Of course Princess Margaret was a Leo. After all, those of us born under the fifth astrological sign are known for being passionate, obstinate, and unbending, with a taste for the finer things and just a touch of the imperious. And if you know anything about the late younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II, you know she was something of social terror, with a rocky love life and a habit for saying whatever (often poisonous) thing popped into her head. That’s not what you get from a Pisces.

Still, when Helena Bonham Carter was first researching Margaret, preparing to play her in the third season of The Crown, which premieres on Netflix November 17, she decided to ask an astrologer to do the princess’s chart. “I conjured Princess Margaret for a friend of mine, and he said she was the last person who should have been in the public eye, because she didn’t have tact,” says Bonham Carter. “She couldn’t pretend to be anything but herself, so in a way she was honest and authentic, but unfortunately also incredibly rude.”

The astrologer wasn't wrong. Margaret reportedly once sniped at Grace Kelly “you don’t look like a movie star,” and she is said to have asked Elizabeth Taylor “Is that the famous diamond?” referring to the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond, which Richard Burton bought for her. “It’s so large! How very vulgar!”

Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in The Crown Season 3
Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret in season 3 of The Crown.
Sophie Mutevelian / Netflix

In the new episodes, Margaret is balancing tradition and duty with the onset of middle age during the bohemian 1960s, and attempting to reconcile her role in the family firm with her life outside the palace walls. And of course there's more than a bit of sibling rivalry. In an early episode Margaret's husband Tony Armstrong-Jones (played by Ben Daniels) remarks that she’s “a natural number one whose tragedy it is to have been born a number two.”

Bonham Carter takes on the role of Margaret (who was played in the first two installments by Vanessa Kirby; the entire cast has switched now that the show is depicting a later era) with both wicked glee and deep sensitivity. “I think she had depression,” Bonham Carter says, using a word only the younger generation of royals would think to utter in public. “I think Margaret never really recovered from the loss of her father.”

It’s a full picture of a difficult subject that only an actress of Bonham Carter’s stature could pull off. “Helena has the rare combination of spirit, intelligence, vulnerability, and the vivid, electric talent required for this role,” says series creator Peter Morgan.

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Princess Margaret's most famous feature was her blue eyes, and there was briefly a discussion of whether the actress should wear colored lenses. That idea was scrapped, but for her first scene in the series, Bonham Carter sported earrings by Larkspur & Hawk that echoed the hue. “I wanted to have her blue around me,” the actress says, “even if only by association.” On Bonham Carter, Simone Rocha dress; LARKSPUR & HAWK BROOCH (ON HEADBAND); CHANEL FINE JEWELRY EARRINGS AND RING; SIMONE ROCHA HAIR CLIP; and ABBIE WALSH HEADBAND AND GLOVES.
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Craig Brown, the author of the biography 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, agrees. “Straight away I thought it was good casting, because Helena can do posh people and she can do eccentric people, and in royal terms Margaret was eccentric,” he says. Brown and Bonham Carter had a chance to compare notes on the princess before The Crown began shooting. “Our meeting was quite brief at a slightly drunken garden party,” he explains. “The novelist Edward St. Aubyn, who had also written in one of his novels about Princess Margaret, came over and said, ‘Helena would like to meet you,’ and the three of us had a little symposium.”

Bonham Carter was, no doubt, happy for the chance to compare notes on her tricky subject. “There’s very little footage of Margaret speaking as herself. You’ve got a lot of appearances and a few speeches, but you get very little sense of what she was like,” Bonham Carter says. “She’s quite complicated because she’s quite elusive.”

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“This place is very Margaret” Bonham Carter says, breezing into a filigreed second-floor dining room at Annabel’s, the members-only club in London that is said to be the only nightclub Queen Elizabeth has ever visited. (It’s something of a family tradition: the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge occasionally pop in, and princesses Beatrice and Eugenie are fans too.)

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Bonham Carter posed for T&C in the Silver Room at Annabel's, the only nightclub Queen Elizabeth has officially visited. LARKSPUR & HAWK BROOCH (ON HEADBAND), EARRINGS, NECKLACES, AND RINGS; TIFFANY & CO. RINGS; SIMONE ROCHA SLIP; ABBIE WALSH HEADBAND; MAISON ATIA STOLE; and SHRIMPS HANDBAG (on the actress's left arm).
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The Silver Room, as it’s known, is high-ceilinged and ornate and feels like just the sort of place a royal rebel might find herself late at night, chain smoking and clutching a tumbler of Famous Grouse. As it happens, we’re meeting early in the morning and Bonham Carter indulges only in cappuccino.

