Movie Interviews
1:36 pm
Wed October 16, 2013

Bonham Carter Takes On Taylor, And She Did Her Homework

Originally published on Wed October 16, 2013 5:39 pm

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the real-life star-crossed lovers of the 1960s and '70s. No relationship better merited the adjective "tempestuous," and of none was that word more often uttered.

BBC America offers a dramatized glimpse of the relationship in its movie Burton and Taylor. The film focuses not on the couple's scandalous beginnings when they met filming the 1963 movie Cleopatra, but rather on their public curtain call as a couple, the 1983 Broadway revival of Noel Coward's play Private Lives.

Taylor and Burton were already twice-married (to each other) and twice divorced; both of them, moreover, were battling or succumbing to their addictions.

Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Elizabeth Taylor opposite Dominic West as Richard Burton, spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about the iconic actress — and the movie, which premieres tonight.


Interview Highlights

On the production of Private Lives that the movie is about

To be honest I think it wasn't [as the character says] "creative." But I think she wanted to see him again. But it made commercial sense. She was a canny producer, and it was her production company. It is an absolutely perfect piece of theater for them to have done. And they enjoyed working together.

On Elizabeth Taylor as an actress

I think she did have some great performances. It's very difficult. I think so much of the time her looks upstaged her. I think she was great as Martha [in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?]. The thing is, though, when you look so great, people don't allow you any other talent.

On deciding to play the role and studying for it

It was very stupid, frankly. I first thought, "This a really stupid idea." Because she's a screen icon and everyone knows her. It's a bit like playing the Queen Mother, too, except the Queen Mother in The King's Speech was significantly younger from the one that everyone tends to remember.

I read all the biographies. Obviously I watched a lot of [Taylor's movies]. But all I could think of was creating a sort of impression or trying to capture some essence. It was like a collage. She has this beauty spot, but I deliberately put it on the other side of my face, because I wouldn't have the presumption of being able to become her or to be her.

I met a few of her best friends, who were amazingly trusting. And then I had an astrologer friend of mine, which might sound completely bonkers. And then I had my aunt who's a graphologist, you know, she analyzed [Taylor's] handwriting. So I attacked it from all different sides. I couldn't get enough.

I love the research; that's the best bit. ... And [director Tim Burton, her boyfriend] always [said], "Oh Jesus, you look like a flipping — you're writing a biography!" But that's my way. I just, I like the research bit. One of the byproducts of this job is that you get to learn about, in such depth, about something you would never before.

On shooting Burton and Taylor

[The shoot was] not that long ago, like three months ago. Whole thing was so fast. It was done in 18 days, on a very low budget. It was kind of ironic since we were playing the wealthiest couple in, you know, in the world. And we didn't have enough money to have the dogs for more than half a day. ... She had a lot of dogs. ... There's one shot when she comes down the corridor, and then throughout you'll hear lots of woofing, but that's completely added on.

It was wonderful. But it was completely, "OK, this is make believe." And the only thing that told us it's New York was this one Yellow Cab they could afford. So that would go through a shot. So sometimes we'd be inside and go, "We need the Yellow Cab, just to tell us we're in New York."

On one of her first films, 1985's A Room With a View, with Daniel Day-Lewis

We both sound like chipmunks! Our voices have dropped, centuries and octaves. Both of us. We're like squee, we're on helium. [In a high voice] "Hello Cecil." ... It would be good if we did a — we should do a sequel now. Wouldn't it be good? Room With a View 2. [In a low voice] Both of us are talking down here. "Hello Cecil."

On what she's learned since then

Quite a lot. Where do I start? I really didn't know what I was doing then. I mean, at least now I know I don't really know what I'm doing. But it's OK not to know. I'm definitely better. The sad thing about acting and actresses and on film, is that just as we're getting interesting, and just when we are beginning to know what the hell we're doing, then we're usually put out to pasture, you know, like cows. And I think Elizabeth, to be honest, I think she probably went on stage because she felt, you know, she wasn't getting the movies.

On whether she worries that she'll be "put out to pasture"

Of course. Every actress does. Every actor does. As soon as you've finished the job — even though you're exhausted and you don't really want, you know, you just want some time off — you immediately go, "I'm never going to work again!" So what have I learned? Lots and lots of things. Ask me a question.

