Helena Bonham Carter on 'Burton and Taylor': 'It's Not About an Exact Science' (Q&A)

It was important for the actress that she play "a creature" in the BBC America TV movie: "It was not going to be Elizabeth. It was as if Elizabeth and I had a baby," she tells THR.
"Burton and Taylor"

Helena Bonham Carter isn't shy about the challenges of tackling the role of Elizabeth Taylor for BBC America's Burton and Taylor.

The Oscar-nominated actress was adamant that she not do an impersonation of the legendary star -- "She's so inimitable," says Bonham Carter. Instead, she did "extensive" research, meeting with Taylor's closest friends (and even an astrologist!) to help her collect "characteristics."

Burton and Taylor, which focuses only on a sliver of time, takes place in the 1980s as tragic lovers Richard Burton and Taylor -- then twice-married and twice-divorced -- prepare to star in the stage revival of Noel Coward's Private Lives. It would be the former couple's final project together.

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Bonham Carter talks to The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of portraying Taylor, what surprised her the most and her approach to the role.

What sort of preparation did you do to play Elizabeth Taylor?

It was pretty extensive. There's always the pressure to play someone who's well-known and she's so tremendously well-known. She was a screen icon. But I have to say I felt I had to do it -- not because I felt I could play her, which is a stupid idea because no one can really play her, she's so inimitable -- because I loved the piece and I loved the writing and I found it a lovely chamber piece in a way. I loved the love story that could've happened between anybody; it transcends them. I felt I couldn't do an impersonation because I don't really look like her, and my job was to capture some essence. I read her biographies and met with some girlfriends of hers and I met with an astrologist to help distill somebody and their qualities. My aunt analyzes handwriting so she was a great distiller of somebody's character. I went around collecting characteristics.

What were the discussions like when you were mapping out your performance?

When I talked to [director] Richard Laxton, we decided it was going to be a creature. It was not going to be Elizabeth. It was as if Elizabeth and I had a baby. (Laughs.) A collage. As I became involved with her, I was more and more in awe and had more respect for her. I think everybody involved in the project, their respect for her increased ten-thousand-fold. It was her humor, really, that made me want to do [the film]. When you play a part, they often leave you with something and she left with lots of gifts, like her sense of humor.

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What was the most surprising characteristic or aspect of Elizabeth's personality that the public may not be aware of?

I think the humor, to be honest. I don't think people -- unless they met her -- realized that. And also, the "I couldn't give a f---" attitude. She was amazingly good at remaining famous but she had the strength of character to deal with it. She was incredibly wise. At a young age, at 16 or 17, she realized Elizabeth Taylor was a commodity. It had little to do with necessarily her real self. She never confused the two, which can often happen when people are young and famous. She never let go of her own private sense of self.

What most impressed you after playing her?

She was a woman. Not a lot of woman these days are women. She had the curves, she had the boobs, she had the sexuality and she was in touch with her sexuality too. She loved food and she loved sex. I find these days people forget to enjoy the food. Her appetite for all things sexual and sensual is a great example of a great legacy. She had fun. They [Elizabeth and Richard] had a great time together. 

What did you take from Elizabeth and Richard's relationship?

They always had profound respect for each other as actors, and they were each other's No. 1 support and fan. Ultimately and profoundly, there was something very stable, sane and healthy about their relationship. What attracted her originally to him was his vulnerability that touched her, and she definitely had something in her that needed to heal broken people. He, in reverse, gave her some respect. They offered each other a lot privately. It wasn't just mad lust. There's a reason they kept on trying to attempt to be together. My take on it is they were both addicts. I think it was probably difficult for Richard to be with Elizabeth without having all the drinks they habitually had. 

Did your perception change after this movie?

She was very down-to-earth. She wasn't neurotic. She wasn't a victim. She was always her own mistress. People loved her more by the end of filming.

You had to physically transform for this role. What was that moment like, seeing yourself with the hair, makeup and wardrobe?

It was fun dressing up as her. You've got the furs, the diamonds, the twinklies. You know, I'm not glamorous -- I'm just innately not. But having the wig and the contact lenses -- at first I couldn't see a thing -- it just appealed to me. A lot of the time, I'm keeping alive the little girl who likes dressing up when it comes to acting. It was great padding the bra for my boobs. In the beginning, I thought "This is such a stupid job to do" because I don't look like Elizabeth Taylor -- but at least it was in her 50s. Before I signed on [to do the movie], I said the only way I'm going to do it is if Jenny Shircore, an amazing makeup artist, and Carol Hemming, who I've worked with so long, and [costume designer] Susanna Buxton could create her silhouette. It's not going to be exact because I don't look like her and it should be like, "I want to play a tribute to this woman." I deliberately chose to put the mole on the other side of my face because it's not about an exact science. If I could conjure some essences or a sketch of her humanity, then that's my job.

Last fall, Lifetime did its own Elizabeth Taylor biopic with Lindsay Lohan, Liz & Dick. Did you watch it?

I didn't watch it. We have a very different ambition. Theirs probably is spread over more years than ours. [Burton and Taylor is] not a biopic by any standard and it doesn't strive to be that. It just covers a drama in their lives over a particular passage of time in their late 50s. 

Burton and Taylor premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on BBC America.

E-mail: Philiana.Ng@THR.com
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