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Helena Bonham Carter on "The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet"

To many moviegoers, British actress Helena Bonham Carter is probably still most readily identified with stately period dramas and literary adaptations like "A Room with a View" (1985), "Lady Jane" (1986), "Hamlet" (1990), "Howards End" (1992) and "The Wings of the Dove" (1997). Although she still dabbles in that type of filmmaking from time to time—"The King's Speech" (2010), "Great Expectations" (2012) and "Les Miserables" (2012)—she has also been carving out a name for herself in recent years as an increasingly familiar face in the world of fantasy filmmaking thanks to appearances in such films as "Planet of the Apes" (2001), "Big Fish" (2003), "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005), "Sweeney Todd" (2007), "Terminator: Salvation" (2009), "Alice in Wonderland" (2010), "Cinderella" (2015) and, of course, the last four installments of the Harry Potter franchise, where she gave untold numbers of children nightmares with her turns as the malevolent (and wonderfully named) Bellatrix Lestrange. Factor in her wildly unexpected and wickedly funny supporting turn in the cult favorite "Fight Club" (1999) and her vocal contributions to the stop-motion animation favorites "The Corpse Bride" and "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" (both 2005) and you have the kind of eclectic filmography that suggests that if her name appears on the cast list, the results are almost always going to be at least interesting and oftentimes more than that.

That is certainly the case with her latest release, the charmingly oddball 3-D family film "The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet." Based on the book by Reif Larsen and brought to the screen by acclaimed French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the man behind such favorites as "Delicatessen" (1991), "The City of Lost Children" (1995) and his worldwide success "Amelie" (2001), Carter plays an ordinary mother and aspiring entomologist who is so wrapped up in her work and her grief from a recent tragedy that she fails to notice that her ten-year-old son (newcomer Kyle Catlett) has not only invented a perpetual motion machine but has snuck away from his family's Montana ranch to travel by himself to Washington D.C. to accept a prize for his work from the Smithsonian Institute. Offbeat, charming and visually stunning, this would seem to be the kind of film that thoughtful audiences the world over could easily respond to but that has not proven to be the case in America. Completed and released in Europe more than a year ago, the film was caught up in a battle between Jeunet and its American distributor, the Weinstein Company, who seemed unwilling to release it, allegedly until Jeunet made changes to it.

Finally, the studio did release it uncut in the U.S. earlier this month, though "release" may not be quite the right word—they dumped it out in a handful of theaters with no advanced word or publicity to speak of (people literally didn't know it was opening until maybe the day before), no press screenings and, astonishingly, no prints of it in 3-D. Needless to say, this caused no small amount of uproar—even those who didn't particularly care for the film thought that Jeunet was getting a bum deal—and it seems to have had at least a little bit of effect as the film's current engagement in the Seattle area appears to be the first time that it is being shown in the U.S. in 3-D. To do her part to help raise awareness of it, Bonham Carter—who will next be seen this fall in the anticipated drama "Suffragette" and will appear again as the Red Queen next year in "Alice Through the Looking Glass"—phoned in from Florence, Italy to talk about the film, working with Jeunet and getting the opportunity to throw horse manure at her great-grandfather.

What is it that inspired you to become an actress in the first place?

There were a couple of films. There was a particular film that I loved called "My Brilliant Career" with Judy Davis, who I got to work with in "T.S. Spivet." I think it came down to that I loved the idea of pretending not to be me. Maybe it was just a lack of self-love or boredom with myself. Also, I was interested in other people and working out how they ticked. The idea of being able to escape myself has always been very tempting--until I watch the thing and realize that I haven't escaped myself at all. At least there is the mental illusion of being able to escape from your own skin that has always been exciting and liberating for me. I think it is just fun.

Although you first became well-known for starring in a number of period dramas, you have also appeared in a number of fantasy-oriented projects over the years. Is the fantasy genre one that you happen to have any particular interest in?

No. I think those are things that just come my way. I do like people with imagination and I am drawn to directors with particular visions but it is not like I pursue a particular genre. I am more interested in the characters or the writers and if the project has a sort of credibility to it, then I am on for it. But no, this is just the way that it has gone. I wouldn't try to make any sense out of my career at all—it is just a hodgepodge with no particular rhyme or reason to it or any sort of design.

What was it about "T.S. Spivet" that grabbed your interest?

