17/10/2018 11:51 BST | Updated 17/10/2018 11:51 BST

'Her Work Is Not Yet Done': Helena Bonham Carter Talks Playing Mental Health Campaigner Eleanor Riese

Helena shares her hopes for her new movie, '55 Steps'.

Elsani Film GmbH, Potemkino Port and MMC Movies Köln GmbH
Helena Bonham Carter as Eleanor Riese 

“There was no money,” Helena Bonham Carter says. “Everything was down to the wire.” 

‘55 Steps’ is a different kind of project, compared to the big budget movies - be it this year’s smash hit ‘Ocean’s 8’, the ‘Harry Potter’ series or Oscar winner ‘Les Misérables’ - it’s easy to associate her with. 

The actor served as executive producer - for the first time ever - and plays Eleanor Riese, a mental health campaigner, who is stubborn, funny, kind-hearted and pushy, all at the same time. 

Her fight for the rights of patients who are being given medication without their consent runs parallel to her own health battles, as she struggles with her mental health and the side-effects from the anti-psychosis drugs supposed to improve things. 

The movie was in the works for years and Helena was originally pegged to play Eleanor’s lawyer, Colette Hughes, while Susan Sarandon had been to set to take the lead. 

When things finally got going, it was decided the ‘Ocean’s 8’ star was better-suited to the older role, with Hillary Swank playing the lawyer.

With production finally underway, Helena researched extensively, learning about the case itself and Eleanor, including the physical problems she had to “get inside of”.

“I had literally a menu of things, all of these different symptoms,” she tells HuffPost UK. ”She was constantly in bladder pain and walking was hard because of what the medication did to her ankles, giving her fluid, and making them very swollen.”

Helena admits that “sometimes when I watch it I feel like, ‘Oh Jesus, I’m over the top’.”

“But then I feel like, ‘no’,” she adds. “That’s also paying tribute to what she [Eleanor] felt.”

The struggle is a difficult one, with Eleanor and her two lawyers, Mort Cohen (Jeffrey Tambor) and Colette, at its centre. 

Eleanor died shortly after her legal battle but Helena met the legal team, who were able to share helpful details on their former client and close friend.

“I sent her [Colette] a questionnaire,” she explains. “I asked what animal would Eleanor be? And she said: ‘She’d be a big huge dog, who would be uncontrollably excitable and her tail would wipe everything off the table’.

“I asked: ‘Did her mental disability translate or manifest in her physically?’

“She said she had this very distinct gait and so I got the information from that.”

As the movie goes on, we see Eleanor’s mental health improve and her bright, funny personality takes centre stage, even though her physical health is declining. This is something Helena is hoping viewers pay attention to.

“At the beginning, you see someone who is very ill, but part of it is the mask of illness and the side effects,” she explains. “As she slowly comes out of hospital and gets better, and comes onto the right amount [of medication], you see the person emerge.

The portrayal of Eleanor - someone who is both held in a psychiatric unit and incredibly sharp-witted and funny - is an important one. 

“It’s a very black and white image of a depressed person or somebody who is mentally ill to say that they’re always depressed,” Helena explains. “People who are mentally ill are also the most creative and dynamic characters in the world and it’s often the flip side of a great dynamic brain [that] you can often have moments of total collapse.”

“People who are mentally ill or old, or poor become faceless,” she muses. “You walk past people and they’re anonymous but they are individuals and they should be treated like individuals.

“Mental health - and age, and poverty - can disguise people.”

Frustratingly, with production complete, the troubles still persisted.

After premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, ’55 Steps’ didn’t make it  to cinema screens, and is instead being distributed online. While this is something many stars would be reluctant to discuss, Helena is the one who brings it up.

“It’s going to be streamed so we’ve got to get people aware that they can watch it,” she says. “We need to get it out to the people who are in need, as Eleanor was.”

Unconcerned - or perhaps simply just done - with these setbacks, she explains how ‘55 Steps’ - named for the amount of stairs Eleanor has to climb to make it into the courtroom - has changed her own outlook.

“There are lots of symptoms, like tardive dyskinesia (TD),  I had no idea people had,” she says. “I do my usual walk and I see people on the street and I think, ‘I always thought they were ill’.

“But now I think, ‘Well maybe they have side effects of a drug?’. Or you go, ‘I wonder what [their] story is?’. It’s made people more visible for me.”

Elsani Film GmbH, Potemkino Port and MMC Movies Köln GmbH
Helena with Hillary Swank in '55 Steps' 

The actor’s own realisations have shaped her hopes for how the film is received and how she hopes it can add to ongoing, important conversations around mental health.

She explains: “Why can’t you turn up at a dinner party and say, ‘Oh i’ve just come through depression’ or ‘I’m feeling a bit depressed’?”

“People still don’t really talk about their mental states. sometimes I think people don’t talk about it because they don’t feel it would be understood.”

If Elenor were still here, what would Helena ask her? “If I said, ‘Did we do good?’, we’d probably get paragraphs from her,” she laughs before getting serious.”

“My thing at the moment is, ‘What do we do now? What does she want us to do now?’.

“If you had to distill her into one action it would be ‘to be heard’. She was in dire need and alone, and there are others out there who are to.

“Eleanor did what she did not just for herself, but to heal other people. Her work is not yet done.”

‘55 Steps’ is available to buy and rent on platforms including Amazon, Sky, BT, iTunes and BlinkBox.