January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

For a British actress, spending time in Beverly Hills can have its perks. One afternoon last November, Helena Bonham Carter was using a pay phone in the lobby of the posh Four Seasons Hotel, where she stayed while filming Fight Club with Brad Pitt. She noticed a man staring at her. “You remind me of somebody,” he told her. “I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, Helena Bonham Carter,’ ” the actress recalls. “Then he said, ‘No, no, you look like Natalie Imbruglia, the singer.’ And I said, ‘But not Helena Bonham Carter?’ He said, ‘Definitely not her.’ ”

After more than 20 films—and a Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1997’s The Wings of the Dove—Bonham Carter, 32, could have been insulted. Instead, anonymity came as a relief. In England the doe-eyed star of A Room with a View and Howards End has been a major celebrity for over a decade. And she became fodder for the country’s gossip columnists in 1996, when she began dating actor Kenneth Branagh after he and wife Emma Thompson split.

Her new film, The Theory of Flight, should thrill the editors of tabloids everywhere. Bonham Carter stars as a wheelchair-bound woman with a fatal neuromuscular disease who hires Branagh’s character to deflower her. But despite the onscreen pairing of the offscreen couple, Bonham Carter made the film with another man in mind: her father, who was paralyzed after a 1979 stroke and has spent the years since in a wheelchair. “Doing this part was like coming home,” she says.

Since age 13, Bonham Carter has helped her mother care for her father, Raymond, a former banker. As a result, she says, she “borrowed” from him in Theory of Flight. “I’ve watched him get transferred from the wheelchair to the car for a long time,” she says. “So when I had to do that in the film, I just knew how to hold my body.”

Playing a role so close to home was naturally a struggle—but one made easier by the presence of Branagh, 38. “It was very supportive to have him around,” she says. “There was an automatic intimacy, and so it was much quicker and easier to shoot.” The two met in 1993 as costars in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which he directed; a relationship between them became public after Branagh and Thompson (who had costarred with Bonham Carter in 1992’s Howards End) separated in 1995. The couple now try hard to avoid the media glare. “We do remarkably unglamorous things” like watch videos, she says. “We’re so boring, it’s unprintable.”

Of course, it’s tough to lead an exciting life under your parents’ roof. Until this summer, Bonham Carter lived in the north London home where she was raised. Her new house, a 19th-century artist’s studio, is only 10 minutes away. (Branagh has a mansion in Surrey, south of London.) “I have no doubt that if my father hadn’t been so ill, I would have moved out long ago,” she says.

As a child, Bonham Carter attended private schools, enjoying the privileges of her pedigree: Her greatgrandfather, Herbert Henry Asquith, was Britain’s prime minister from 1908 to 1916. Despite being “a very shy child who didn’t like standing up in front of people,” she found her calling at age 5, when she met a family friend who was an actress. By age 13, Bonham Carter was performing in school plays and had won a national poetry contest. “I wanted to be one of the Charlie’s Angels,” she says. “I wanted to be Kate Jackson.” Then she found out her father had developed a brain tumor. After a nine-hour operation to remove it, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed below the neck and partially blind. “It changed our lives forever,” says Bonham Carter’s mother, Elena, a psychotherapist. Her two sons (now bankers) were in college, leaving her daughter “to hold my hand.”

Bonham Carter coped with the tragedy by helping to care for her father and, curiously, by getting an agent. “You’d think that was an unlikely response,” she admits, “but it was probably my way of forging my self-sufficiency.” At 16 she landed her first role, as “an Edwardian ghost” in a 1982 British TV movie. Two years later, after graduating from London’s Westminster School, she passed up the chance to attend Cambridge University, opting instead to play the teenage Queen in Lady Jane. She broke out as Lucy Honey-church in 1986’s A Room with a View. “She researches her part deeply, gathering information,” says producer Ismail Merchant. “Then it’s like a wonderful book that she leafs through for her performance.”

It was quite a performance indeed when Bonham Carter hopped on a table in a crowded pub a few years back to film a scene as a topless dancer for a British TV movie. “She absolutely bared all,” recalls executive producer Andy Harries. (Sorry, fans—there are no plans to release Dancing Queen in the U.S.) But her most notable roles have been much more straitlaced. “I like to work, and the best parts for women usually involve wearing a corset,” she says.

In real life the spiky-haired heavy smoker is refreshingly laid-back. She is “hysterically funny,” says Martin Short, who starred with her in last year’s NBC miniseries Merlin. “She’s the one you want to make sure and sit next to at dinner.”

Her next role, as a woman torn between Brad Pitt (“as dreamy inside as he is outside,” she says) and Edward Norton in the big-budget Fight Club, is clearly uncorseted. But she isn’t likely to go Hollywood anytime soon. Her closest bond, say friends, is with her parents. “Because of them,” she says, “I have a sense of proportion. They taught me the world can be a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable place.” Her parents, meanwhile, see The Theory of Flight as a gift from their daughter. “I am intensely touched by that movie and can never see it without crying,” says Elena. “My husband is equally moved.” To Bonham Carter, that’s the highest form of praise. “I guess,” she says, “it’s my dedication to him.”

Dan Jewel

Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles, Joanna Blonska in London and Peter Mikelbank in Paris

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