Alice In Wonderland is the latest movie Carter made with Tim Burton . This is their sixth collaboration , and possibly the grandest Image Credit: Supplied

Helena Bonham Carter fancies a drink. So she orders a double espresso. And a glass of fizzy water. And an apple smoothie. She looks rather worried when I order just a coffee. “Is that all you want?” she asks gently. Multiple drinking, she explains, is the way to a balanced diet. She admits her theory is not based on pure science.

We are in the café just down the road from her north London home. She says she’s got something to show me, and produces a freaky cardboard cutout of a little woman with a huge, hydroencephalised head. “I’ve brought myself. It’s me in Alice.”

Alice in Wonderland is the latest movie she has made with her partner, director Tim Burton. This is their sixth collaboration, and possibly the grandest. It’s classic Burton territory a fairytale world where adulthood is never quite attained, and innocence trails a ghoulish stench. Bonham Carter is playing a nasty cross between the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts. She holds up her cardboard self and addresses it. “She’s got Tourette’s. She just says, ‘Off with their heads!’ all the time.”

Bonham Carter has not yet seen the film. No one has. It’s a closely guarded secret. But then, you won’t get far asking her about any film she’s been in. In recent years, she has boycotted them. She can’t stand watching herself. Nor can Johnny Depp, Burton’s prettier alter ego, who plays the Mad Hatter in Alice. “Johnny doesn’t watch anything he’s in. That’s slightly comforting. Youthink if Johnny Depp can’t watch himself”

You don’t look your best in Alice, I say. “No, I can never rely on Tim to make me pretty.”

Bonham Carter’s career divides neatly into two ages — pre-Burton and Burton. She seems so different from the 19-year-old who emerged in A Room With a View, and went on to be a poster girl for E.M. Forster, English roses and the corset industry. The past decade has seen Burton cast her in increasingly wacky characters and wacky movies, from Big Fish to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In Sweeney Todd, she is wonderful as Mrs Lovett, the most adorable serial-killer sidekick in movie history. The white petticoats have long gone, replaced by black lace, black hats and black frocks; black everything. The luxuriant, pre-Raphaelite hair has become abird’s nest and the pallid complexion ghostly white.

“Ageing has helped hugely,” she says. “There’s no question I’m a better actor, and you leave behind a certain typecasting. I was like the corset bimbo.” She stops, has a slurp of smoothie, a bite of toastie and starts again. “Well, not quite bimbo, but you know what I mean. The corset sex symbol, I suppose. Now I’m not going to be the sex symbol, I’m going to be the granny.” She changes her mind by the mouthful. “Well, not quite granny.”

In those early films she came across like an incredibly posh, terribly British Nastassja Kinski. The irony is that she is the ultimate hybrid as well as the Englishness, she is also part Spanish, French, Austrian, Czech and Russian. Her perplexed mother would ask where everybody got this notion of the highly bred British family. The answer was simple: Bonham Carter’s great-grandfather was the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith. But even then, she says, people got it wrong, Asquith wasn’t posh, just a clothes manufacturer with a bit of wedge. As for the Bonham Carters, they were old-fashioned liberals. Yes, there was once a country house, but that went decades ago when they fell on hard times.

Her childhood looks privileged from a distance, but the reality was somewhat different. Her mother had a breakdown when Helena was five and didn’t recover for three years (she went on to work as a psychotherapist). Then, when she was 13, her father, a successful banker, suffered a stroke that left him severely disabled. As a little girl, Bonham Carter was old beyond her years. Just after her father’s stroke, she found herself an agent. “I just went and got an agent because I thought I can create my own world you can’t right your own life, but you can escape to a world where you can have control.” It’s strange she chose acting, she says, “because I was intensely shy”.

She must have been confident in some way to phone an agent? “I had a determination to make things right. I was quite stubborn, and I believed that I had to become self-sufficient, to look after myself now.” Was there enough money? “Well, there was, but only just. I was a mixture of being incredibly old for my age and incredibly backwards. I was born quite old, but then I stopped growing. I lived with my mum and dad till I was 30. Looking back, I’d been staying because of my dad to try to make it better in some way. I thought, crazily, somehow, if I remain a child, I will make up for what happened to Dad.”

Bonham Carter made her professional debut at 16, in a TV commercial. Three years later, she was a film star. But she felt a fraud. She was acting alongside the likes of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, she’d had no training and she was waiting to be exposed. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I felt I was totally bluffing it. Now I’m much easier with it because I’m fundamentally happy.”

