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Helena Bonham Carter Talks “Toast,” Perfumes, and Hypnotizing Johnny Depp

Helena Bonham Carter Talks “Toast,” Perfumes, and Hypnotizing Johnny Depp (photo)

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Despite the fact that Helena Bonham Carter is currently in England filming Tim Burton’s reimagining of the ’60s TV series “Dark Shadows,” she’s sending her best to America. And she isn’t alone. As the digital distributor Emerging Pictures did last fall for a selection of Australian hits that wouldn’t have made it to U.S. theaters otherwise, the company is teaming up with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the UK Film Council to bring a group of six acclaimed British films Stateside, kicking off with “Toast,” a ’60s set coming-of-age story based on food writer Nigel Slater’s memoir with Freddie Highmore as his teen surrogate who must compete for the attention of his gruff father against a cleaning woman (Bonham Carter) whose heavenly lemon meringue pie masks the tartness she demonstrates upon becoming the boy’s stepmother.

However, that’s nearly the only thing about the series dubbed “From Britain With Love” that isn’t sweet, considering that after a run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s brand new Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center in New York beginning on June 11th, “Toast” and a collection of other British gems including Peter Mullan’s “NEDs” (the blackly comic Scottish delinquent comedy I heartily approve), the comedy “A Boy Called Dad,” the drama “Third Star” with up-and-comer Benedict Cumberbatch (“War Horse”), the post-traumatic stress disorder character study “In Our Name,” and the rambunctious soccer travelogue “Africa United” will be in theaters from Bay Harbor, Maine to Los Angeles. For the occasion, Bonham Carter got on the phone to discuss her delightful turn as the devilish Mrs. Potter and the unique distribution of “Toast,” as well as her newfound appreciation for cleaning products, how perfumes are integral to finding her characters and how she’s channeling a family member for her latest part.

“Toast” is taking an interesting distribution path to the States and apparently, it did in England as well. Do you like to keep tabs on your films after you’re done filming?

As usual, I pray that they’re just going to get seen somehow. [laughs] But this is definitely back to front because when we made it, it was a BBC film, [so] it was going to be made for television then released theatrically after and I just thought, goodness, how’s that going to work? But I’m fine with it being on television because at least with television, you know you’re going to get an audience, [and] I’m glad that the American audience might come to see it. I saw it being played in a cinema and it played just as well as on television, interestingly enough.

You’ve really shown a commitment to these smaller-scale homegrown films like this and “Sixty-Six.” Has that been harder to do these days?

I’m always attracted to lower budget, not because it’s lower budget, but because they tend to be better scripts. It’s the scripts that tend to be the small arthouse film [that] tend to be more actor-led and character driven. Those are the stories that seem to fall within my taste range. But it’s often been the case, I’ve done so many countless small, independent films that really 3.2 people have seen, so you never know. You do it for the joy of the part and not necessarily expect anyone to see the final product.

HelenaBonhamCarterFreddieHighmoreToast_06102011.jpgWhat drew you to “Toast”?

I was always conscious of Nigel [Slater]. I just loved the story and the character. I’ve played lots of queens lately — The Red Queen [in “Alice in Wonderland”] and Elizabeth in “King’s Speech” — so I thought, “Oh, time to play a cleaner!” Seems a natural progression, or just to be at the other end and do something completely different. And actually, [Mrs. Potter] just seemed like such a mix and obviously somewhat mentally ill. I’m always attracted to people who’ve got a good level of insanity because it’s fascinating to me how on earth people ended up behaving like that. And I loved [director] S.J. [Clarkson]’s vision of it, the kind of “Amelie”-esque kind of style and you just have an intuitive feeling with a character like, Oh, I feel comfortable with wanting to bring many, many different colors to her.

You actually got a sample of the real Mrs. Potter’s perfume made up to get into character. How do details like that help and do you usually go to such lengths to get to the truth of who you’re playing?

I usually do, actually. My son, one of his friends’ mothers is a perfumer and for a few characters now, we discuss the character and she makes up a perfume. It really does help. Obviously, you can’t smell it offscreen — it’s not a scratch-and-sniff performance. But for me it helps because it brings a whole atmosphere. [Recently] I did “Enid” on television [a biopic of the British children’s author during the ’40s and ’50s], which I had sort of this white powder essence and it was such a period smell of its time. Then [for “Toast”], Topaz is this really cheap 1960s perfume that Nigel’s stepmom wore, which bizarrely I wore at lunch once with Nigel and he really was in shock. I could see him go pale because he just thought it was a ghost appearing, in fact it was just the smell.

