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U.S. exclusive: Helena Bonham Carter talks ‘Cinderella’

Helena Bonham Carter in 'Cinderella'

By Tim Lammers

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.”

Interview: Kenneth Branagh talks “Cinderella”

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.”

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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.”

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Interview: Kenneth Branagh talks direction of live-action ‘Cinderella’

CInderlla Kenneth Branagh on set

By Tim Lammers

Having the good fortune to talk with actor-director Kenneth Branagh time and again over the past 15 years, the one constant I’ve noticed — and it’s a very important one at that — is his infectious passion for what he does. Whether he’s in front of or behind the camera — or both — Branagh’s enthusiasm for his work is reflected in every frame of his movies, and his latest, as director of the enchanting Disney live-action update of “Cinderella,” is no different.

“I have the luxury of being in this job that involves the allowance of my passion and enthusiasm,” Branagh told me, humbly, in a recent call from Los Angeles. “I never get tired of realizing what a privilege it is — the enthusiasm and the passion come very easily because it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do.”

Opening in theaters and on IMAX screens nationwide on Friday, “Cinderella” stars Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) in the title role, who after the death of her mother (Hayley Atwell) and later, her father (Ben Chaplin), becomes trapped in a household as a humbled servant to her cruel stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and her two daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera). But through a chance meeting with a handsome prince (Richard Madden) and some magical help from her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), Cinderella’s misfortunes, if the shoe literally fits, may very well change.

U.S. EXCLUSIVE: Tim talks with Helena Bonham Carter

Branagh especially needed passion and enthusiasm in bringing Chris Weitz’s script to life for “Cinderella,” mainly for the fact that there were so many potential downfalls associated with the project. It’s hard enough adapting a well-known piece of literature such as a hit novel, much less one of the most-beloved fairy tales of all-time. Needless to say, updating “Cinderella” and giving it a different sort of spin without compromising the integrity of the original tale was a tall order for acclaimed director — and this is filmmaker who has mastered the works of William Shakespeare several times throughout his illustrious career.

“I really like the challenge. People have expectations, but I’ve done a lot of work in the classical field with masterpieces and universally-known things,” Branagh said. “By doing them, in a sense you’re proving they’re classics because here you are doing it again. Part of the reason they live across the ages is because they can be seen again — can be reevaluated. In the case of ‘Cinderella,’ here’s a myth and character who’s been around 2,500 years across various cultures. In the modern world, it’s something that many people cherish with their memories from the 1950 Disney animated classic.”

Branagh, 54, said he was taken aback by being given the chance to take the helm of “Cinderella” — the latest in Disney’s efforts to re-imagine their animated classics in live-action form following “Alice in Wonderland” and “Maleficent,” which presented “Sleeping Beauty” from the classic villainess’ viewpoint.

“Apart from being pleased and surprised — and it was very positive surprise to be asked to direct a fairy tale — I was happy to be given the chance to discover why we continue to be drawn to this story and whether there was a new way to present it,” said Branagh who also interpreted “Thor” for the character’s film debut. “I thought that there was, in a very subtle but significant way, from the inside-out. Essentially, it had to do with sort of a recalibration of Cinderella’s character, and that’s where we started.”

Anchoring the film are five very important words that Cinderella’s dying mother tells her as a young child: “Have courage and be kind.” Branagh knows those words are simple, but couldn’t be any more powerful; and he hopes the words, which are repeated throughout the movie, aren’t lost on viewers.

“People have said to me, ‘Are those words a little simplistic?’ But it’s very hard to produce simplicity, especially in art,” Branagh observed. “All the simple things are usually packed with meaning. Shakespeare has an equivalent in ‘King Lear,’ where Kent is in the stocks and has been cruelly treated, but at the end of a speech where he tries to convince himself that he will recover he says, ‘Have patience and endure,’ which you may call a Shakespearean paraphrase for ‘Have courage and be kind’ ̵

2; ‘patience’ involving compassion and love, and ‘endure’ the courage and determination to be resilient. I was determined to make an uncynical film about important things that could be inspirations.”

