Lead Actress: 'Sweeney Todd'

Had you bumped into actress Helena Bonham Carter in 1979 you’d quickly notice the 13-year-old’s strange hairdo — two twirled buns sticking up like devil’s horns.

“I used to go around with a Mrs. Lovett hairdo,” Bonham Carter says of the ‘do worn by Angela Lansbury in the original stage production of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” “I guess some kids wanted to be in ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ but I just wanted to be Mrs. Lovett.”

Twenty-six years later, Bonham Carter began daily training with voice coach Ian Adam (Michael Crawford’s mentor) so she could audition for the top meat-pie chef role in Tim Burton’s adaptation. Nepotism aside (she and Burton are a couple), he remained helpless to grant her the role since “Todd” co-creator Stephen Sondheim had final casting approval.

“I’ve always wanted to learn to sing,” says Bonham Carter. “I’ll lose nothing by learning to sing, even if I don’t get the part. I now know why people smile when they want to get a high note — it lifts the back of the throat and that’s how you get up there.”

Bonham Carter and 11 other hopefuls submitted videos for Sondheim’s consideration. After a “nail-biting” wait of her own, Sondheim called to tell her she’d landed the role. “I think we both burst into tears,” she says.

Utter respect for Sondheim guided Bonham Carter throughout. Early on, they rehearsed together, and while singing “Worst Pies” Bonham Carter added her own dramatic nuance.

“I was flirting throughout because I thought maybe she’s a slut on the side,” she says, “because for most women of that era, if the business thing isn’t doing too well she might have had to earn money as a prostitute.”

While intrigued, Sondheim nixed the idea.

“He said, ‘Don’t flirt. Not at this point,’ ” Bonham Carter recalls. “He was right, because you want to hide that love until she realizes who he really is. I always wanted to be in a musical, especially one by Sondheim. I still can’t believe it!”

FAST FACTS

Favorite film: “‘My Brilliant Career,’ ‘Amelie’ or anything by Truffaut.”

Young actor you admire: “Amy Adams. I met her in the toilet at the Oscars with streaming eyes because she was allergic to the makeup. She was worried that everyone would think she was crying because she lost.”

What you want in a director: “Direction and compliments.”

Vice: “Sleeping with the director.”

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