We caught up with “corset queen” Helena Bonham Carter in London via phone while she was out promoting The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, currently playing at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15. Known for such period costume dramas as A Room With a View, Howards End, and Planet of the Apes, it’s rare to find the actress sporting contemporary attire topped by a modern-day headdress. Wait till you see what she does for a blasé housedress topped by a two-holed — not the arm chutes — spring green sweater!
T.S. Spivet, played by newcomer Kyle Catlett, travels cross-country to the Smithsonian to accept an award for his latest invention, a perpetual motion machine. Did I mention the boy was only ten years old? T.S. Spivet is a whimsical family film, the type of old-school adventure yarn makes you an eager participant, drawn in by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s charismatic pop-up book panache.
Two glitches: what with all the reverb, the phone connection sounded like the sonic center of the universe, so an occasional sentence was lost in the echo. And I ran out of time before asking whether she or ex-boyfriend got custody of Johnny Depp in the split. Next time!
Scott Marks: My favorite of your performances is as Marla Singer in Fight Club. There’s a moment around the time Marla first makes known her feelings for Tyler where she can’t quite sit properly on the bed. Was the fall planned or a happy accident?
Helena Bonham Carter: Nothing is an accident with (David) Fincher.
SM: I might have known.
HBC (Laughing): We did it seven million times! It was a long time ago, but knowing him we did it many, many times. Fincher and [Spivet director Jean-Pierre] Jeunet, in fact, are quite similar in the sense that they have everything in their head.
SM: That’s precisely why in both cases the finished products look as good as they do.
HBC: They both have very precise, very specific ways of seeing the world.
SM: Kyle Catlett, the young actor who plays T.S., is a joy to watch. Did he do a lot of his own stunts, or is CGI really getting good?
HBC: He did! It seemed like child cruelty because he’s so little. He’s a tiny human being — I hope he grows. He was up for anything. He’s an amazing little person, Kyle. Not only was he up for all the stunts, he was so curious, so alive. So happy to be alive. He has this thirst for any bit of knowledge he could put his hands on. He was perfect for T.S. He also spoke something like 7000 languages, and he knew tai chi, or something like that. He was extraordinary. And it all came in this tiny little package.
SM: This is stunning to look at. It’s so satisfying to see a movie that pays attention to color design.
HBC: Jeunet’s sense of color is very particular. And also his design and the way he can see the world is so enchanting. I’ve always been into scrapbooks. It’s what he loves in scrapbooks and the way he combines collage with different film mediums. It was such a happy marriage. When he asked me to marry him for a job, as it were — which is basically in a way what happens when a director asks you to work — it was right up my street.
SM: Unlike Alice In Wonderland and the Harry Potter films, this was shot in real 3D, not a 2D conversion. How did that impact the filmmaking process?
HBC: I had a very special camera for Alice because my head was extra big. It was one of the few cameras that made heads look bigger. Spivet definitely had these great big 3D cameras. It was extraordinary. The film was definitely shot with 3D in mind. I hope you get to see it in 3D. I think Seattle is showing it in 3D.
SM: Sadly, not here.
HBC: That’s too bad. The whole look of it — the colors, the costumes, how our actions were — all had to do with the impact they would have in 3D. It’s absolutely magical in 3D. It’s kind of like a holiday. It wraps you up and takes you into T.S.’s mind.
SM: With all of the rabbits Jeunet pulls out of his hat, nothing is forced.
HBC: Exactly right. It’s like you’re on holiday without being on a plane. And without the hassle of packing.
SM: Do you think the title will hurt business?
HBC: Yeah, I think it’s...hang on. Which title are they using over there?
The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
SM: The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet.
HBC: I always said to Jean-Pierre that no one knows what “prodigious” means. “Prodigious” in French is a pretty well-used adjective.
SM: Doesn’t it mean fabulous or Herculean?
HBC: Exactly. But I think most people have no idea what “prodigious” means. As I was trying to get them to come up with a slightly more intelligible title. I hope prodigious doesn’t throw them. I think it gives the general sense that it’s a quirky, whimsical film. In that way the title describes the product.
SM: Were it not for the cars and a mention of AIDS early on, one would be hard pressed to know exactly when the film is taking place.
HBC: I think you’re right. He wanted to give the film a classic, timeless quality, one that speaks to any period and any age. It’s sort of placeless, too. We shot it all in Canada, because there was no need to be in America.
SM: Facebook friend Kris Nelson asks, “She’s come such a long way from those historical romance/dramas — is there anything she hasn’t done, something different, that she’d really like to tackle?”
HBC: It’s not like there’s a specific series of roles out there. I would like to do something intensely physical in a way. I know before the body completely falls apart I’m capable of doing something that requires a huge amount of fitness. Other than that, I am open to playing anything that’s well-written and with someone that I know is talented. (Laughing.) Their talent will just make me more talented.