The BBC America original movie Burton and Taylor follows Hollywood’s most volatile on-again-off-again lovers, Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter) and Richard Burton (Dominic West), who famously played out every high and low of their love affairs, multiple marriages and divorces in the public eye. This is the story of their ill-fated reunion, on and off stage, when they made their last appearance together in the critically reviled 1983 revival of Noel Coward’s stage play, Private Lives.
During this recent interview to promote the film’s premiere on October 16th, actress Helena Bonham Carter talked about whether it was more daunting to take on Elizabeth Taylor or Queen Elizabeth, what ultimately made her decide to sign on for the project, the biggest challenges in playing Elizabeth Taylor, what she learned about her that she hadn’t known prior, consulting an astrologer about the relationship between Taylor and Burton, pulling off the look, finding the voice, and whether or not she’s seen the movie that Lindsay Lohan did. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
HELENA BONHAM CARTER: I only do Elizabeths. I’m looking for a third. You know what? They were both daunting, but I suppose the second one was more daunting. At least the first Elizabeth – Elizabeth the Queen Mother – was portrayed in The King’s Speech at a time in her life when she was a lot younger than the one that we remember. No one actually remembered what she looked like, when she was in her 30s. Whereas with Elizabeth Taylor, even thought this was a time when Elizabeth wasn’t in her own prime, my mother still said, “For Christ’s sake, don’t even go near that. Don’t touch it with a barge pole.” She’s a screen icon. Everyone knew what she looked like, and I don’t look especially like her. So, I suppose she was definitely the more daunting Elizabeth. Also, The King’s Speech wasn’t about Elizabeth, it was about the King, and this is Burton and Taylor.
Is your preparation for playing a real person different than for a fictional character?
CARTER: Oh yeah, of course. It has to be because you’ve got a huge responsibility. They’ve been around, and a mark of your success or failure will be because everyone has their own Elizabeth in their head since she’s so instantly recognizable. So, yeah, you end up doing much more research. It’s a huge and massive amount of homework when you’re dealing with somebody who everyone knows. I will say that a great friend of mine was Elizabeth’s god-daughter, so before actually accepting the part, I did say, “What would she have thought?” She said, “Oh, she’d just find it hilarious. Go for it!” So, I felt like I had her blessing.
What was it that ultimately made you decide to sign on for this?
CARTER: Because it made no intellectual sense, whatsoever, I knew that I had to do it. Originally, it was the screenplay. My oldest friend, who is an agent, said, “You’ve got to read this,” and I said, “This is such a stupid idea.” And then, by page 10, I thought, “Uh oh, I’m in trouble here.” By the end, I just thought, “Oh, god, I’m going to have to do it. I’m going to have to climb the flipping mountain and jump off the cliff, and I have no idea if I’ve got the wings.” I definitely hesitated. I had no idea if I could do it, or if it was going to be remotely successful, but it was instinct. It didn’t make any sense, but I had to try.
What was the most difficult part, in playing Elizabeth Taylor?
CARTER: Well, the fact that I don’t look like her didn’t really help, but Dominic [West] seemed so good at playing Richard Burton. When it comes to acting, people talk about the suspension of disbelief that you ask of the audience. Before that starts, you have to, as an actor, suspend your own disbelief. Dominic was so convincing as Richard that I thought, “This seems to be Richard Burton in front of me, and he’s talking to me, so I guess I must be Elizabeth Taylor.” You’re also getting beyond the public self. Everyone knew her, but the private woman had so much more dimension. She had this famous exterior, but she also had humor and intelligence. Also, I didn’t play the whole of her. It’s not a biopic. It’s just a tiny bit of their life. It’s probably the nine months of her life when she was at one of her lowest points. It’s not the most edifying time of her life. But what’s central to Elizabeth, that kept on coming across, was her ability to recover from the depths. She kept on resuscitating herself. She literally nearly died. I think she did die, and then came back. She was pronounced dead. She had an amazing resilience.
As you began to research the role, what did you learn about Elizabeth Taylor that you didn’t know before?
CARTER: My friend Lil Heyman, who was Elizabeth’s god-daughter, showed me some private photos. I didn’t realize how funny she was. She was such a clown, and there are these photos of her clowning around that gave me a sense of her playfulness. She had fun and she made people laugh. She was a real life enhancer. Because I didn’t look like her, I thought, “Okay this is an opportunity. I want to explore what she looked like on the inside, as it were.” The exterior was so famous that it eclipsed any other attribute. But, she was incredibly funny and she was incredibly clever and she had an incredible strength about her.
Did anything about the epic romance between Burton and Taylor surprise you?
CARTER: A lot of people just roll their eyes, but I have a friend who’s a very astute astrologer and I consulted her. She said that, looking at their relationship, there was a real profound stability there. There was a really healthy side to the relationship. It wasn’t all one long drink party. They both had a capacity for drinking and pills. I would have been interested to see, if he had lived longer, whether they would have ended up together, or whether they could ever do each other sober. My astrologer friend said that there was a deep connection there that wasn’t something very healthy and functional, but it wasn’t all a mad circus. They happened to fall in love just at a time when it was outrageous because people didn’t have affairs. They were very much a product of their time.
How did you pull off your look for this?
CARTER: I said to Richard Laxton, who’s the director, “If I do this, I can’t just do it on my own. I need to have these people doing hair and make-up.” We did work on the lips and we talked about proportion and how to film. Ultimately, we only had 18 days to shoot, so there’s a lot more we could have done with angles of shooting and where to put the camera and the lighting. We didn’t have any time to light, in all honesty. I was wearing blue lenses, but I’m not sure if you actually ever see the color of my eyes. We were similar, in the sense that we’re both short. She had bigger boobs, but that was easy. We used lots of wigs. She had a mole, but we deliberately put it on the other side. I wanted to make sure that it was a collage, like a sketch of her. We weren’t trying to reincarnate her. It was all to do with playing tribute to this woman, and taking all her characteristics and trying to play them. I really thought I could easily look like a man in drag if I was not careful with the eyelashes and the blue eyeshadow. It could look so pathetic.
How did you decide on the voice you wanted to use?
CARTER: It was fascinating. I always love dissecting an accent. It’s not contemporary American. She had a liquidity about her. She’d move all over the place. She was born in England, around the corner from me, weirdly, and she slipped into English sometimes when she was with Richard. She wasn’t fixed. She was a seducer. She had all these different colors that she could play. She could do the little girl thing, like Marilyn Monroe. She would sound out of breath, typically when she was ill or had just come out of the hospital. And she had a real crack. She’d have these vowels that she’d really stretch. It was partly the drink that made her draw out those vowels, but I think it was also her sexual availability. She was very open. There was this openness that was tied up with her sexiness. So, there were all these different colors that we could play with, and it was fun. Unfortunately, the voice still hangs out. It drives Tim Burton up the flipping wall. He’s like, “Jesus, you finished it months ago, and she’s still around?!” And then, I realized that she sounded like Rufus Wainwright, who’s also a friend of mine. He has so many things in common with her, with the open vowels and the drawl. It was fascinating.
Have you seen the Elizabeth Taylor film that starred Lindsay Lohan?
CARTER: I didn’t watch it, no. I don’t think it was even on in England. Maybe it was. I don’t know. It wasn’t deliberate. I wish I had more time to watch television. I just seem to make television programs, but never watch them.
Burton and Taylor airs on BBC America on October 16th.