Helena Bonham Carter on Portraying Elizabeth Taylor: “My job was to capture some essence”
When thinking of an actress who could play silver screen legend Elizabeth Taylor in a movie, Helena Bonham Carter probably isn’t the first name to come to mind (then again, neither is Lindsay Lohan).
However, Bonham Carter is getting rave reviews for portraying Taylor opposite Dominic West in the BBC television movie Burton & Taylor, which is about the successful, but troubled 1983 Broadway production of the play Private Lives that starred the twice-divorced couple. Bonham Carter spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how she created her take on the world renowned actress.
Of course, whenever an actor portrays a famous real-life figure there is often an incredible amount of preparation, and Bonham Carter reveals that Burton & Taylor was no exception. She says, “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.”
Because of that, Bonham Carter admits that she didn’t try to do a strict impersonation of Taylor. She explains, “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.”
Instead, Bonham Carter tried to act like a hybrid of herself and Taylor. She reveals, “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.”
One aspect that Bonham Carter found easy was getting used to Taylor’s exquisite wardrobe and style. “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.”
However, Bonham Carter again points out that the wardrobe alone couldn’t make her into the screen icon, adding, “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.”
That’s a clever bit about the mole — although it will likely appear on Burton & Taylor‘s IMDb goofs page, anyway!