Bonham Carter is approachable and easygoing—two words no one would use to describe Margaret. “My uncle courted Margaret at one point,” she says, the uncle in question being the late politician Mark Bonham Carter. “They went on to become good, longtime friends. She would be at his parties, and you were very aware that a princess was there. I remember going, ‘I mustn’t turn my back on her, I mustn’t turn my back on her.’”

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PRINCESS MARGARET WITH MARK BONHAM CARTER AT THE FEBRUARY 1954 London PREMIERE OF KISS ME KATE.
Daily Mail/Shutterstock

For The Crown, she isn’t relying on her memories alone. To prepare for the role, Bonham Carter met with the people who knew Margaret best. “When I went in search of her friends, I got a much more sympathetic portrayal,” Bonham Carter says. “She was very loved.” She spoke with the dancer Derek Deane, a friend and companion of the princess’s, and even had Margaret’s former flame Roddy Llewellyn over for tea.

Margaret had a romance with Llewellyn, a gardener 17 years younger than herself, in the 1970s, while she was still married to Armstrong-Jones. Pictures of the pair frolicking on the island of Mustique lead to her eventual split from her husband, the first royal divorce since Henry VIII.

“He was amazing,” Bonham Carter says of Llewellyn. “He came to visit, and I immediately knew why he was a good thing for her. He’s fun, and there’s something very free about him. She even gave him a bracelet in the shape of a life preserver. I think that’s what they felt they did for each other.”

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TOP: PRINCESS MARGARET AND ANTONY ARMSTRONG-JONES, both age 29, pose following THEIR ENGAGEMENT, FEBRUARY, 1960. BOTTOM: Princess Margaret, 58, And Roddy Llewellyn, 31, out and about in DECEMBER, 1978.
ShutterstockGetty Images

Talking to the people who had spent so much time with Margaret helped the actress develop facets of the character that don't always come across in other portrayals. "A lot of people wanted to talk about her—and also stick up for her,” Bonham Carter says. “Because they feel like there’s only been one side told, or that she’s been misunderstood and vilified when there was a lot that was wonderful about her.” Still, Bonham Carter recently described the princess as “scary” to a reporter. Is that how she really feels? “She was scary,” Bonham Carter admits, “but she was also very lonely.” She pauses for a beat and adds, “You can also project a hell of a lot of your own stuff onto a person if you meet them for two seconds.”

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Princess Margaret was only six years old when her uncle, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne and her father went from being the Duke of York to King George VI. Her older sister became the heir presumptive, and from then on Margaret's life was lived under a microscope, though one through which she was not always seen clearly. “I expect before you met me, you thought I was the sort of person the tabloids said I was,” the princess once said to the biographer Christopher Warwick. “And now you know I’m not.” (Gore Vidal once said of the princess, “She was far too intelligent for her station in life.”)

Unlike her steadfast sister, Margaret struggled with addictions. She drank heavily, which did nothing to soften her. “She had this odd trajectory at parties where she’d start off informal and then the drunker she got the more regal she’d become,” Craig Brown explains. “It was the opposite of the effect of drink on most people. She’d suddenly get pompous and grand and tell people off for getting too intimate or chummy.”

Of Margaret's struggles, Bonham Carter says: "She was in a lot of pain and self-medicated with alcohol and cigarettes.”

HELENA BONHAM CARTER PRINCESS MARGARET
LEFT: HELENA BONHAM CARTER IN SEASON 3 of THE CROWN. RIGHT: PRINCESS MARGARET WAVING TO CROWDS AT DENBEIGH IN JAMAICA. AUGUST, 1962
COURTESY NETFLIXGetty Images

The Princess was a notorious smoker and had a portion of her left lung removed in 1985, an incident that will be depicted in a subsequent season of The Crown. “She smoked 60 cigarettes a day with the knowledge that her father died of lung cancer at 54,” Bonham Carter says. “She had a lung removed, and she carried on smoking. She was a total addict. There was too much of her life that she was allowed to get lost inside her head, and I think that's the unfortunate thing.”

Still, the actress doesn’t think Margaret would have wanted anyone to feel sorry for her. “Everyone goes, ‘It was tragic,’” she says, “but I think the Margaret that I ended up playing would never have heard any kind of pity. She felt that she was profoundly lucky.”

