Helena Bonham Carter: “Princess Margaret is a great licence to behave pretty badly”


“Who’s number one?”

Oscar-nominated actress Helena Bonham Carter joins the cast of The Crown for its third season on Netflix and takes on the role of The Queen’s glamorous and tormented sister, Princess Margaret.

Portrayed by BAFTA winner Vanessa Kirby in the first two seasons of the show, Bonham Carter will portray Princess Margaret through her tumultous marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon (Ben Daniels), and show the deep differences and love between Margaret and her sister.

The Oscar-nominee spoke to Notebook’s Lara Kilner to discuss taking on the role of the iconic royal sister, wearing the colourful costumes, and working with on-screen sister Olivia Colman.

What kind of homework did you do to play Margaret?

You have a huge responsibility because she was a real person, so number one on my action list was to find a list of the biographies that were worth reading.

I’m a pretty late starter in everything, so I watched season one and two and it became clear that there was a real Margaret and The Crown Margaret. There were certain choices they had made for dramatic purposes, so it seemed I would have creative licence.

Helena Bonham Carter with Margaret's trademark cigarette
Helena Bonham Carter with Margaret’s trademark cigarette

I also went to a medium because I’m completely bonkers. I thought I should just ask Margaret if she minded me playing her and she was actually quite thrilled.

I met her a few times when I was young, as she had known my uncle for a long time. She once came up to me at Windsor and said, ‘Yes, you are getting better.’

I thought that was such a typical remark, because she was brilliant at complimenting and at the same time putting you down.

How did you get into character?

I don’t look like her, I mean, there’s just nothing! When I was approached, I did check they had asked the right person.

I’ve got the height right, which is the one advantage I have over Vanessa Kirby, who played her (in series one and two). Princess Margaret was tiny, so if anything, I’m a bit tall.


Ben Daniels and Helena Bonham Carter in The Crown

That was actually quite key to her character. Someone said it wasn’t so much a complex about her not being Queen, but about how small she was.

That played into her feeling that she might not have been as important as her sister.

What’s it like playing Margaret a bit older?

Hopefully I bring my ageing soul to illuminate this bit of her life. The writer Peter Morgan said, ‘You all used to be so young and pretty and now we’ve got you lot!’ The gift of Margaret is that she is very multifaceted, complicated and changeable, and you’re never going to be bored of her.

How was the physical transformation?

Helena Bonham Carter in costume


Hair is a particularly big thing when you’re playing someone so iconic. The first time I saw Olivia in her wig, it was magical. It was like the Queen was in the room.

Because Margaret had a complex about only being 5ft tall, her hair got taller and taller – it wasn’t just the fashion of the time. She just carried on putting on hair pieces, as if they were a mask. She even had the seat of her car raised so she was seen to be taller.

It took two and a half hours every morning to look like her, I had an army of people to make sure I was immaculate.

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We started with a massive book of all the photos of her through all the years, and I actually met her hairdresser who did her hair day in, day out for years and I went and had my hair done with him. He produced a lock of her hair, which was a sort of talisman.

Did you learn a lot about the real Margaret from him?

A lot of people love to dislike Margaret, because she wasn’t easy, but the people who saw her every day really loved her.

Her hairdresser said she was bold and upright. She carried being Royal very seriously, but at the same time wanted to do everything her way. It’s flicking between those two positions that’s fun to play.

Bet the clothes were fun…

Vanessa had the best luck because she was in the 1950s and I prefer that era as a look. I don’t have the body or length to show off the 1960s. I mean, it’s not that flattering.

Margaret relaxed more once she was married. She became less adventurous and almost had a married woman uniform. The costume designer put me in bruised colours and patterns to reflect Margaret’s emotional state.

Princess Margaret looking thoughtful in The Crown

We also got help with movement, how we’d have to carry ourselves in the space and how to fill it. There’s no apology about being the Queen or Princess Margaret, you have to fill the space with your shoulders and enter a room bang in the middle. The doors are wider to accommodate that.

The Queen was probably by nature an introvert and had it drummed into her to take the space and not apologise for any inch that she took up. Margaret certainly didn’t.

How was it working with Olivia Colman?

There’s something innately loveable about her. Olivia is unbelievably open, and her whole heart is not only on her sleeve but it’s on her body. She’s very emotional, but the Queen was trained to put her emotions aside.

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The very first scene Olivia and I had to do was where I tell her about the 1966 disaster of Aberfan. Olivia really can’t not have empathy, so in order not to sob, she had to listen to the shipping news.

Was joining the show daunting at first?

The set felt very unstressed, even though we knew there was a long way to fall, potentially. We were all terrified the day before we started filming, but it was OK and we felt safe, protected and unbelievably supported.


Princess Margaret gets emotional

In fact, playing Princess Margaret is a great licence to behave pretty badly, be demanding and not do much! It’s a great job.

Will you be watching it with your family?

I want to leave the universe when it comes out, because it’s too excruciatingly exposing. So I’m looking forward to a really long holiday on the Moon or something.

The Crown season 3 launches today on Netflix.


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