I think smells like sounds can be so much immediately affecting. I tend to do a smell for each part, really. I’m playing an alcoholic now, so I’m just smelling of bourbon and cigarettes. But I could do a line of perfumes of all my characters. “Harry Potter” was just a mixture of poisonous plants – Belladonna, poison ivy, grass, a sort of wet grass – it’s a horrible smell, but it really does help.

Although the real Mrs. Potter is no longer with us, was it daunting to have Nigel on set and portraying someone from his life?

Because he’s a writer and has written about her, Nigel’s just a fount of detail, so anything I wanted to know, like what kind of magazine or cigarette or lighter [she used], he remembered everything immaculately. Really, I was sort of channeling all the details he sent me. I knew anyway right from the start because I didn’t look anything at all like the real Mrs. P, she wasn’t actually called Mrs. Potter, and it’s not autobiographical – this isn’t a documentary. I said to Nigel, I’m [not] going to be able to play his stepmom because I didn’t look like her and I was going to make different choices. It’s an amalgam of Nigel’s memory of her, but from a child’s point of view and a somewhat biased child’s point of view, [so] what I put into her [was] a seed of the real Mrs. P, but it’s a drama ultimately, so you make the choices that are going to suit the drama and just try and make it more entertaining than feeling you have to be obliged to recreating the truth.

HelenaBonhamCarterToastOpeningCredits_06102011.jpgDid you get to keep the cool box prop with your name on it in the opening credits?

Yeah, I did! [laughs] Wasn’t it great? I love it, particularly because if anyone knows me personally, they know domestic cleaning has never been my strong point, so it’s very ironic — I thought triumphant. And the part did actually introduce me to the joys of Cillit Bang — I don’t know, do you get Cillit Bang there?

No, but I’ve heard you sing its praises before. What is it?

The man who owns Cillit Bang, he’s a multi-billionaire. I think he’s the most wealthy man, practically. It’s a fantastic detergent- literally, it’ll clear anything. It’s so satisfying because I hadn’t really appreciated how therapeutic cleaning was until I was practicing as Mrs. P and using my different detergents. The cause and effect – the instant effect of the clean hall or a kitchen surface, there’s just a sense of well-being. Hmm…and the smells. [laughs as she coos] It was a whole new pleasure for me, a whole new world.

You’re on the set of “Dark Shadows” now, How’s that been going?

It’s only just started. We’re gently getting into it and that’s the ’70s, I just suddenly thought I know this period and funny enough, the woman who made all the film for “Toast” and how to do a lemon meringue pie is doing all the food on “Dark Shadows.” In fact, she taught me how to do pies on “Sweeney Todd,” so Katherine Tidy is responsible for all my cooking in every single film. She was cooking the breakfast because we have a few dinner scenes in this.

I’ve read that your mother, who’s a psychotherapist, often reads your scripts before you decide to take a role. What were her thoughts on playing a psychiatrist in “Dark Shadows”?

Well, I have other problems. [laughs] But no, I’m definitely borrowing from her, seething into the psychiatrist that I’m playing. But [the character’s] got other problems. My mom being a psychotherapist, I’ve been brought up with that whole psychoanalytical terrain. But I’m not sure my mom will feel flattered to know that I’m basing the alcoholic psychiatrist on her, but we’ll see.

Was it Dustin Hoffman who said you always end up playing some member of the family? And it is true. As I get older, I keep recognizing bits of either my mom or my aunt or my granny [in my performances]. As everyone, you do end up becoming your mother, but also as you’re acting, I find out you become every member of your family, bits come out without you really wanting them to come out. My great-grandmother definitely came out of Enid [Blyton in “Enid”]. My mother said, “oh my God, this is unmistakable.” We’ll see with Dr. Hoffman, but it’s fun being a doctor. I get to hypnotize Johnny [Depp] and do all sorts of things to him.

“Toast” will open the “From Britain With Love” series in theaters around the country between June 11th and July 9th, beginning with a run at New York’s Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center starting June 11th. A full schedule covering dates for all the films around the country can be found here.

