But things were never quite that simple, with her parents suffering more than their share of medical traumas — she, a nervous breakdown; he, paralysis from the neck down and partial blindness as a result of surgery gone wrong. Still, Helena grew up clever and imaginative. She sought out tall, glamorous friends but was shy herself — a tendency accentuated when, at 16, she moved from an all-girls school to a boys’ institution, where she was one of just a handful of female students. There, she developed a sartorial taste for quaint Victoriana, partly to deflect male attention. Always intrigued by acting, she got an agent after her father fell ill, and by 16 she was appearing in commercials and magazines. Then leading roles appeared, plans for University of Cambridge went on hold, and suddenly she was a 19-year-old movie star.
She felt like a fraud. “I was very muddled and confused, lacking in confidence, didn’t particularly like what I looked like, didn’t think I was any good,” she says now. This translated into an uneasy hesitancy on the screen — a beauty almost wary of itself — that paradoxically worked in favor of her roles as tremulous, untested girls. “When you’re young, you don’t understand what you’ve got,” she says. “There’s a sort of beauty that comes with youth. I don’t mean superficial [prettiness], just that innocence. It’s sweet.”
All frills on-screen, she was famously scruffy off it. She didn’t date much and lived at home until she was 30, when she moved to nearby Hampstead. “I was married to my parents,” she once said, and the house was big enough to allow her her own space. Newspapers wondered whether she’d be “the girly costume-drama ingenue forever,” but in fact her roles were growing more adventurous. Watch 1994’s Frankenstein — directed by her first long-term partner, Kenneth Branagh — and you see the petticoated paramour transform on-screen into a macabre monster. Then she played a philandering wife in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite and the notably unrefined love interest in Fight Club. More recently, she had tremendous fun playing deranged baddie Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies.
Bonham Carter insists she had no game plan beyond an appetite for interesting roles, but she does admit to a penchant for the deranged. “I’ve always found insanity fascinating. I think me and Mum are quite similar,” she says of her mother, who trained to become a psychotherapist after her breakdown. “She works out how people tick, how someone got to this point of sickness. And part of my job is to work out how and why [a character] has ended up in the state they’re in. Of course, anyone’s got a level of madness in them, or the capacity.”
In 2001, Tim Burton cast her in Planet of the Apes. The first thing he said to her was that she’d make a good ape. The second was that Hampstead, where he had stayed during previous shoots, was the only place he’d ever felt at home. They kept finding common ground — not least of which were the feeling of being an outsider and a shared “lack of hair care” — and before long, they were an item. The British press had a field day. As if it weren’t odd enough that England’s period pinup got together with Hollywood’s weird prince, there was the nature of their arrangement: Rather than moving in together, Burton bought the house next door and they had the wall of an upper room knocked through so they could visit one another in their own spaces. (They later added the next house as well.)