She made films, then she’d return home, refusing to make the leap into adulthood. “I was married to my parents.”

In the late 1990s she starred in Fight Club, a film that changed the public’s perception of her. Suddenly, the English rose was a disturbed American, dressed in black, blowing louche smoke rings, playing dangerous games with bad boys Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. The film was hysterically booed when it premiered at the Venice film festival, which she attended with her mother. “David [Fincher, the director] was so depressed by the reaction, which was really violent, but he was cheered by Mum saying, ‘Don’t you worry, it’s going to be a cult film’.”

It became a huge success. She often relies on her mother’s judgment when she gets a script, she’ll give it her to read, to help her make sense of her character. She took the part in Fight Club just after her only Oscar nomination, for The Wings Of The Dove. “It was Brad’s idea for me to be in it. “

I admit that Fight Club didn’t make sense to me just when we’re almost done, we discover that Edward Norton’s nihilistic buddy Brad Pitt is, in fact, Edward Norton).

“To be honest, I didn’t completely get the script,” she says. “I thought, oh God, this thing could really backfire and spawn all these fight clubs. It’s not a great philosophy, not a very mature one.”

She stops, and says she tries to be polite about everybody she has worked with. But in the end she’s just a little too honest for that. We talk about the four Harry Potter films she’s been in, and I tell her I find them hard to follow, too. She nods. “To be honest, I think it’s a hell of a lot of plot to fit into two hours.”

When she was 30, she finally felt ready to move out of her parents’ Golders Green home. She stayed in north London, moving a few miles away to Hampstead. She’d had plenty of boyfriends, including Kenneth Branagh, but had never lived with anybody. “I remember I did think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if Mr Right moved in next door?’”

Mr Right

Eventually, he did. During the filming of Planet of the Apes, the first time she worked with Burton, Bonham Carter barely talked to him. The only thing she remembers him saying to her is that he knew he wanted her as one of his apes, and that he had once lived in Hampstead and it was the only place in the world he’d felt at home. After the film was finished, when she was 35, they began a relationship and he bought the house next door. Actually, the two houses next door. They have two children, six-year-old Billy Ray and two-year-old Nell. Burton still lives next door.

Once she got together with Burton, Bonham Carter’s image was transformed. They were often photographed together in black, their complexions equally pale, hair equally scruffy. he’d be snapped pushing the kids up the hill looking as if she’d just stepped out of bed. After giving birth, she was happy to have photographs released showing the saggy bits. It became de rigueur to be rude about her appearance. But however unkempt or flabby she was, she still looked lovely. “I’m often criticised for what I wear. That’s my main label in the press now: disastrous dresser!”

I think she half likes it. it’s an escape from the pretty-prettiness of her youth.

She’s not so sure. “Well, no, sometimes it’s really offensive, but it’s kind of affectionate now. We’re like the ‘bonkers couple’.”

Today, she looks as if she could have walked straight out of a Burton film, black flowery dress, black skirt, black, flowery, knee-length socks, black boots ripe for giving someone a kicking, and so many chains and lockets and fob watches around her neck, it’s amazing she can hold her head up. She is often described as a goth, but she says she isn’t sure what that means. “I don’t like the music particularly, I’ve got no goth records. Is it the predominant black? The make-up? And the whiteness? The white thing. Yes... Tim sometimes puts grey make-up on for the press and he doesn’t tell me, so afterwards I’m like, ‘You’re ill!’ He goes, nah, it’s the grey make-up. Heeheeehee!”

She’s still musing on their supposed gothness. “He doesn’t like the music, either. But we do dress up at Halloween.” Do they just stay at home in their make-up, or go out? “No, we go out and play. I don’t know... well, he likes death... It’s not that he likes it, but he’s considered it in his work.”

Sip of coffee. Water. Smoothie. She says she’s a nightmare for runners on set. “Woody Allen used to poison my drinks.” She corrects herself: “He pretended to poison them.”

‘I don’t think we’re crazy’

She orders another double espresso. Bonham Carter defies Hollywood convention in every way, not least her teeth, which are yellow. “I’ve never had white teeth. To be honest, I’ve never been told to do any of those horrible things — get your teeth whitened or your nose straightened.”

