For some actors, assuming the identity of a screen icon is a daunting task and one not to even be considered. But for BAFTA-, International Emmy- and Screen Actors Guild Award-winner Helena Bonham Carter it’s one that ultimately can’t be refused. Especially when it’s one as juicy as portraying the legendary Elizabeth Taylor for BBC America.The role was in the film “Burton and Taylor” and the script focused narrowly on Ms. Taylor’s life as she and her ex-husband, Richard Burton, prepared for a 1983 theatrical revival of the Noel Coward play “Private Lives” in London. It was a rocky time for the actress, and an extremely trying time for the man with whom she’d already married and divorced twice during a tempestuous 14-year love affair.
Ms. Bonham Carter, who starred in “Burton and Taylor” with Dominic West as Mr. Burton, attended the 21st annual Hamptons International Film Festival to promote the docudrama, which screened at the East Hampton UA on Friday night and at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on Saturday night after Ms. Bonham Carter participated in an afternoon “Conversation With” series interview.
Earlier on Saturday afternoon, before her “Conversation With” appearance, she gave a one-on-one interview with the Press at the The Maidstone in East Hampton. Dressed in a purple floral sheath (“She always loved purple so I thought it would be nice to wear,” Ms. Bonham Carter said.), a dark green cardigan and grey lace-up boots, she shared a spot on a sofa on the back porch, and her motivations for portraying the mega-famous fellow Brit.
“I really was just going to say no because I thought it was a bad idea to try a biopic,” Ms. Bonham Carter said of her initial reaction to the role. “It’s not a biopic, but, as my mother said, ‘Don’t touch it with a barge pole darling, she’s a screen icon and you’re going to be treading on other people’s dreams. Stomping all over them.’”
“I was like, ‘No, I know, but I have to,’ she continued, her large, expressive brown eyes flashing. “It doesn’t make much intellectual sense but I have to do it.”
And then the actor did her research on the eight-times-married child star-turned-screen legend and was hooked.
“The more I read about her, she had so many different colors and different facets,” Ms. Bonham Carter said. “There aren’t that many great characters out there and I just thought, ‘she’s fascinating.’ And in fact, she was more interesting on the inside than she was on the outside.”
The actor, who said that she had never met Ms. Taylor but had seen her in the play “Little Foxes” and had “a lot of friends who are one degree away,” made a conscious decision to portray the real person and not the famous leading lady. Of great help was old friend Lil Heyman, Ms. Taylor’s goddaughter, and her mother, Norma, the wife of John Heyman—who formed The International Artists Agency, which represented both Ms. Taylor and Mr. Burton—a close friend of the Oscar-winning actress. Interestingly, Ms. Heyman’s brother, David, was the producer of the “Harry Potter” film franchise, in which Ms. Bonham Carter starred as Bellatrix Lestrange.
“I phoned her up when I got the script,” she said of her friend, Lil. “I got to talk to Norma, she was one of the friends who talked to me … I’ve got to somehow get past the public, because there was so much that was written about her, so many opinions, and ultimately I just wanted to know from the people who actually knew her. It was that private self that I was interested in.”
The actor said she was struck by Ms. Taylor’s complexity.
“Her career, her sense of humor, vulnerability and her intelligence—she was incredibly clever,” she said, adding that in 1983, Ms. Taylor was not necessarily at her best, but that she was still extremely compelling. “But what I did love was she stuck around and I loved putting her on. She’s a great personality. She gave me things, like, the voice, which is still stuck, unfortunately.
Harshly criticized by critics for her uneven voice, Ms. Taylor was nevertheless quite effective in the use of her instrument, as Ms. Bonham Carter vocalized.
“She had so many different thangs,” the actor said, in Ms. Taylor’s voice, emphasizing the southern “a” sound in what should have been the word “things” before changing her inflection and syntax. “She’d have a craaack in her voice. And she’d also do a breathy thing, a bit Marilyn,” the actor mimicked sexily, “like when she got the Oscar.”
Now shyly, quietly, she continued, still in character as Ms. Taylor.
“She does a little girl thing when she wants to be vulnerable, but then,” Ms. Bonham Carter made her voice rough and gravelly, “she also does the Martha, like in ‘Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and then the swooooping thing with her vowels and all that.”
Returning to her own voice, the actor continued discussing her character.
“And then the slightly being drunk—she was drinking in this phase—that looseness. She had a kind of liquidity and a sexiness to her. That sort of, that made me feel sexy, it was fun,” she said. “Also, she was a great person to dress up. At the end of the day, I’m thinking I’m really going to enjoy dressing up as her—on an emotional level and also clothes-wise. The diamonds and the sables, it was hilarious. Totally over the top. She had fun.”
In the end, it was Ms. Taylor’s gutsiness that captivated the actor, she said.
“She had an amazing ability to resuscitate. To go to the bottom and then come up again and go ‘Ah, f–k it, I’ll just take on.’”
Ms. Bonham Carter admitted that she was pleased with the end result of the film, which took only 18 days to shoot. Well, as pleased as she can be with seeing herself on screen.
“I’ve watched it and I want to slit my wrists but that’s always my reaction to anything I do,” she laughed.