In an age of film where ripped, martial arts-savvy super heroines are the ladies of the moment, it’s refreshing to see an actress stick to her feminine roots and still be powerful.

The performer behind such multi-layered and realistic portrayals of womanhood is Helena Bonham Carter. Her display of soft vulnerabilities beneath offbeat and sometimes gritty exteriors make her distinct in a sea of now-typical female actresses who frown on "girl push-ups" and go straight for the "on your knuckles" technique.

She stars opposite Guy Pearce in this month’s supernatural romance Till Human Voices Wake Us, written and directed by Michael Petroni, who also penned 2002’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.

"It’s definitely not a conscious choice to play ‘vulnerable,’ although I think that’s something that just comes out," says the soft-spoken Carter in her polished English accent.

A host of psychological issues including trauma, grief, and dissociation underpin the film’s slowly mounting suspense. Carter plays Ruby, a stranger who meets Pearce’s world-weary psychiatrist Sam on a train, and whom we later realize is the ghost of Sam’s first love. Ruby is the incarnation of the spirit the lovers shared that he must rediscover in order to live again.

Carter says Petroni’s screenplay drew her to the film in the first place. She mentions that it "read like a poem. It’s so rare to find writing originality, and I found it very touching," says Carter. She also points out the importance of its dual subjects of loss and grief.

The film also marks Carter’s maiden voyage Down Under; the film was shot it its entirety under the big, blue Outback sky. "I spent a lot of time on my back," she quips through laughter.

With her Ivy League-sharp wit and an eloquence that would make Webster jealous, it’s obvious she can put any interviewer at ease. There’s more than a hint of irony in that the quintessential British actress is currently in Alabama, where she’s shooting her next film, Tim Burton’s Big Fish, which boasts an impressive ensemble cast. Carter will star alongside Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, and Danny DeVito in the epic, which is slated for a late 2003 release.

For those savvy about her filmography, Carter started out essaying young innocent types, starting with her debut role in the film adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View and Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, in which she played Ophelia. Carter soon found herself typecast in period pieces, with roles in several Forster adaptations and a starring turn in Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night: Or What You Will. However, her consistently solid work earned her Oscar nomination for The Wings of the Dove (1997).

Yet Carter has proven that she’s a master of onscreen reinvention. Her moxie was made apparent in her critically acclaimed performance as the chain-smoking, support group junkie Marla Singer in David Fincher’s brain-teaser Fight Club. The once-demure star of Merchant-Ivory fare has even been approached by MGM about being the next Bond girl.

"They approached me actually for a split second, and then they went off the idea," she confides. "You know, I’m always up for a new experience, but I think I have a distinctly uncommercial taste."

Another gritty role as a strong-willed war correspondent in HBO made-for-television drama pic, Live From Baghdad recently earned Carter a Golden Globe nomination. Her research for the role gave her insight into war reporting, which could soon be a reality for many journalists worldwide.

"I think they [reporters] are in the front seat, or practically in that seat," says Carter on a serious note. "The realities of war are very graphic and your responsibility is to report as accurately and objectively as you can and not to panic. It can be very difficult, I think. It’s very stressful, but I also think it can be very exhilarating."