditioned more than half a dozen other big-name actresses in London and New York before even viewing her tape.

"He was ruthlessly impartial on this," she notes, "and there was a dead silence between my auditioning and the five weeks later when he decided. It was like the elephant in the room. . . . And then, when he'd seen everybody else, we were all videoed, our auditions, then he saw it and said he was surprised."

"I wanted to make sure that she was really, really right for it, which she was and is," offers Burton. (Not that Burton had the final say anyway, with Sondheim contractually having casting approval over both Todd and Mrs. Lovett.)

"It would have been pretty hard for me to . . . watch somebody else do it," she acknowledges. "But at the same time, once we started there was a lot of pressure, because if I was crap, we'd both look crap. It was a risk."

Although Bonham Carter had starred in "Planet of the Apes," since she and Burton had become an item she'd had only smallish parts in his films "Big Fish" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Playing one of the leads inevitably caused some friction.

"It had certain stresses," she begins. "He was so polite to me on 'Planet of the Apes,' and very respectful, and there was a case of being a bit of a slave on this one. I sort of collected rules as we went on, for working together, because it became very obvious that there were boundaries we shouldn't cross. One was, obviously, never talk about it once you're at home; don't take advantage of this physical proximity to pop in a question about anything. He needed his downtime."

"But," she continues, looking at her belly and smiling, "[it] couldn't have been that bad because of what happened."

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