Maleficent Disney Sixth Scale Figure

Filmed in mostly real settings with real props and set pieces — save the visually spectacular scene where the Fairy Godmother works her magic — Branagh is proud that he could give the heart within the classical exteriors a different sort of beat with its more modernized characters.

“We set the film in a classical framework and looks like you might expect a fairytale to look — very lavish and opulent — and have things that you’d expect Cinderella to have like mice that turn into horses and a pumpkin-turned-carriage, and a ball,” Branagh said. “Yet, it also has a girl not passively awaiting the arrival of a man who is simply choosing to be a victim of fate; but someone who deals with her challenges, and the cruelty and the ignorance that she’s subject to by being aware of other people. That in a way is a way to deal with your own problems — to think of someone else. She does that with humor, and she does so with passion.”

Also, Branagh added, Cinderella asks questions — particularly of the evil person who is trying to keep her down.

“‘Why are you so cruel?’ she asks the stepmother, and I think Cinderella’s apparently simplistic path through this story is an inspiring one and triumphant,” Branagh said. “It doesn’t make her weak and it doesn’t make her passive, nor does it make her pious and self-righteous. She stumbles and she falls, like we all do, but ultimately her self-belief and her belief in the power of love is really her all-powerful way of living.”

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Interview: Keira Knightley talks ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’

Oscar-nominated actress Keira Knightley said she leaped at the opportunity to star in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” mainly because she was dying to do a movie where she wasn’t, well, dying.

“I got to the end of ‘Anna Karenina’ and I went, ‘OK, I really need to not do anything dark for a while because the characters I’ve been playing for the last five years keep dying. It’s been all death and destruction,'” Knightley told me with a laugh in an interview while “Jack Ryan” was still in production.

Keira Knightley in 'Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit'
Keira Knightley in “Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit” (photo: Paramount Pictures().

New on Blu-ray and DVD (Paramount Home Media Distribution) Tuesday, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is an origins film based on the Tom Clancy’s iconic spy, Jack Ryan — who in his early career as a CIA analyst, is sent to Russia to thwart a terrorist attack that will cripple the U.S. economy. Chris Pine (“Star Trek”) stars as Jack, while Knightley plays Dr. Cathy Muller, Ryan’s future wife who’s completely in the dark about her husband’s spy mission.

Kevin Costner also stars as Ryan’s boss, Thomas Harper, and Kenneth Branagh — in addition to directing the film — stars as Victor Cherevin, the mastermind behind the plot.

Knightley said the main reason she signed on to “Jack Ryan” was for her chance to work with actor-director Branagh, the Oscar-nominated actor-filmmaker whose career as a director has included mysteries (“Dead Again,” “Sleuth”), horror (“Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein”) and superhero action adventure (“Thor”) films. But it was Branagh’s Shakespeare film adaptations that influenced Knightley the most.

“‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ ‘Henry V,’ and ‘Hamlet’ were such massive parts of why I wanted to be an actress,” said Knightley, 29. “I wore out my VHS copy of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ because I watched it so many times, so actually getting to work with him as an actor and director is amazing. It’s fascinating watching him do his actor-director bit. One minute you’re playing a scene with him, then all of a sudden he’s running around the camera directing. It’s really interesting watching him snap back-and-forth and watching him work. It’s been a privilege.”

Knightley believes Branagh was the perfect hire for “Jack Ryan” because of the way he has time and again realized his vision to make a film complete.

“‘Jack Ryan’ is a thriller, and thrillers are pieces of work that aren’t being made very much because they’re really difficult to make,” Knightley said. “They require storytellers, and there are very few storytellers, really, and Ken is definitely one of them.”

Look for Knightley next month in the music-themed dramedy “Begin Again,” formerly titled, “Can a Song Save Your Life?” Like “Jack Ryan,” Knightley embraced the role because of a change of pace from the more dramatic fare she’s used to doing. The film also stars Mark Ruffalo, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener and singer Adam Levine.

“It’s a lovely film about friendship and making an album,” Knightley said. “It’s very positive.”

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