Byline: Dana Wood
NEW YORK — If she must, Helena Bonham Carter will go to great lengths to dismantle her image as a corseted English rose. She’s already stripped to the strains of Abba’s “Dancing Queen” in a film by the same name shown on British television. And in her new movie, “Margaret’s Museum,” she plays a scruffy young wife in a Nova Scotia coal-mining town who has a very bizarre way of remembering loved ones killed in the mines.
A diet soft drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other (“I don’t smoke when I’m sleeping, but that’s pretty much the extent of my self-discipline.”), Bonham Carter emits a slightly tomboyish vibe as she discusses her latest role. Shorn of her nearly waist-length tresses, clad in suspendered pants and thick-soled oxfords, she isn’t quite the Merchant Ivory poster girl one might envision.
Which isn’t to say that Bonham Carter isn’t fiercely proud of her early roles, nor immune to the irony that they’ve become prototypes of the must-have career-builders for every young actress in Hollywood.
“I was in them when it wasn’t hip,” she laughs. “But I suppose ‘A Room With a View’ was one of the first of those films to crash through the art house ghetto and actually make money.”
Bonham Carter is hoping her new film, which is more contemporary, but is nonetheless a “wee independent,” will have a similar breakthrough. Set in a dank little mining town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, it is built around the unlikely love affair between Bonham Carter’s character, Margaret, and Neil, a 6-foot 6-inch “gentle giant” of a man played by Scottish actor Clive Russell. When he loses his job as a dishwasher, Neil is forced into the town’s main line of work — mining in pits so dangerous they’ve already robbed Margaret of her father and older brother.
Apart from Bonham Carter, Kate Nelligan, who plays Margaret’s embittered mother in the film, is the only bona fide “name” in the cast. As such, and given that it won’t be backed by an enormous ad campaign, Bonham Carter fears that “Margaret’s Museum” could suffer the fate of so many independents — getting yanked nearly as soon as it arrives on the market.
“Because of the crush of competition in movies these days, which is ridiculous, it could play a week,” she says. “If it doesn’t get significant figures, they’ll just pull it because they’ve got this backlog of other films on the conveyor belt.”
Although she’s dabbled in bigger pictures, like “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” “Mighty Aphrodite” and an upcoming black comedy with Kristin Scott Thomas in which she plays “a real sicko,” Bonham Carter remains committed to small films.
“I’m not mainstream material,” she says. “I think my future lies in the odd independent movie.”
Still, in an effort to continue distancing herself from what she calls her “geriatric ingenue” phase, Bonham Carter will make the occasional reluctant “schlep” to Hollywood to strut her stuff.
“Every so often, I go there, either for publicity or when my agent grabs me and shoves me into a few castings,” she says. “And I get reactions like, ‘Well, could she come back, but in something slightly more revealing than those voluminous jumpers?’
“They don’t know if I have legs,” says Bonham Carter. “They think I come on wheels.”