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Helena Bonham Carter on Channeling Elizabeth Taylor for 'Burton and Taylor': 'I did feel something spiritual.'

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire October 15, 2013 at 12:46PM

It was inevitable that Elizabeth Taylor would be portrayed on screen soon following her death in 2011. While Lindsay Lohan's take on her in the Lifetime movie "Liz and Dick" was memorable for all the wrong reasons, Helena Bonham Carter's embodiment of the icon in the BBC/BBC America co-production "Burton and Taylor" is memorable for all the right ones. As expected from an actor of her caliber, Carter nails Taylor's oft-mimicked delivery and larger than life persona; what she also does is dig deep to offer a fully realized portrait of a heartbroken woman at a vulnerable point in her career.
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burton and taylor

Had you ever met Elizabeth?

I hadn't. I saw her stage. I asked my astrologer too (laughs), "Would we have gotten on?" And she said, "She would have felt very safe with you, and you both have a very silly sense of humor." That was good to know.

You've been talking about the buildup to embodying her. How did the actually experience of playing her on set compare?

The big thing was Dominic [West]; he was so good. You really have to suspend your disbelief as an actor. They always talk about suspension of disbelief for the audience. How are you going to go, "Am I really Elizabeth Taylor?" Who gives a fuck. If the person opposite you is doing such a good job as Burton, then you go, yeah I can be Elizabeth Taylor. I was like holding someone's hand and jumping off the cliff. We were terrified and both thought it could be a stupid decision. But it was really fun.

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She still hasn't gone. The voice comes back and it drives my family up the wall. It's just like the draawwwwwwl. Sometimes I'm like, "Am I channeling Elizabeth of Rufus Wainwright?" Rufus has the same relaxed vowels and this drink-y thing. Not that he drinks a lot, but the way he sings, he stretches his vowels.

She had fun. She knew how to have fun. She ate! She was curvy, sensual and proud of being a woman. She ate! Who eats these days?

You seem like an actress who has great fun playing dress up.

I love it! It's just about dress up, and of course Elizabeth was about dress up. She loved her jewels. There's part of her that didn't grow up very much. I love people who are still in touch with delight. I got to wear the jewels – the problem about it was that they weren't real (laughs). And then the furs, and then the wigs, and then the makeup. I did insist on having friends of mine do the wigs and the makeup because I didn't want to look like a man in drag. It's just like Jesus – there's a fine line.

And the mole; actually I put the mole on the opposite side. I wanted it to be a collage, a sketch, a tribute to her. I can't ever attempt to impersonate her, because I'm not her.

How important is that to you, to transform physically for your roles, because that's one thing you do in each of your films – especially in "Planet of the Apes"…

(Laughs.)

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How much does it inform you to look in the mirror, see yourself transformed, and then go onto set?

It's huge. It's your new skin. You think you've transformed and then you see the bloody thing and you go, "It's so me." You think you're taking a holiday away from yourself and of course you haven't traveled an inch. It's painful, it's absolutely painful. But I've gotten better at recognizing those feelings and not getting involved in them. The first time you see your own film you want to slit your wrists.


This article is related to: Helena Bonham Carter, Helena Bonham Carter, Interviews, Elizabeth Taylor, Television, BBC Films, BBC America, BBC, Hamptons International Film Festival, Hamptons International Film Festival