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Southern Fried SNL

Watch Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in SNL’s Southern Rock Supergroup

Fred and Carrie kept it mellow on the SNL season finale.

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Photo Credit: Saturday Night Live / NBC Universal

It was a veritable “band from comedy heaven” this weekend as a myriad of comedians assembled for a feel-good musical sketch in the Saturday Night Live season finale. Guest host Fred Armisen was joined by Portlandia cohort Carrie Brownstein as well as Maya Rudolph, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Larry David, and members of the SNL cast to form faux-southern-rock supergroup The Harkin Brothers — a band whose members managed to outnumber its audience.

If The Harkin Brothers’ smooth vocal stylings remind you of The Blue Jean Committee from Documentary Now!, that’s probably not a coincidence. The BJC first appeared in a different, more regionally-specific form in a SNL sketch with Sudeikis on drums.

Watch an all-star SNL cast perform a mellow tribute to Arkansas called “Summertime in Fayetteville” in the video below.

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Farewell Mr. Fred

5 Funniest Sketches From Fred Armisen’s SNL Season Finale

Is "Farewell, Mr. Bunting" the best SNL sketch of the season?

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Photo Credit: Saturday Night Live / NBC Universal

The 41st season of Saturday Night Live drew to a close this past weekend, and star of Portlandia and Documentary Now! Fred Armisen hosted the occasion. A former SNL player himself, this homecoming allowed Fred to show off the comedy chops and character skills he’s honed since leaving Studio 8H.

Here are the 5 funniest sketches from the season finale of Saturday Night Live hosted by Fred Armisen.

1. Farewell, Mr. Bunting

What appears to be a straightforward take on the maudlin climax of the 1989 Robin Williams classic Dead Poets Society takes quite an unexpected turn. But if you’re really watching, you’ll realize it’s completely organic and integral to the plot.


2. Fred’s Monologue and One-Man Show

Actor, writer, producer, musician, impressionist — Fred can do it all. So tackling the many characters in the story of his life is a cakewalk for such a talent. Here, Fred takes us on the emotional journey through the day he got the job at SNL and luckily he leaves no detail, however minor or insignificant, out of the performance.


3. New Girlfriend

We were wondering what characters Fred would bring back, but we didn’t predict Regine. Fellow SNL alum Jason Sudeikis appears in this sketch as Regine’s new boyfriend, who introduces his pals to his snarky, raunchy lady. Watch Aidy Bryant try not to crack up at Fred/Regine’s joygasms.


4. Expedition

Three of the biggest stars in American colonialism are Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacagawea. But what most history books choose to omit is the simmering sexual tension between the three explorers. Fortunately, a group of community players illustrate the historical figures’ lustful dynamic to a high school class in graphic detail.


5. Escape Pod

As an interstellar ship begins breaking apart, Fred plays the lucky member of the space crew who wins access to the last escape pod. But a heartfelt goodbye is mitigated by the pod’s virtual assistant ensuring all the luxuries and pampering are to the occupant’s liking.

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The Crying Game

10 Things You Didn’t Know About A League of Their Own

Batter up for A League of Their Own this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

While there may be no crying in baseball, lots of blood, sweat, and tears went into the making of A League of Their Own. From sweltering July heat to concussions to the Material Girl causing trouble, making the hit film wasn’t exactly a homerun. Before you catch A League of Their Own on IFC, check out some dirt on the making of this sports movie classic. Hear that call! The time has come for one and all to play ball!

1. The cast really had to play baseball.

League of Their Own Quotes
Columbia Pictures

Director Penny Marshall was adamant that all of the actresses cast in the film could really play baseball. Prior to the start of filming, the cast (even Madonna!) trained eight hours a day, six days a week for over seven months to hone their skills and bond as a team. They initially practiced sliding using a Slip ‘N Slide, but that method was abandoned when both Tracy Reiner and Megan Cavanagh suffered concussions.


2. Geena Davis auditioned in Penny Marshall’s backyard.

Geena Davis
Columbia Pictures

The Fly and Beetlejuice star was the last person cast in the film after several other prominent actresses like Debra Winger, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Demi Moore passed. Davis had never played baseball but won Marshall over through a game of catch in her backyard. A natural athlete, Davis was outplaying most of the other actresses on the film. (Though she did use a double for the sliding portion of her infamous catch in the splits.)