On seeing herself in old movies she's done

It's usually horrifying. But it's less horrifying to see yourself 20 years ago than, you know, recently. ... Watching Burton and Taylor is excruciating. Oh God, I can't bear it. ... Can you bear hearing yourself, Robert?

But now every so often I've walked through — Tim keeps all the televisions on all the time, which is a slight contention in our relationship — and A Room With a View was on, not that he was watching it. But I suddenly saw my son on television — that's a thing. I don't see me. It's "Oh my God, that's Billy," who's 10 by the way. And obviously it wasn't him on television, it's just that he looks like me.

And I sort of then had a bit more affection for myself. I thought, "Oh my gosh. You were so young and vulnerable."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. And I'm going to turn it over now to my co-host Robert Siegel. He recently spoke with actress Helena Bonham Carter about her latest role, playing one-half of the most famous couples in movie history.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the real life star-crossed lovers of the 1960s and '70s. No relationship better merited the adjective tempestuous. And of none was that word more often uttered. BBC America's movie for television, "Burton and Taylor," is a dramatized glimpse of that relationship. Not of its scandalous beginnings when the two met, filming the 1963 movie "Cleopatra." Rather, it is about their public curtain call as a couple, the 1983 Broadway revival of Noel Coward's play, "Private Lives."

Taylor and Burton were already twice married and twice divorce, both were battling or succumbing to addictions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BURTON AND TAYLOR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Will this mean marriage number three for you and Richard?

(LAUGHTER)

HELENA BONHAM CARTER: (as Elizabeth Taylor) Ah, no. I can assure you that Richard and I have entered into this venture for purely creative reasons. And, it seems to me, that since Richard had - not so very long ago - spectacularly reconquered Broadway in "Equus" and "Camelot," then I really ought to cash in on the fact that I was pretty certain I had his phone number somewhere at home...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: That's Helena Bonham Carter who plays Elizabeth Taylor opposite Dominic West as Richard Burton. And Helena Bonham Carter joins us. Welcome to the program.

CARTER: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And first, tell us about revival of "Private Lives" that this film is about. Was this theater or was this a celebrity circus - come see Burton and Taylor, onstage arguing with each other.

CARTER: To be honest I think it wasn't, as the character says, creative.

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: But I think she wanted to see him again. But it made commercial sense. She was a canny producer and it was her production company. It is an absolutely perfect piece of theater for them to have done. And they enjoyed working together.

SIEGEL: There's a wonderful tension in this story between Taylor and Burton - apart from the love affair and the alcohol and the pills - and it's about acting. And I want to play a bit of what Dominic West, as Burton, says about the first scene that they played together. And she's playing Cleopatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BURTON AND TAYLOR")

DOMINIC WEST: (as Burton) And she did nothing. Nothing: no voice, no movement, no performance. I thought she'd had a bloody stroke or something. And then I saw the rushes and I was acting Antony. But she was Cleopatra.

SIEGEL: She was Cleopatra. And Burton in this movie insists she was a great actress. Was she?

CARTER: I think she did have some great performances. It's very difficult. I think so much of the time her looks upstaged her. I think she was great as Martha in...

SIEGEL: Martha being Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

CARTER: Yes. Thanks, Robert, for making sense.

SIEGEL: That's alright.

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: Yeah, the thing is, though, when you look so great, often people don't allow you to any other talent. I think that can be said a lot for the rest of her character because, when getting to know her doing this, I didn't realize how incredibly clever she was and funny. Like, all the inside was just as dynamic and as amazing as her exterior.

SIEGEL: Well, you are playing someone here who was not only a real person - so some discipline that you had to apply there - but one of the most famous real people in the world, whom we all not only saw in the movies but we could still go back and see those movies. How did you decide to play this? How did you study Elizabeth Taylor for this role?

CARTER: It was very stupid, frankly. I first thought: This is a really stupid idea. Because she's a screen icon and everyone knows her, so I read all of her biographies. Obviously I watched a lot of it. But all I could think of was creating a sort of impression or trying to capture some essence. Or it was like a collage. Like, she has this beauty spot, but I deliberately put it on the other side of my face, because I wouldn't have the presumption of being able to become her or to be her.

