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.
Directed by Richard Laxton and written by William Ivory ("Made in Dagenham"), "Burton and Taylor" takes place in 1982, as Taylor and her ex-husband Richard Burton (Dominic West) prepare to make their final stage appearance together in a Broadway revival of Noel Coward's classic play "Private Lives," that would go on to be badly received by the press. The film airs on BBC America this Wednesday, October 16 at 9pm.
Indiewire caught up with Carter at the Hamptons International Film Festival over the weekend to discuss the role, the actress' love of dress up, and how scared she was to take on an icon.
You've played many-a historical figure over the course of your illustrious career. Where do you even start with someone as iconic and beloved as Elizabeth Taylor?
Well, my mother said "Don't do it. You're trespassing on other people's dreams." And I said, "Well, I know mom but the script's so good." Good writing is very rare. And there are so many facets to her, that I couldn't say no to her personality.
How did you go about approaching the performance?
There was a hell of a lot to it. I had a massive file. Tim [Burton] was like, "Jesus, it looks as if you're writing a biography." I said, "Well, I have a lot of responsibility!" I read so many books on her. I'm sure I could pass some exam on her. I have lots of personal connections. First of all I asked my really good friend Lil, who is her goddaughter. I phoned her up, I said, "What do you think, and what would she of thought?" She said, "Well, she would have found it hilarious, so don't worry about that." So that was a blessing. I even asked a psychic – I'm completely wacko – who was actually deghosting our house…
You have a psychic on call?
I do have a psychic; a friend of mine is a psychic. He's good at moving people on because we've had some ghost issues in the house. I told him I was in a real dilemma about the role, and he came back with the answer, "Intellectually it makes no sense whatsoever, but emotionally it's a nine out of ten."
Why was that?
Because there was some reason I had to do it. And I did feel something spiritual. All my friends told me not to do it, but I just felt I had to. I don't know why, but I certainly had fun. And she's given me a lot. By finding about her through her biographies – I went to my astrologer too…
(Laughs) You have your own astrologer?
I do, I do. My aunt is very good with real live people because she's a graphologist.
A graphologist is someone who analyzes handwriting. She's expert. So she can look at someone's handwriting and distill a character. I did it for the Queen Mum. She was very much an actress, the Queen Mother, in the sense that she was, like Elizabeth, incredibly good at being famous and not let it destabilize them.
A trait I think you share in common with the both of them.
I think I'm pretty good at that. I think it's helped me survive. Very early on you figure out that you put your self esteem in the hands of strangers. There's a different commodity. There's the Helena Bonham Carter that everyone thinks they know, who has really nothing to do with me. But you just have to let that go.