3. Tom Hanks entertained the extras with puppet shows.

Tom Hanks
Columbia Pictures

Over 1,700 extras were used throughout the shoot, enduring long hours and occasionally extreme 100+ degree summer heat while on location in Indiana. To keep them entertained in between shots and scenery changes, members of the cast performed. Tom Hanks did puppet shows behind the dugout while Rosie O’Donnell would perform stand-up. Madonna reportedly refused to perform (what a shocker!), leaving the rest of the cast to perform imitations of her. Geena Davis suggested they perform “Bohemian Rhapsody” and songs from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, assigning Tom Hanks the role of Caiaphas.


4. Madonna wasn’t exactly a team player.

Madonna Bosoms
Columbia Pictures

To say the Material Girl was a bit of a handful during the shoot is an understatement. In addition to refusing to perform for the extras and ignoring requests for autographs, she often complained about coming into the film a star but being relegated to the background. According to costar and friend Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna brought a boombox to set the first day and warned everybody that if they broke it, they’d have to buy her another one. She also wrote a somewhat scathing letter about her experiences to a friend, calling Geena Davis a “Barbie Doll” and lamenting the lack of “beautiful men” in Chicago.


5. All of the injuries in the film were real.

Bruise League of their Own
Columbia Pictures

The real women of the All American Girls Pro Baseball League were tough, but their onscreen counterparts were equally as tenacious on the field. Penny Marshall had the actresses play a lot of real games with multiple cameras set up in order to get enough footage for montages, and they didn’t go easy on one another, jamming their shoulders, spraining fingers, and nearly breaking noses. The giant strawberry bruise Alice gets while sliding into base was a real injury actress Renee Coleman sustained during filming, and it lasted for well over a year.  Ouch.


6. Lori Petty and Rosie O’Donnell were the real most valuable players.

Rosie O'Donnell
Columbia Pictures

Though Geena Davis showed natural ability and was supposed to be the “best player in the league,” on-set coach William E. Hughes was most impressed by Lori Petty and Rosie O’Donnell. Petty could actually outrun Davis, so she was forced to slow her pace during the scene where the two race so as not to appear faster than Davis. She wound up throwing more pitches during filming than most Major League Baseball pitchers do in a full season. O’Donnell had actually played Little League baseball with her brothers growing up, so she excelled during training camp, learning how to throw two balls at once from one of the real AAGPBL players on set. O’Donnell and Petty often had hitting competitions and could hit the fences at Major League parks with little difficulty.


7. Even Tom Hanks didn’t know how long he would pee in the locker room scene.

One of the most memorable moments in A League of Their Own occurs when Jimmy Dugan introduces himself by bursting into the locker room in a drunken stupor and relieving himself in front of the rest of the Peaches while Mae times him. To keep both Hanks and the actresses on their toes, Penny Marshall stood in a stall off camera and made the noises with a hose and a bucket for maximum comedic effect. The actual length of Dugan’s epic #1 is an impressive 53 seconds!


8. Jimmy and Dottie had a romantic subplot that was cut from the film.

A League of Their Own Spit

The initial cut of the film clocked in around four hours before being cut down to its more slender two hours and eight minutes. Among the footage left on the cutting room floor were scenes depicting a growing romantic relationship between Dugan and star player Dottie. The conversation on the bus left in the final cut of the film hints at tension, but in a deleted scene the pair shared a passionate kiss late one night on the field which is what originally led to the scene with Dottie telling Lowenstein she was going home.


9. Jon Lovitz was almost upstaged by a cow.

In the scene where Lovitz’s character, baseball scout Ernie Capadino (a role specifically written for the SNL star), visits Dottie and Kit at their family dairy farm, the girls are seen milking cows. Unbeknownst to Lovitz, one of the cows off-screen was giving birth and mooing loudly, causing him to ad lib the line “WILL YOU SHUT UP?!” It was only after they finished filming that Lovitz found out a calf had been born, which the farm named Penny after director Penny Marshall.


10. Some of the cast reprised their roles on the A League of Their Own TV Show.

CBS aired a TV version of A League of Their Own for a brief period in 1993. Cast members Megan Cavanagh, Tracy Reiner and Jon Lovitz reprised their roles, with former “Bond Girl” Cary Lowell in the Dottie role and Sam McMurray channeling Hanks as Jimmy. As you can imagine, it only lasted five episodes.

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