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All Hail the Red Queen: Helena Bonham Carter

Helena Bonham Carter stars as the Red Queen in Tim Burton's epic 3D fantasy adventure “Alice in Wonderland.” Iracebeth, the Red Queen is the tyrannical monarch of Underland. With her oversized head, fiery temper and propensity to scream for people’s heads to be chopped off, she rules her subjects through fear. “She’s got emotional problems,” says Bonham Carter. “It takes nothing, practically, for her to lose her temper. Her tantrums are that of a two-year-old.” Her younger sibling, the White Queen, has designs on the throne and crown that Iracebeth once stole from her.

Q: Tell us about your character.

Helena Bonham Carter. She has a really, really big head. She doesn’t really rule through any kind of justice or fairness, but through terror. I chop off people’s heads. That’s my solution to everything. It probably comes from an underlying insecurity for the fact that she has got such a big head, and everybody else has a normal head. Playing the Queen’s been fun. I love being royal. I love that it’s really all about her—basically, she’s like a spoiled child. Everything’s done for her. She has absolutely no compassion for anybody, and is totally oblivious to anybody else’s feelings apart from her own. She basically has no heart, even though she’s the Queen of Hearts. It has been really, really fun.

Q: What were your references for putting her together? How much input did Tim have?

Helena. I looked back at the book. Also, there was one of Lewis Carroll’s quotes that was really useful—that he saw her as somebody who was afflicted with an ungovernable passion, just full of this fury and rage. No matter what the offense, little or big, her solution to everything is to chop off a head. Tim said to watch “Mommy Dearest,” which is one of his favorite films. And Bette Davis was kind of an inspiration again, as her role as Baby Jane Hudson was an inspiration for Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” and her portrayal of Elizabeth I—just a little on the outlandish, cartoony side—was a reference for the Red Queen.

Q: What is happening in Underland in the beginning?

Helena. Underland, mistaken by Alice as Wonderland when she visited as a child, is under the Red Queen’s reign—the White Queen should have been queen, although I am the eldest—it’s just that our parents passed me by and gave the crown to my younger sister. Everyone is in a state of unrest. Meanwhile, all of the supporters of the White Queen are rebelling, and I continue to rule with the only person I love, Stayne, the Knave of Hearts, my right-hand man.

Q: What are your thoughts on Anne Hathaway?

Helena. Anne Hathaway is the White Queen, and she gets a really pretty dress. And she’s lovely. We had a good laugh. We wish we had more together. In a way, we make each other’s characters, we define each other, because we are the antithesis. What’s so great about Anne—it could so easily be the good, dull White Queen, but she’s brought her own madness to it. She’s a really clever actress. It was really fun playing sisters who hate each other. She looks gorgeous, too.

Q: How did having a big head affect your performance?

Helena. One thing I couldn’t do was put my hand up to my face, which you do more than you realize, because then the hand would be inflated along with my head. But the big hazard was I lost my voice pretty much every day by ten o’clock, because she shouts a lot. ‘Off with his head! Off with her head!’ It’s quite exhausting losing your temper all the time.

Q: What do you like about Tim’s work?

Helena. It’s always a surprise to see what he’s had in his head. He’s so private when it comes to his creativity. He doesn’t let on. There’s a superstitious silence around it, and he does a lot of unconscious marinating—he doesn’t want to talk about things, because it’ll stop his process. So I know now to give him a wide berth and I’ll never ask questions. And he will let me know the essentials. Sometimes, I feel very privileged, when he actually asks my opinion and wants to discuss things. He’s got an amazing emotional intuition about people and about what fits and what is needed. His taste is impeccable. His eye’s impeccable, too, and his sense of humor. It’s always intensely original.

Q: Is it difficult to work with your significant other?

Helena. It’s always interesting, working with your boyfriend. “Sweeney Todd” was quite stressful, but there was a lot of pressure on us, and I’d never sung before. And he’d never done a musical. But Tim was very relaxed on “Alice.” I think maybe we’ve matured as people, or not. I don’t know. But, it was definitely fun.

Q: How do you balance family and filmmaking?

Helena: I think that it’s definitely made easier, because the job that we have is essentially child-like. We’re just pretending, you know? So my son Bill and I are on the same level, really. And Tim’s always been on that level, anyway. It makes it easy to explain to Billy why I can’t be with him. It is hard work, yeah, but it’s fine, because it’s a finite job. And you have to have understanding children.

(Opening across the Philippines on Thursday, March 4, “Alice in Wonderland” is distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International.)

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