Helena Boham Carter: After 30 years of waiting, the actress is finally playing the role of her dreams

The Sweeney Todd star talks to Nicola Christie

There aren't many parts that require singing, baking and gazing at Johnny Depp all at the same time. Maybe that's why Helena Bonham Carter is looking so happy. "It's an absolutely great part," she admits. "But I had to fight for it."

Lady Lovett, maker of the finest pies in London, is a Lady Macbeth of the musical stage who wills the man she yearns for, a barber by the name of Sweeney Todd, to cut the throats of his customers in order to provide a cheap and easy filling for her pies. The show, written by Stephen Sondheim, sent audiences wild when it opened on Broadway in 1979. Now it's causing similar excitement in movie-land, this week garnering a Golden Globe for its lead actor Johnny Depp and one for Best Musical too.

We meet during shooting, in Mrs Lovett's dressing room at Pinewood studios. On the way in, I've bumped into an alarming number of body parts – severed heads, hands with thumbs missing – illustrative of the havoc that Bonham Carter is called upon to unleash in the film. There are plenty of pots of red gloopy paint on standby, too, waiting to be slopped all over the screen.

I ask how she's enjoying herself, back on set with Depp, Tim Burton's other great muse, and godfather to her and Burton's four-year son Billy. "He's great, we're having a brilliant time." But what about her director? How does that work? "I've learnt not to talk so much and basically obey him, because he's the chief at work."

It was during the shoot for The Planet of the Apes remake in 2001 that Bonham Carter and Burton locked fates. He told her she'd make a perfect monkey, and the two have lived happily in Hampstead ever since, recently becoming the proud parents of a baby girl, born just before Christmas.

"It can be difficult living and working together. It depends on the day. Sometimes we revert to a couple and our relationship at home on set, which isn't helpful."

They can't get it too wrong too often, though, as they're still working together. Their past collaborations include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (with Bonham Carter delivering a glorious Cockney turn as Mrs Bucket), Big Fish and Corpse Bride. For the leading man Depp, the relationship with Burton goes back even further, to the touching 1990 fantasy movie Edward Scissorhands. As the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Depp was an instant choice for the director. Not so for Bonham Carter as Mrs Lovett.

"I had to fight for it," she recalls. "More than for anything else I've done. I've been wanting to play the part since I was 13 – when I first saw the show. Tim said, 'Well, you can try, but there's no guarantee you're going to get the part'."

Casting that swept from London to New York, taking in leading actresses of the stage and pop stars like Cindy Lauper, eventually settled on Bonham Carter. It was Stephen Sondheim who had the final say. "Tim and I both burst into tears."

As a young girl growing up in Golders Green, Helena would do her hair like Mrs Lovett and spend time locked in her bedroom going through the score and the lyrics. "I was a strange child," she concedes.

In person there's nothing strange about the actress who has become one of the finest ambassadors of British acting since her performance in the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film A Room With a View. Famed for her cut-glass vowels and smouldering delicacy, she finally swapped the corsets and fine muslins of films such as Howards End and The Wings of the Dove for roles like the cigarette-smoking bad chick Marla Singer in Fight Club and Woody Allen's pushy wife Amanda in Mighty Aphrodite. More recently, she played a Jewish mother in Paul Weiland's Sixty Six and a bridesmaid – "I wear one costume for the whole film, I'd love every film to be done on that scale!" – in Hans Canosa's Conversations with Other Women.

These days, her aristocratic heritage – she's the great-granddaughter of the prime minister Herbert Asquith – is frequently overlooked in favour of a focus on her eccentric, gothic, dress sense, fierce frankness and wild curls. She's often labelled a witch, but in person she comes across as nothing other than beautiful and intense. "But you know I do like playing a witch," she giggles.

And we've seen it; first as Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies – "I love that whole magical world, all the wizards and the witches" – and now in Sweeney Todd, prowling about the screen with a face caked in white slap, looking suitably rotten and hag-like. "It's a bit of a horror movie, a Victorian melodrama, but in music. It's operetta-like, actually."

It's also this year's Moulin Rouge, but instead of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor cooing over each other we have Bonham Carter and Depp eating people alive, or at least baking people alive for others to eat. The story dates to 1846 when a wrongly convicted barber returns from jail. Thirsty for revenge for his wife's murder, he wields his razors to slit the throats of his customers, thus providing cheap filling for his landlady's pies. It's a story that film directors including Sam Mendes have been trying to get their hands on for years.

For the actors, it required three months of singing lessons, with Depp locking himself in a recording studio in LA to make a demo before he dared do it for real in London.

"Johnny's singing voice is very sexy," Bonham Carter reflects. He takes a role played in the past by actors and singers ranging from Ray Winstone to Bryn Terfel, and is a revelation in it – a worthy Golden Globe winner, in fact – delivering a Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-flavoured Cockney but with haunting sadness driving the role this time, rather than cocky playfulness.

"He really sings from the gut, and it's a very emotional role," reflects Bonham Carter, admiringly. "His singing is very naked and very touching."

Depp is equally keen to gush about his on-screen wife. "She's very brave," he says. "Without question, that's the toughest part in the movie and she beautifully made it her own. She's made Mrs Lovett vulnerable, horrific, funny and sweet."

Bonham Carter's character is a lady who's not really a lady but wants to be one, craving a man who is so intent on revenge that he never notices her. "I saw her as totally amoral, but full of zest and full of life," says the actress. "She's a survivor. But the main thing that motors her, the main thing that defines Mrs Lovett, is that she's tragically in love with somebody who doesn't love her back."

The cast is rounded out by Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall (both of whom had singing training at Rada so had an easier time of it) and Sacha Baron Cohen, who came in and sang the entire score of Fiddler on the Roof at his audition to convince them to give him the part of the rival barber Pirelli.

"It's been a very special experience for us all," reflects Bonham Carter, before smiling wickedly at an apt choice of culinary metaphor: "For Tim this film has been marinating for 20 years."

'Sweeney Todd' opens on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

    Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

    Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
    General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

    All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

    The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
    How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

    How Etsy became a crafty little earner

    The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
    Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

    King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

    Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

    Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

    The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
    Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

    Don't fear the artichoke

    Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
    11 best men's socks

    11 best men's socks

    Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
    Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

    Paul Scholes column

    Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
    Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
    London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

    Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

    Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

    Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

    Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
    Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

    Khorasan is back in Syria

    America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
    General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

    On the campaign trail with Ukip

    Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
    Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

    Expect a rush on men's tights

    Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
    Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

    In the driving seat: Peter Kay

    Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road