Margaret might not have counted the constant attention of the media in her good fortune. From her early relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend to her 1960 marriage to her affair with Llewelyn, her adult life was chronicled by a voracious celebrity press. She was the first tabloid royal, a position she found deeply uncomfortable. (When asked which of her royal relatives is the Margaret of today, Bonham Carter answers, “I think there are hints of her in Prince Harry.”)

“Margaret was, essentially, a very vulnerable person,” Bonham Carter says. “But being vulnerable and famous is not a comfortable dynamic.”

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Bonham Carter has been famous herself for more than three decades (her big break came at age 20 in 1986, when she starred in the historical drama Lady Jane) and has had the kind of career, complete with roles in blockbusters, big deal awards, public romances, and tabloid thrashings, that makes her an expert in celebrity scrutiny. “I get it, because people project huge amounts on me,” she says. “But I’ve got nothing to do with the person they think they recognize.”

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Bonham Carter says the jewels she wore throughout the series helped her commune with her character. “What,” she asks, “if those tiaras could talk?” GRAFF EARRINGS; RYAN LO TOP; COMME DES GARCONS SKIRT; ELLEN CHRISTINE COUTURE TOP HAT; and ABBIE WALSH BOW.
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She grew up in London, the daughter of Raymond Bonham Carter, a banker and grandson of a former Prime Minister, and Elena Propper de Callejón, the psychotherapist daughter of a Spanish diplomat and an aristocratic French painter. The year before Lady Jane was released, Bonham Carter also starred in A Room with a View, which racked up eight Academy Award nominations and made her a darling of the Merchant-Ivory set.

In the years that followed, Bonham Carter became a familiar face in period dramas thanks to impressive turns in movies like Howards End, Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, and a Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She earned her first Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1997 historical drama The Wings of the Dove.

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Helena Bonham Carter in, clockwise from top left, The King’s Speech, Fight Club, Room with a View, The Wings of the Dove, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Lady Jane.
CourtesyShutterstock

While filming Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bonham Carter is said to have begun a romance with Branagh, who was married at the time to actress Emma Thompson. Bonham Carter and Branagh would go on to date for nearly five years before splitting up, and while there were surely complicated feelings at the time, Thompson was recently quoted as saying, “That is all blood under the bridge… Helena and I made our peace years and years ago. She’s a wonderful woman.”

Any reputation Bonham Carter had as an effete English Rose was dispelled once and for all in 1999, when David Fincher cast her in Fight Club as Marla Singer, a dark and disturbed foil to Edward Norton’s narrator and sexual sparring partner for Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden. Twenty years on, Bonham Carter says she can see similarities between Marla and Margaret. “There is a bit of a through line,” she says. “She’s an outsider… an imposter who wasn’t an imposter.”

Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter Tim Burton
Left: Kenneth Branagh and Helena Bonham Carter attend the premier of The Theory of Flight in New York City in 1998. Right: Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton at a party in London in 2010.
Getty Images

Playing outsiders has become something of a specialty for Bonham Carter, both on screen and off. There is an entire generation to which she’s best known for her unconventional ’90s persona—something like a cross between Siouxsie Sioux and Pippi Longstocking—in movies like Fight Club, or for her role as the deliciously demented witch Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films.

In 2001, Bonham Carter began a relationship with filmmaker Tim Burton, who had directed her in Planet of the Apes. The two became one of Hollywood’s most beloved and eccentric couples, having two children over the course of their 13-year relationship, and making six movies together, including Corpse Bride, Alice in Wonderland, Big Fish, Sweeney Todd, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The couple split in 2014, and Bonham Carter is currently dating the writer Rye Dag Holmboe.

And as she’s spent more time honing her craft, Bonham Carter has also had a front row seat to the way her industry has changed—mostly for the better, she says. “I’ve grown up in this. I’ve done it quite a long time now,” she says. “When I grew up, you were kind of extinct at 40—and the parts weren’t very interesting. It was always the girlfriend or the wife, and you were described in terms of what you looked like. I remember having such a complex because I thought I’d never work in Hollywood because I’ve got fat legs. Now it doesn’t matter.”

