When Helena Bonham Carter was cast in the pivotal role of the Fairy Godmother in director Kenneth Branagh’s new live-action version of “Cinderella,” there were some rumblings of surprise on the Internet, where various journalists questioned whether she was better suited to play the wicked stepmother instead.
Given her past as deliciously evil Bellatrix Lestrange in the last four “Harry Potter” films and the delightfully funny but unforgiving Red Queen (“Off with their heads!”) in “Alice in Wonderland,” some thought that despite her experience with a wand, the magical staff that the Fairy Godmother was better suited for somebody not known for playing such dark characters.
Of course, those same people tend to forget just how versatile the two-time Oscar nominated actress really is. Whether it’s good or bad character, Bonham Carter has proven throughout her illustrious, 32-year screen career that she wherewithal to play them all. Still, Bonham told me in an exclusive U.S. interview, that she was taken aback when asked to play the character associated with the iconic phrase, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.”
“I was surprised not to be asked to be Cinderella, because I’m in some time-warp denial,” Bonham Carter told me, laughing, in a recent phone call from London.
Always funny and lively in her interviews, Bonham Carter told me she had fun bringing the effervescent Fairy Godmother to life during the making of “Cinderella,” yet inside she took the role very seriously. After all, “Cinderella” is a legendary tale that has been told countless times in different variations on screen and the stage over the years — chief among them the 1950 Walt Disney animated classic — so Disney, which also produced the new live-action incarnation, knew this new version had to work on all levels.
As it related directly to Bonham Carter, she knew her role would be under the burning spotlight, because the Fairy Godmother, who apart from Cinderella, is perhaps the first character people associate with the classic fairy tale.
“It was really flattering and nice to asked to play the role, but having said that, it was a quite a responsibility, and I was apprehensive about it,” said Bonham Carter, who also narrates the film. “My first reaction was, ‘What great fun! This can’t be a losing situation,’ but on close inspection, I got somewhat freaked out. The Fairy Godmother is iconic as an idea — there’s no real image of her apart from the character in the animated version — there isn’t really an obvious image and I didn’t want to replicate what’s in the cartoon.”
Opening in theaters and on IMAX screens nationwide on Friday, “Cinderella” tells the time-honored tale in a familiar, historical setting, yet gives the title character (Lily James) a strong sense of independence. Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother as a character with some bits of uncertainty: a giddy magician not quite aware of the full extent of her powers.
“I thought I had to re-invent the wheel a bit, so people would genuinely believe the character with some sort of credibility,” Bonham Carter said, recalling how she prepared for the role by examining the mind of the Fairy Godmother. “I thought, ‘Why a pumpkin?’ because it’s not immediately obvious that you would choose a pumpkin as your source material to turn into a carriage; and ‘Why glass?’ because glass isn’t immediately obvious to make a slipper with.’ Also, I wondered why the magic was running out at midnight.
“All of these choices she made sort of led me to believe that she was this accidental magician, or her magic wasn’t quite up to scratch,” Bonham Carter added. “Accidents happen, and often in history, the greatest things have been born of the greatest accidents. I thought it was funny that things that have ended up being iconic, like the glass slipper and the pumpkin, were all improvised in the first place.”
Branagh, who has worked with Bonham Carter before, told me in a separate interview that he was absolutely enchanted by the direction the actress took with the character.
“The Fairy Godmother may have great plans of how these transformations may go, but not always the skills, and I think Helena does that beautifully,” Branagh said. “She also adds this sort of poignant touch, when she follows Cinderella’s coach for just a step and says, ‘Goosey, off you go.’ There’s a really wonderful maternal, protective look on her face that lets you know she loves this kid. She feels for her in addition to all the fun she’s had with her.”
Plus, the director said, Bonham Carter has impeccable comedic sensibilities.
“Helena brings a joyful, delightful and silly sort of lunatic kindness to the character, which is a variation of the sorts of the kindness theme that is central to the film,” Branagh said. “The beautiful sort of dotty, ditsy, dizzy comic brilliance she brings is a lovely kind of literal fairy dust to sprinkle into the middle of the movie.”
The theme of kindness is important because it’s essentially what grounds “Cinderella.” We first hear the phrase, “Have courage and be kind,” uttered to a young Cinderella by her dying mother, and Cinderella lives by those words despite the fact that she’s trapped as a servant to a cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her two daughters after her father dies.
Bonham Carter, much like Branagh, hopes viewers take those words to heart.
“I think they’re terribly important words, particularly in this day and age with social media,” Bonham Carter said. “People think there’s an anonymity and a lack of responsibility whenever they write something, because they’re not necessarily held to it. So many people are suffering because of bitchy comments about not being liked or whatever.”
Helena, Mom face-off
Bonham Carter’s “beggar lady” is the first character Cinderella sees before she transforms into the Fairy Godmother, and the actress says she was thrilled to get to have extensive prosthetic work done to play the small, but very important role. The beggar lady sets up a key moment in the film, because she tests Cinderella’s will of kindness and observation of others less fortunate than her, even though her heart has just been crushed by her evil stepmother.
“Sadly, it took me less long to become the character described in the script as ‘1,000 years old’ than it took to become the Fairy Godmother. It took me only four hours to age 1,000 years,” Bonham Carter, 48, said, laughing. “When the designers approached me and asked me, ‘What do you think you’re going to look like when you’re 80?’ I said, well, my Mom’s around, so they took a face mask of her. Having said that, Mom doesn’t look 80, so they had to add wrinkles on top of the mask. It did look a bit bizarre, and God knows what some psychotherapist would say about me wearing my own mother’s face.”
And while the end product didn’t exactly resemble her mother, there were still some features of the face that to be resolved.
“In the end, I had to post-sync all of her lines because her upper lip is bigger than mine, so apparently I was completely inaudible,” Bonham Carter said. “Still, I always love being in prosthetics. I don’t like process of putting it on or getting it off, but being in it is all fun.”
As of our conversation, Bonham Carter’s mother still hadn’t seen the film, but the actress warned her mother not to be shocked by the makeup when she gets around to it.
“Having seen the film myself, you don’t recognize her. So I told her, ‘Forget that it’s you, Mom, because it’s not the most flattering,'” Bonham Carter said with a laugh. “Mom is still really beautiful.”