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'This is a total joy to work on, it's a bit of magic'

Published 14/05/2016

Helena Bonham Carter in Love, Nina
Helena Bonham Carter in Love, Nina
Helena Bonham Carter in Love, Nina
Helena Bonham Carter

She might be a Hollywood star, but Helena Bonham Carter's parenting dilemmas are familiar territory. Ahead of new series Love, Nina, Gemma Dunn catches up with the eccentric actress to talk about tech habits, self-sufficiency and being an 'embarrassing mum'.

She may have amazed industry critics with her acting versatility, but Helena Bonham Carter has a much tougher crowd to please at home.

"No, they aren't remotely," the 49-year-old declares, when asked whether her two kids - Billy (12) and Nell (8) - are impressed by her CV.

"In fact, they're embarrassed," adds the star, who separated from her long-term partner, director Tim Burton, in 2014. "And they're going to get more and more embarrassed because it's that age. It's like: 'Please keep your head down - mum, don't!' They want me to be as least conspicuous as possible.

"But that's the nature of being a parent, to embarrass your children," she concludes with a laugh.

Known for her roles in historical dramas and fantasy films, like Alice in Wonderland, Corpse Bride and the Harry Potter franchise, the Bafta-winning actress is renowned for her ability to play against type, from period protagonist to transforming into a primate for Planet of the Apes.

It's mid-afternoon when we meet, at an arts centre close to her home in London's Camden and Bonham Carter, who has come straight from a photoshoot, is wholly apologetic for running late.

All is forgiven as she opens up about her latest project Love, Nina - a Nick Hornby, five-part fictionalised drama adaptation of Nina Stibbe's prize-winning novel.

"It's a joy, a total joy," she enthuses, twiddling one of her fabulous oversized green earrings. "I thought it was a bit of magic and enchanting, so that was the draw. I thought, 'well, it makes me happy', so if the TV adaptation can make people as happy, then it's worth making."

Nina is a 19-year-old who leaves Leicester to work as a nanny in Eighties London. The story revolves around the letters she sends home to her sister, and the result is a charming, laugh-out-loud funny, culture-clash comedy, which celebrates family and friendship in all its chaotic glory.

When it came to playing the part of Nina's employer Mary-Kay Wilmers (changed to Georgia for the BBC series), Bonham Carter had one condition: "I said I'd only accept it if Mary-Kay didn't mind me doing it, so I got the blessing."

Of her time spent with the real Mary-Kay, now 77, the London-born talent recalls: "She's a fascinating, amazing woman and there are so many things I wanted to borrow.

"She employed Nina because she was fun, and a lot of people don't have the gift of fun. She was a single mother, and it's tough to be a single mother and a working mother.

"I related to it because I have nannies, and they're one of the most intimate relationships in my life. People often talk about kids being a life-changing thing, but I think a nanny can be a life-changing thing. I've never really seen any talk about that."

Born in London, to a psychotherapist mother and merchant banker father, Bonham Carter deems her own early family life to be - much like Mary-Kay's - incredibly unpretentious, despite being the great-grand-daughter of former prime minister Herbert Asquith, and counting barons, baronesses and diplomats among her relatives.

"I've definitely had some bonkers nannies looking after my children, and we definitely had eccentrics growing up, too," she muses, reaching for another coffee. "We had Carrie who always had a headache, we had Peruvians - one who sleep-walked nude, but with socks on ..." The similarities don't end there.

Opening up about her late father's disability (he became wheelchair-bound after a stroke during her childhood), she recalls: "Although it's not central, [Mary-Kay's son] Sam has a disability, so I could relate to that."

Of her own family's experience, she adds: "It's how you deal with it, and my father was never patronised. There was a lack of self-pity from him and an 'it's just part of life' attitude. Disability can either explode a family, or bring you together, and I think our family had a lot of community."

Today, Bonham Carter lives with her two children in what she hopes is a "fun household". But she won't be encouraging their activity on social media any time soon.

"Luckily they don't have phones yet, but they do have an iPad. That's what they want to do and it's utterly passive.

"I want them to find something they can lose themselves in; something 'absorbable' with their hands that's real, not virtual. I find it very depressing.

"My brain, which is very distractable anyway, is always being interrupted, so my concentration has got very undermined," she adds of modern technology and how we're all so "connected" now.

"Everybody expects an answer. I think it's giving us unnecessary stress."

It's hard to imagine that the offspring of unconventional couple Bonham Carter and Burton wouldn't have character, though.

Discussing daughter Nell's upcoming involvement in Burton's sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, she exclaims: "She was an extra, which she found really boring, but she got paid. That's really what she was excited about, but the fact the cheque was made to 'Neil Burton' is her main problem."

But Bonham Carter is intent on teaching her children to be self-sufficient - just as she is.

"I think anybody who has a mum who works, resents the work. She says, 'why do you have to work? You don't need to work!' I say, 'I do actually', and she says, 'no, Dadda can pay for everything'.

"And I say, 'well yes he can, but I need to work and I want to be financially independent and I want to do something to get some sense of self'. And she goes, 'urgh, come on!'

"She's already made," Bonham Carter adds with a smile. "I don't need to mould her!"

  • Love, Nina, BBC One, Friday, 9.30pm

Belfast Telegraph

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