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Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Colman as Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth II in Season 3 of The Crown.
Des Willie / Netflix

Bonham Carter’s years in the industry have also made her a fiend for digging into the characters she plays. “I’m very anal in my research, particularly when I play someone well known,” she says. “Partly, it’s out of sheer terror that I do tons of work. I want to feel, when I walk on set, that I know enough to justify me playing a person.”

Olivia Colman, who plays Queen Elizabeth in the current season of The Crown, says her co-star’s research is apparent. “She does proper preparation. She wants to find out what makes that person tick, what makes them happy or unhappy,” Colman says. “And it works—it delicately informs what she does.”

Ask Bonham Carter about the princess’s famous taste in jewelry and she answers with surprising insight. “She didn’t have a complex about being number two, she had a complex about being short,” she says. (Margaret was five-foot-one.) “That’s why she wore the Poltimore Tiara, which was at least four inches tall, at her wedding. She even had the seat of her car raised so that she could be visible. The risk that she might be literally overlooked was the problem, not the fact that she was her sister’s younger sister.”

Another topic Bonham Carter can riff on is Margaret’s relationship with her mother, whom she has also played, in an Oscar-nominated turn in The King’s Speech. “The Queen Mother and Margaret were definitely an uncomfortable match,” she says. “They were very close and very loving, but they were unalike and different in character. You can understand that; mothers and daughters famously irritate each other.” (Bonham Carter’s own mom showed up on set for the photo shoot accompanying this story, but instead of mutual irritation, they appeared to adore one another.)

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Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Daniels as Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon in Season 3 of The Crown.
Des Willie

Bonham Carter tells a story she loves but didn’t get to film (that honor will go to the next actress to play the role) about Margaret when she needed a wheelchair toward the end of her life. “She was very happy just to sit down,” Bonham Carter says. “There was this one wheelchair, which was provided for the Queen Mother, but Margaret seemed to always be racing to it. The Queen would say, ‘No, Margaret, it’s not yours, it’s for Mummy.’” Margaret and her mother died just weeks apart in 2002; Margaret was 71; Elizabeth was 101.

As for depicting the relationship between the two sisters, Bonham Carter is quick to remind me that whatever grief or comfort Lilibet and Margot—as the sisters were known within their family—might offer each other onscreen, The Crown is fiction. “It’s not hoping to be a documentary,” she says. “Nor should it be. No one could be as interesting as she was.”

Helena Bonham Carter
Helena Bonham Carter filmed season 3 and season 4 of The Crown back to back. For season 5, another actress will take on the role of Princess Margaret. BULGARI HIGH JEWELRY EARRINGS; TIFFANY & CO. BRACELET; HARRY WINSTON WATCH; VAN CLEEF & ARPELS BRACELET; CARTIER HIGH JEWELRY RINGS; RYAN LO TOP; COMME DES GARCONS SKIRT; and ABBIE WALSH BOW.
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Colman, for her part, believes that whatever happened between the sisters, they had a unbreakable bond. “The ‘dynamic’ between the Queen and Margaret is imagined, of course," she says, "but one can make an educated guess that they were the only ones who really knew each other, and that there was enormous love and devotion between them. They experienced life before they were told they would have to change that life forever.”

It’s a dynamic Colman says she and Bonham Carter emulate off screen. “Helena and I look out for each other,” Colman says. “I’ve got her back, and vice versa.”

If there's anyone Bonham Carter is really looking out for, though, it's Margaret. And after careful contemplation, she has decided the princess would have been happy with the job she’s done. “One of her idiosyncrasies was complimenting somebody and putting them down at the same time,” she says. “She once said to me, ‘Oh, you’re getting so much better at acting,” and I thought that was really funny. Now, I think she’d be grateful that I was getting better, since she’s been entrusted to me. If I was a shit actress, it would be like, ‘Oh no, not her!’”

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Styled by Lucy Bower

In top image, Bonham Carter wears Lauren Adriana earrings and cuffs; Dior Fine Jewelry ring; Chopard ring; Erdem dress; Mystic Magic headpiece; Maison Atia stole; Abbie Walsh tulle cuffs; Early Halloween Vintage cigarette holder. Throughout this story, hair by Raphael Salley at Saint Luke for Oribe; makeup by Louise Constad at Mandy Coakley Represents; manicure by Sharon Gritton at Sue Allatt Creative; tailoring by Nathan Jones; and production by KO Productions. Shot on location at Annabel’s, London. Story designed by Michael Stillwell. Animations by Danny Ratcliff. Additional photo research by Jennifer Newman.