Helena Bonham Carter: ‘​I’ve got so many issues, but as you get older you go: whatever’

The actor on her latest role as Crossroads doyenne Noele Gordon, watching Woody Allen fire people, and the key to understanding Princess Margaret

Helena Bonham Carter thinks that, at 56, she is being offered some of the richest parts of her long, storied career. The British actor is talking about Netflix’s The Crown, in which she played Princess Margaret in seasons three and four, and the forthcoming Nolly on ITVX. This three-part drama is the creation of Russell T Davies (It’s a Sin), and sees Bonham Carter take on the role of Noele Gordon (AKA Nolly), who played Meg Mortimer, the matriarch of the British soap opera Crossroads, until she was unceremoniously fired in 1981 after 17 years on the show. Bonham Carter lives in London with her partner, art historian Rye Dag Holmboe, and her two children.

Are you going to tell us that you were a diehard Crossroads fan and admirer of Noele Gordon?
Oh no! If you’d asked me 18 months ago, I didn’t know a thing! Haha. Now I’ll go on Mastermind: Noele Gordon, special subject, ask me a question. There wouldn’t be one pass.

Why did you want to do the series, then?
I connected as soon as I started reading the first page: I know what good writing is. It was ding! Russell’s such a masterful writer and the first act is so hilarious.

Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly.
‘I connected as soon as I started reading the first page’: Helena Bonham Carter as Noele Gordon in Nolly. ITVX Photograph: ITVX

The show starts with Gordon on the set of Crossroads telling everyone, including the director, what to do…
Yeah, she’s got a slight messiah complex: there’s such certitude, there’s no apology. As Russell said: “We want to think she’s a monster.” And I thought: “God, this woman’s amazing and so flawed, right from the off.” And why would she apologise? She’d been doing the job for nearly 20 years, and she knew what she was doing with that show. She invented it practically.

Have you ever been fired from a job either for reasons explained or not?
No, but I’ve seen people fired. I worked with Woody Allen [on the 1995 film Mighty Aphrodite]; he sacked a few people when I was on the job. I asked him: “How do you sack someone?” And he said: “Well, I don’t tell them.” He would get Juliet, the casting person, to do it. On that particular job, the actor who ended up doing one of the parts was the third actor. It was just like: “Who are you? Oh really, you’re playing…” Nothing was mentioned to the rest of the cast. But he [Allen] was quite well known for sacking really good actors. Do you remember [the 1987 film] September? He redid the whole movie and recast everybody. [Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest were the only actors to appear in both versions of the film.]

With Woody Allen on the set of Mighty Aphrodite.
With Woody Allen on the set of Mighty Aphrodite. Photograph: Shutterstock

Gordon was fired for being too opinionated or just too old. Does that still happen?
Oh, I think people are always getting sacked for being too old now. I don’t know the circumstances of everyone, but Sue Barker going, I went: “Why do you have to go?” We don’t value age anyway. But if you think about Robin Day, all these older men who were around for ever, they die in the job. Women will always be penalised for not looking the same as when we were young, whereas men just grow beards, don’t they?

But isn’t it great that the performances everyone’s talking about are Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley and Jennifer Coolidge in The White Lotus?
Oh, she’s brilliant. [Adopts Coolidge’s twang] “Are you gay too? These gays, they’re trying to murder me.” I love it! And it’s not just the awards. Hopefully that means that the people who decide what gets made go: “Oh, there’s an audience for them.”

Your career hasn’t had too many dips, has it?
Oh, you should talk to my inner critic. Anthony Hopkins the other day said: “I’m just amazed that anyone employs me again.” And I go: “Even you? Are you stupid?” Everybody, we’re so stupidly vulnerable, we’ve got zero autonomy over our careers unless you start producing and be sensible or you’re brilliantly brainy. Which none of the rest of us are. Apart from Emerald Fennell, she’s amazing.

Have you thought about writing or producing?
I can write a postcard, I could never write a script. And lack of focus definitely would hinder my efforts at producing, which takes about seven years each project.

As someone who spent time inside the head of the “spare” as Princess Margaret, what did you make of Prince Harry’s book?
I don’t really want to contribute to the whole thing. It’s complicated and it’ll get taken out of context. And I think it’s been given enough attention.

Going forward, it’s going to be much easier for Peter Morgan to write The Crown, isn’t it?
I should be careful here too, but I don’t think they should carry on, actually. I’m in it and I loved my episodes, but it’s very different now. When The Crown started it was a historic drama, and now it’s crashed into the present. But that’s up to them.

Helena Bonham Carter, centre, as Princess Margaret with Erin Doherty, Marion Bailey and Ben Daniels in The Crown.
Helena Bonham Carter, centre, as Princess Margaret with Erin Doherty (Princess Anne), Marion Bailey (Queen Mother) and Ben Daniels (Lord Snowden) in The Crown. Netflix/PA Photograph: Des Willie/Netflix/PA

What was the key to getting into the character of Princess Margaret?
Well, actually, the real Margaret didn’t mind about being number two, but she did mind being really short. She was just 5ft, so there was something in her posture to maximise every little millimetre: she had her car seat elevated so she could be seen. And a lot of it was the need not to be overlooked, probably prompted by her great-grandmother saying something about the fact that she was tiny. And that scarred her. It’s funny what we carry – a complex that can govern all our behaviour.

What’s yours?
I’ve got so many issues, but as you get older you go: “Whatever.” The curse of being young is you take your complex too seriously. Or you take your opinion of yourself too seriously. As soon as you’re a bit older, you tell the demons to shut up because they’re boring.

Does that make you happier?
There’s no doubt that I’m happier now with my 56-year-old envelope than I was any time before that.

• This article was amended on 30 January 2023 to give the correct surname (Mortimer) for the character played by Noele Gordon in Crossroads.

  • Nolly streams on ITVX from 2 February

Watch a trailer for Nolly.


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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