Helena Bonham Carter: California Dreaming

After years of heading up the corset and crumpet club, Helena Bonham Carter is stepping into two new contemporary films--_The Theory of Flight_ with Kenneth Branagh and The Fight Club with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. And although she instinctively shrinks from the sun, she's warming up to life in Hollywood.

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If you've been anywhere near a period film in the last 15 years, then of course you've seen Helena Bonham Carter. She's the feisty girl with the spectacular auburn hair that cascades down her back, the one with the soulful eyes, the singular pout and the narrow waist, the one who can drive men so wild with desire that they will risk everything--honor, country, family--to be with her.

So who's this waif in sneakers and a baggy dress walking towards me at L.A.'s Four Seasons poolside restaurant? With her whiter-than-a-Kabuki-mask skin, her dark kohled eyes and her short spiky hair, Helena Bonham Carter looks like no one out of any century earlier than the 21st. "Sorry," she says when she notes my reaction, "I know people are always disappointed when they meet me." Before I can assure her that I'm not exactly disappointed, she waves away my concerns. "I know what they're thinking--'She

doesn't dress great, she's British but she's not at all classy, and her hair ... it's a mess!'"

With that, Bonham Carter heads straight to the one shady table around the pool and collapses into her chair, pulling her legs up and covering as much of her pale flesh as possible with the yards of material that make up her dress. Obviously she's not visiting L.A. from her native London to take in the sunshine. In fact, she's here to make The Fight Club, director David Fincher's high-profile contemporary film that stars Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. She's also busy promoting The Theory of Flight, yet another contemporary story, which costars Kenneth Branagh, who happens to be her boyfriend.

Bonham Carter built a career on being the corset queen of period dramas. She delivered subtle, beautiful performances in Lady Jane, A Room with a View, Maurice and Howards End. Finally, with last year's The Wings of a Dove, Hollywood gave her an Oscar nomination. And now, for the first time in a long time, she's getting to play roles in which her waist isn't cinched.

"I think I single-handedly brought back the corset," she tells me. "And the thing of it is, I'm a woman who doesn't even wear earrings! I like to be comfortable, because I'm so primped all the time on sets. I buy lots of clothes, but I never even wear them. They just look great in my closet."

I could believe Bonham Carter if I hadn't seen her at last year's Academy Awards ceremony, where she was simply a knockout in a lavender satin gown. Bonham Carter smiles at the memory. "The amount of palaver about what you're going to wear at the Oscars is just absurd," she declares, not having any idea I'll have to look up the definition of "palaver" later (it means "idle chatter"). "I've never really cared that much about the clothing. And then suddenly it was my number one priority. I remember being in a cold sweat on my bed, wondering what the fuck I was going to wear. And the designers were throwing dresses at me. Of course, me being me, I didn't go for a free one. I finally realized that what I wanted to wear was this dress that my mum had in the attic. I had always loved it, but it didn't fit right, so I went to this wonderful woman, Deborah Milner, and she remade it. Then I went to see a man named Mr. Powell, who makes corsets. I think he thought this was the luckiest day of his life, because he's so period-mad, and here I was. He wanted me to go really tiny--I mean, they can make your waist whatever size you dream because they'll just cinch it tighter and tighter. This guy has an 18-inch waist, he's worn his corset now for 20 years, only taking it off for baths, and ..."

Bonham Carter suddenly sees that I am staring at her in astonishment. "He's a body engineer," she says, as if that explains everything. "Anyway, he made this couture corset for me that is so comfortable."

We now know more about corsets than we ever wanted to, but there is no stopping Bonham Carter. "The only bad part is, when can I wear that dress again? Do you think I could wear it if I'm ever nominated again?

Nobody ever does that, right? I felt like the whole night was some massive wedding. It's like everyone you knew was about to be married. And everybody was wishing you luck and joy. You're all dressed for it, but the groom's a nine-inch gold statue, who might very well stand you up at the last minute."

"Did you feel like a jilted bride when you lost the Oscar?"

Bonham Carter laughs. "I swear, when they announced Helen Hunt's name, I thought I had won! They said Helen, and I started to get out of my seat. But I was there with my mum and she put her arm on me and said, 'No.' And then I realized it was Helen not Helena. And I felt this rush of emotion--I just wanted to cry, not even because I was disappointed, but because it was such a relief that it was all over. Then I thought, 'Oh no, I've got to think up my loser sound bite now.' You do have to have a sense of humor."

Bonham Carter looks up and realizes the sun is starting to edge toward her part of the table. "Do you mind if we switch seats?" she asks. I don't, so we both get up.

"Why was your mom sitting next to you at the Oscars and not Kenneth Branagh?" I ask. After all, they have been dating for three years. "The press in England is horrid to us," Bonham Carter says sadly. "They never stop clamoring on. So we are very careful not to go to big things together, like the Oscars or something of that nature." Bonham Carter and Branagh fell in love while they were making Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, though at the time Branagh was married to Emma Thompson. It's never been clear whether Branagh's affair with Bonham Carter broke up their marriage, or whether Thompson left him before the affair started, but the British press apparently won't leave it alone one way or the other.

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