Hollywood star Helena Bonham Carter discusses her new role as screen icon Elizabeth Taylor in BBC4’s new biopic Burton & Taylor (Monday, July 22)…
Burton & Taylor is set in 1983. How was life for Elizabeth at this stage of her life?
“I think this is the loneliest point in Elizabeth Taylor’s life. It was just before she went into the Betty Ford Clinic and she was on a cocktail of pills and booze. She’s definitely at her worst.”
The factual-drama revolves around Elizabeth and Richard Burton’s decision to appear together in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Why did they reunite even though they’d already divorced each other twice?
“They partially did it for commercial reasons as they both needed the money and partly for sentimental reasons. Professionally they were good together and made a huge amount of money [they stared in 11 films together including The Comedians and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?] The double whammy of the two of them always caused a sensation, as they had fantastic chemistry.
Do you think Elizabeth had any other motives?
“Although they were no longer together she definitely wanted him back and that, I think, was her agenda behind doing Private Lives. She really loved him. They loved each other. It was such a sad state.”
How did things work out?
“Not well! Burton was sober at this point so they were completely out of synch. They got into a bit of a revenge battle! She disappeared for a week to show him who the real star of the show was, so he got married to somebody else. They had to do the play for nine months so it was a dramatic time! But she knew how to give the audience a good time.”
They’re famous for having an explosive relationship. Was it difficult to establish that chemistry with Dominic West, who plays Richard Burton?
“Dominic’s very funny! We’d met before, but hadn’t remembered it. There definitely was chemistry, otherwise the whole thing wouldn’t have worked!”
Have you enjoyed playing her?
“It’s been great, she’s an amazing woman. Elizabeth had a great sense of humour and with the diamonds and her appetite it was fun to play an over-the-hill screen icon. I wore brilliant blue contacts to get her bright blue eyes, but a lot of the time I couldn’t see! I have a lot of respect for her, she was unashamedly a woman. I hope I haven’t done her a disservice. It’s tough because you’re trespassing on someone’s privacy. But I think Burton & Taylor is a beautifully written love story – and respectful.”