Well, I think Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a genius and I have loved his films. I loved "Amelie"—it is one of my all-time favorites—and I have always loved his aesthetic. I have always loved, oddly, his "Making Of" books—I like doing scrapbooks and collages and things—and I love the way that he sees the world. He had emailed me to say that he was writing  a part and to tell him now if I wouldn't be interested because was imagining me in it. I couldn't believe my luck—it was a dream come true to be written for by him. I also loved that it was specifically made for 3-D and the way that he used 3-D to get inside someone's mind. It really is magical and poetical and totally enchanting in 3-D.

Although the film has a number of fantastical elements to it, the character that you play—the mother of a young boy who invents a perpetual motion machine and travels across the country alone to accept a prize from the Smithsonian—is a tad eccentric but otherwise a normal contemporary woman. For you, is playing a person like that a bigger challenge than the more overtly offbeat types that you have done in recent years?

Well, it was good to play somebody normal. I felt that it was about time that I should play someone a bit more normal and low-key. It isn't more difficult, necessarily, but it is a different scale and pitch. I supposed that I like getting away from myself—I like dressing up—but this character needed more of an adjustment from inside. I liked her absent-mindedness—that I could easily relate to because I am completely absent-minded myself. I didn't have anything to hide behind—I didn't have any teeth to hide behind and my hair was relatively straight. It was good for me to do something not quite so extreme or loud or hairy.

When you do a film like this that is based on a book, do you always make a point to read it as part of your preparation?

Of course, you scour the book. The book is a great bonus. It is like a bible of information. I loved the book and Reif Larsen and how all of the diagrams and illustrations in it showed that he and Jean-Pierre would see eye-to-eye because there was such an overlap in their aesthetics. Having said that, the film is a huge departure from the book but it was still a great source.

Throughout your career, you have worked with a number of directors with very distinct and pronounced visual styles—David Fincher, Tim Burton and now Jean-Pierre Jeunet to name a few. Both generally and in regards to Jeunet, what is it about working with a director with that kind of aesthetic that you respond to as an actress?

It is a great relief because you know that you are going to be in good hands. You can listen to them and obey their every command because you know that they know what they are talking about. With Jean-Pierre, it was the first time that a director had given me an entire storyboard for the film. Not that he would religiously adhere to it or carry it around on the set but you knew that he had it all in his head. It was fun because there is always a sense of relief when you know what kind of world they are trying to create. It is also a relief because I happen to share that same taste and when it comes to things like costumes and hair, we have an innate trust and I feel very comfortable.

Kyle Catlett, who plays your son, has gone on to appear in other films, such as the recent "Poltergeist" remake, but I believe that this was his first major role in anything.

It is. I think he had done some tellies. He is an amazingly small person for one and an amazing little person because he is so interested and curious. He is a little bit prodigious himself--he is brilliant at martial arts, he speaks about five languages and is incredibly bright. He was great and fun and I love any kind of enthusiasm and curiosity. Children can sometimes be quite tricky on film but he was all eagerness.

Although a couple of the Harry Potter movies and "Alice in Wonderland" were released in 3-D, I think this is the first film that you have actually shot in the process.

We had these massive cameras and there were certain things that you couldn't do. Sometimes you couldn't move too quickly if you were too close but there was no way that you forget that the camera was there because it was so enormous. It was quite inviting because everyone would disappear into the tent and you could see what it was like in 3-D. There were certain colors that we couldn't use and certain gestures that were done deliberately for the 3-D effect that were great fun with my implements and my insects. It is quite spectacular in 3-D and a totally different experience--like going on a holiday without having to pack or find your passport. It also allowed you to get inside of T.S.'s mind and, in a way, into Jean-Pierre's mind.

"The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet" was released in Europe about a year or so ago but the American release was delayed for a long time, reportedly due to difficulties between Jeunet and the Weinstein Company, and when it finally did come out earlier this month, it was without any publicity or press screenings and only in 2-D. For you, how frustrating is it to have to sit and watch this happen, especially with a film that could actually attract a decent audience if given even a bit of a chance?

It is very frustrating but at least it is coming out and that is all that I can say. It could have just been dumped on video but at least it is being given a chance. But no, it has been frustrating.

In your next film, this fall's "Suffragette," you appear alongside Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan in the story of the fight for women to get the right to vote in England.

I'm playing a character called Edith Ellyn and what is peculiar for me is that I am playing a suffragette and the prime minister at the time was Asquith, who is, or was, my great-grandfather and the last liberal prime minister. I always thought that he was a good one but in playing a suffragette, I saw him from a different light. I saw someone who wasn't going for that vote. In the film, which is hilarious, even though they had to cut the scene,  I got to throw horse dung at my great-grandfather along with a lot of suffragettes who were trying to attack and terrorize him.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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