She has said in the past that she thinks Burton is autistic, but, she says, she’s always getting it wrong. She tries to explain what she means. “All the auties love Nightmare Before Christmas.” Again, she apologises, this time for the word auties. “I played Jacqui Jackson, a single mum with children on the autistic spectrum, and I feel partly it’s OK to talk like that because I know her, know that world, and she calls them auties.” It makes perfect sense what she says about Burton — the worlds he creates are so often hermetically sealed from that of conventional adulthood. “I think he felt very isolated in Burbank where he was born. Edward Scissorhands is a version of where he was brought up. It is a bit Alice In Wonderland I don’t belong here.”

Like their films, people tend to assume the couple’s world is equally divorced from reality. I say a friend told me to ask if they were the wackiest parents in the playground. She cackles, likes the idea, but says I might be disappointed. “I once went to a really brilliant intuitive astrologer — I like all that stuff — and the first thing she said was, by God, he’s an efficient man. I thought, how interesting, because that’s the last thing people would say about Tim, but he is. He’s someone who’s very creative and has a mad exterior, but he is fundamentally very sane and practical. I don’t think we’re crazy at all, to be honest.”

As for the domestic arrangements, they are just practical. He bought the houses next door because hers was too small for them to live in (the three homes were built as cottages for artists, each with one main room), and both need their own space. Now, she says, the split is perfect — she has one house, he has another and the children have the third to play in with the nanny. As she talks, she’s shuffling through the photos on her mobile phone, showing me pictures of the children, her mum and dad, Shelley the tortoise. “That’s Bill as a pirate for his pirates party. He’s so unbelievably patient. Nell’s two, she’s going to destroy everything. He’s introvert, she’s extrovert. He’s very tender, she’s much more traditionally masculine.”

Do she and Burton see each other much at home? “He always visits, which is really touching. He’s always coming over.” Does he have a key to her house? “No, the houses are joined. We have a throughway. Journalists think there’s an underground tunnel, gothic. It’s actually quite above ground, lots of light.”

Do they sleep together? “Sometimes. There’s a snoring issue... I talk, he snores. The other thing is, he’s an insomniac, so he needs to watch television to get to sleep. I need silence.”

She thinks she has changed since being with Burton. “He’s made me more aware. He thinks I overact all the time. He’s got a thing about me having a very mobile face. Tim has often said I’ve got hyperactive eyebrows — he calls them the dancing caterpillars. He’s all for minimal expression. He likes to simplify things, I complicate them. I think we can do this or this or this, option it is, then I get frozen because I don’t know which one.”

Has she changed him? “People who know him say I have, and I feel really flattered. Made him talk more. He didn’t really talk before. He’s much shyer than me. Every sentence was unfinished. I used to say he was a home for abandoned sentences. Now he actually finishes them.” She sounds so chuffed, as if the thought has struck her for the first time.”

She is often described as Burton’s muse, but that makes her uneasy. She says she would not be upset if in future he didn’t cast her; there’s always going to be a film for which she isn’t right. “You can’t take it personally.” But what if he decided he no longer wanted her in any of his films? “Well, if it’s obvious that I’m right for it, I probably will take it personally. I’ll let you know when it happens.”

Could their relationship survive that? “It will be interesting. It’s not without its pressures, working with Tim. It worked on Alice. Sweeney was very stressful, very hard on our relationship.” Is he a boss or partner on set? “No, he’s a partner in our private life, but when he’s directing, he’s the boss. And maybe I confuse that.”

The producer of Alice, Richard D Zanuck, said the film was “for little people and people who read it when they were little 50 years ago”. This holds true for much of the work Burton and Bonham Carter have done together. And yet, she says, at 43 she feels adult for the first time in her life, and capable of playing almost any role. She’s ready for the mothers and the grannies, but that’s not all. “I feel more sexy than ever, not because I’m sexually attractive, I just feel I’ve grown into my body.”

Did she feel sexy when she was a beautiful young thing? “No, absolutely not. Totally uncomfortable. It took me ages to grow into being a woman, into being happy with it. Then I was young, I believed in being androgynous, you can’t flaunt it, you can’t use it. The whole thing was just something yuck, to be embarrassed about. And now it’s just like, ‘Hey, enjoy it!’. Now I feel fine about shapes and things. It’s nice to have curves. To be a woman.”

She polishes off the last of her double espresso. “I suppose I’m just a late developer.”