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Helena Bonham Carter Was Born To Play Her Latest Role

The One Life actor is equally adept at playing real-life heroes and delicious fictional “baddies.”

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Helena Bonham Carter has played a slew of 20th century British royals, from her Oscar-nominated rendition of Queen Elizabeth (The King’s Speech) to her Emmy-nominated run as Princess Margaret (The Crown). Her latest film continues her historical predilection, but hits even closer to home.

In One Life, she plays Babi, the mother of British stockbroker Nicholas Winton, who rescued hundreds of children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. As she tells Bustle, Babi’s background was “sort of in my DNA.”

“I read the script about six years ago, and [writer Lucinda Coxon] said, ‘You’d be perfect as Babi given that you come from the same European Jewish background,’” she says over Zoom from her home office in London. “It’s very similar, since both of my grandparents helped with getting Jewish people out.”

Bonham Carter’s maternal grandfather, Eduardo Propper de Callejón, was a Spanish diplomat who issued visas to Jewish refugees crossing the border into Portugal, saving thousands of lives; and her paternal grandmother, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, was outspoken against Nazis and fascism as a wartime politician.

Bonham Carter with One Life director James Hawes and castmates Johnny Flynn and Romola Garai. Jeff Spicer/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
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Bonham Carter carries on their legacies as Babi, who helps her son’s mission from London. (A young Winton is played by Johnny Flynn and his older counterpart by Anthony Hopkins.) “I’ve always been attracted by the past but also felt responsible for continuing whatever they did because frankly, we wouldn’t be there without our grandparents,” says the British actor.

And that’s not the only connection: “Weirdly, the Wintons lived right near where I live, up the road,” she adds.

She says One Life has “had an impact like very few films that I’ve done,” particularly for her loved ones. “I’ve had lots of texts and phone calls saying ‘I’ve just seen One Life in a cinema.’ Everyone is in tears,” she says. “It’s a great story about a great man, [who’s] such an unlikely, modest, unsung hero. And we need more heroes.”

Below, Bonham Carter opens up about her grandparents, playing heroes and villains, and whether she’d return to the Harry Potter universe.

How did you learn about your grandparents’ work?

Somebody approached me a few years ago. It was a really clever series called My Grandparents’ War. They approached people to go in the footsteps of their grandparents and see what they were doing in World War II, and they chose Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas, Carey Mulligan, and me. Mine were the only nonfighters, but boy, did they step out of their comfort zone and actively help and were responsible for saving many, many lives.

What did you learn about yourself through that?

I would’ve been the same age as them, as they were in their 50s in the second World War. I got to go, “Oh, would I have done this?” I think you have to, for one’s own [knowledge], find out where you’ve come from. We’re all a result of other people’s accidents and choices, and we carry their DNA. I got to know and appreciate me more, and frankly, the luck of having a life.

It’s very hard not to think about the Israel-Hamas war when watching this movie. How has that affected you?

I think it’s very dangerous to talk about without being misunderstood, so I’d rather steer clear. But I find it’s appalling, and it’s scary. And I wish Nicholas Winton was alive now, because he would be in a great example of how to steer this and a real voice of reason amidst the absolute chaos and disintegration of reason.

Bonham Carter at the Victoria and Albert Museum in February 2024.Shane Anthony Sinclair/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

In real life, Nicholas got to re-meet some of the people he’d saved, years later. Do you know if your grandparents had that chance?

Well, I met this woman. She said she was 82, and her name was Naomi Violet Beaufard. And I said, “My grandmother’s called Violet.” She said, “Your grandmother saved my parents’ life.” I also met with a grandchild of somebody my grandfather had saved. He showed me the passport with my grandfather’s signature, which got him out, and this man started UNICEF. I love the idea that one humanitarian act then begets a whole other world of humanitarian acts.

Wow, goodness makes the world go round.

The other thing I was attracted to [in this film] was the amazing mother-son relationship, and I’m the mother of this amazing man. They were both incredibly organized and had the same compassion. She was a very dynamic woman who, I think, hadn’t had a career. In some ways, helping all those people was the most fulfilled she felt, because she was very clever and capable but had been underused until that point.

Bonham Carter with Queen Camilla in October 2023.Pool/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
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I thought Babi was as much of a hero as her son. In your career, you’ve played both heroes and villains, like Bellatrix Lestrange. Is there one that’s more fun to play?

You can have fun playing baddies. It depends what kind of baddie. With Bellatrix, I knew I had to have fun because I wanted to make her appeal to children, in a sense, so I made it a sort of arrested development. Somebody who just hadn’t really grown up and was really naughty.

On that note, another Harry Potter alum, Miriam Margolyes, recently said that Harry Potter was for children. Would you agree with that?

No. I love that woman, and she’s somebody who has a big inner child. I think however old we are, we’ve got to keep that child alive.

A Harry Potter TV series is in the works. Would you be open to taking part at all?

I don’t think they’ll come near me since I’m in the original one, but never say never.

If they recast that role, is there another actor you think could embody the spirit of Bellatrix?

They should go in a completely different direction. I didn’t actually get Bellatrix from the novel, particularly. She wasn’t really there on the page — certainly her actions and what she did, but not in description and the childlike aspect. There were lots of ingredients that I just infused in her, basically because I was really bored. I’d just had a child, and this was my only part, and I just threw everything at it, which I think J.K. [Rowling] was fine with. But maybe the next actor can go more with what she actually wrote.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.