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.
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.
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”…
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.