Anne Hathaway plays the White Queen in Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland. I spoke with her while she was filming Alice in Los Angeles. Here's part of the interview.
When I heard you had been cast as the White Queen I had an image of what you’d be like, but you’re nothing like I imagined. Tell me a bit about the character, and how you shaped her with Tim.
In the script she’s written to be kind of the voice of wisdom, very ethereal. She I definitely got that and I knew that it was in the story. However, she is a creature of Wonderland, and one of the things I noticed from the script and from the book is that people in Wonderland feel emotions very, very deeply, very openly and without any kind of logical progression. So, someone who could be having murderous thoughts one second, the next minute they love everyone, and it doesn’t have to make sense. That was the biggest, I guess, inspiration. Also, I’m a huge fan of Tim Burton, so I knew no one wants to be the flat one in his world. [Laughs] So I wanted to show up the way everyone else did and make a character out of her because it was an opportunity to do so, because he is so accepting of out there characters.
There’s this Norma Desmond thing going on with your hands when your character moves. How did that come about?
That just happened. I was at a friend’s house and I had kind of developed the backwards walk thing. If you had the White Queen who was the good Queen, and she would be very, very composed, hands forward, very contained and regal, and so I started off with that idea, and then I started to mess with it. I kind of leaned back into the corset, which automatically made my hands go up to the side and then I noticed my hand went into a modified prayer pose which was kind of cool. The gliding, I don’t know, it just showed up. And once I did that, I realised the hands had to move in order to sell the glide. I didn’t think of Norma Desmond, I was thinking more Greta Garbo. But then [producer] Richard Zanuck came up to me and said, “You look like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard”, so I guess that’s who I’m doing.
Thank you. I was hoping that this being Wonderland that nothing is ever quite what it seems. Tim and I talked about it early on, the idea that she and her sister [the Red Queen] come from the same family and I think the White Queen has a there-but-the-grace-of-God-go-I attitude about it. She’s trying so hard to suppress any dark insights but they are there. My inspiration for her was I wanted her to have the punk spirit of Debbie Harry and the etherealness of Dan Claven’s artwork and the kind of glamour and grace and emotion of Greta Garbo. So that was where I went with it.
She’s phenomenal. I really had a lot of fun delving into Blondie and the history of Blondie for this one. It really helped. It’s funny, when I was telling my friends about it, they were, “So what’s the White Queen like?” I think she’s kind of a glam-rock, vegan pacifist. That seemed like it was going to fit in with Helena’s character in the sense that you could see that they would be related in some of their instincts.
What kind of research did you do for the role?
Blondie research. I watched a lot of silent films because I figured a lot of my stuff would be reacting and so I kind of wanted to look at storytelling from that perspective. I read some critical essays on Alice and I just really focussed on the character and tried to feel her out.
Tim’s loves silent movie acting.
Does he? I don’t even know that. That’s so cool. I really stopped with Garbo. I was going to watch Louise Brooks films as well but Garbo was doing something really right for the White Queen.
Because the Disney animated version was so pervasive, I’m certain that many of those who haven’t read Lewis Carroll think Alice In Wonderland is this cuddly little tale, but if you go back to the book it’s rather twisted.
It is. It really, really is, because you can look at it from an emotional angle, from a psychological angle, the play on words, you can even look at it from the angle of addiction. There’s so much to the story. It’s really one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, and every time I go back I notice something else.
This is your first experience of working with Tim. How have you found it?
Tim’s very open, very collaborative but he’s definitely in the driver’s seat. And it’s wonderful to work with a director who leaves it up to the actor to take responsibility for their character and then he helps you guide it and you’re the one… I felt like I did a lot of homework in order to allow me to better fit into his vision and I love that kind of dynamic between actors and a director. He’s just a wonderful, adorable man. I’ve had a lot of fun on movie sets and this is definitely one of the more fun experiences I’ve ever had.
How have you found acting in with the massive green-screens? Has it proved liberating? Or scary? Obviously there are two monitors, including one with the temp background so you can ground yourself somewhat. Do you ever look at it?
I do. I like looking at the models better, that’s really a helpful tool and it’s very good of Tim and the designers always to have those on set for reference. There are always pictures for us to look at. There’s always the monitor for us to kind of look at where we are. In some ways, though, just as an actor, because it’s green and there’s nothing really to react to, it makes you focus on people more, and if this is their world and this is the place they’ve grown up, there’s not that moment where they take things in or in some kind of subconscious way it gets under your skin that you as a human being are in a place the first time as opposed to your character who’s been to this place again and again and again. But it’s kind of the most pure form of make believe. I remember going to drama school where we would have to do things like, pretend we were dogs or be a table or something like that, and you just had to give over to the make believe. That’s what’s going on here, and that’s actually quite illuminating, you have to flex muscles you don’t normally get to use when you’re filmmaking. Usually you use them a little bit more in the theatre.
It's a very fast shoot, with only 40 days alloted to film this whole green-screen section.
There’s an economy to the filmmaking which I love, which I think is really helpful, and there’s velocity to it, without… you never feel rushed, but you also never have time to pause, and so, as a result, you either have to get on that train or you’re forever left at the station and so far everyone seems to have gotten on the train. I love watching the way Tim lights up on the set and whenever you walk into the green screen, you could be walking across a brook or into a Bandersnatch or something, and Tim walks around the set as if he’s really seeing the way things are going to be, and it’s really fun watching him kind of react to that. He’s such gentle authority with his vision. He’s just lovely to work with but also really fascinating to observe. He’s a wonderful general. He reaches out and he collaborates and he listens and sometimes you give suggestions that he likes and sometimes he scrunches up his face and you realise he’s not feeling it, and there’s no hard feelings either way. It’s just about the film. The film is the most important thing and that kind of purity of spirit is so easy to be around.