I met a few of her best friends, who were amazingly trusting. And then I had an astrologer friend of mine, which might sound completely bonkers. And then I had my aunt who's a graphologist, you know, she analyzed her handwriting. So I attacked it from all different sides. I couldn't get enough.

SIEGEL: This was a multi-disciplinary project between the astrology and graphology and...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...biography and first-hand interviews - what a project.

CARTER: Yeah, I know. I love the research, that's the best bit. I mean Tim is always slightly irritated by how much overboard. He...

SIEGEL: Tim being...

CARTER: My boyfriend.

SIEGEL: ...Tim Burton, yeah.

CARTER: The other Burton. Yeah, the real Burton in my life. And he's always saying: Oh Jesus, you look like a flipping - you're writing a biography. And I said but that's my way. I just - I like the research bit.

SIEGEL: Well, on the subject of acting, some of us remember you in "A Room with A View," which you made back in 1985. You were 19 years old.

CARTER: Yeah.

SIEGEL: And here you are, with Daniel Day Lewis:

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (as Cecil Vyse) I love you and I did think you loved me.

CARTER: (as Lucy Honeychurch) I did not. I thought I did at first. I'm sorry. And as for your loving me, no you don't, Cecil. Not really.

SIEGEL: A lot of people fell in love with you right there...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...in 1985. So...

CARTER: We both sound like chipmunks. Our voices have dropped...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Well, you're...

CARTER: ...centuries and octaves - both of us.

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: We're like squee. We're on helium. Hello Cecil. It would be good if we did a re - we should do a sequel now.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: You think that it would be an octave lower, you think?

CARTER: Wouldn't it be good? "Room With a View 2." Both of us are talking down here. Hello.

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: Hello, Cecil.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: So apart from speaking deeper now...

CARTER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...what else...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: What else have you...

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: I'm (unintelligible).

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: What else have you learned about acting since...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...since 1985?

CARTER: Quite a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: Where do I start? I really didn't know what I was doing then. I mean at least now I know I don't really know what I'm doing. But it's OK not to know. I'm definitely better. The sad thing about acting and actresses and on film, is that just as we're getting interesting, and just when we are beginning to know what the hell we're doing, then we're usually put out to pasture, you know, like cows. And I think Elizabeth, to be honest, I think she probably went on stage because she felt, you know, she wasn't getting the movies.

SIEGEL: You don't really worry about that, do you?

CARTER: Of course, every actress does. Every actor does. As soon as you've finished the job - even though you're exhausted and you don't really want, you know, you just want some time off - you immediately go: I'm never going to work again. So - but what have I learned? Lots and lots of things, ask me a question.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: First...

CARTER: First, OK.

SIEGEL: ...how long ago did you shoot "Burton and Taylor?"

CARTER: Not that long ago, like three months ago.

SIEGEL: Really?

CARTER: The whole thing was so fast. It was done in 18 days on a very low budget. It was kind of ironic since we were playing the wealthiest couple in, you know, in the world. And we didn't have enough money to have the dogs for more than half a day.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: This was her retinue of little dogs who were there.

CARTER: Yes, I had - she had a lot of dogs. So there's one shot when she comes down the corridor, and then throughout you'll hear lots of woofing, but that's completely added on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BURTON AND TAYLOR")

CARTER: (as Elizabeth Taylor) I'm here. I'm here. I'm here. I'm so sorry I'm late.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOGS)

CARTER: (as Elizabeth Taylor) Here. Here. Here (unintelligible)...

SIEGEL: Sounds like it was a wonderful experience in making this...

CARTER: Well, it was wonderful. But it was completely, OK, this is make believe. And the only thing that told us it's New York was this one Yellow Cab they could afford. So that would go through a shot. So sometimes we'd be inside and go: We need the Yellow Cab, just to tell us we're in New York. You know?

SIEGEL: You know, you mentioned - no, when you talked about what you sounded like in "A Room With A View."

CARTER: Helium, Mickey Mouse.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Well, I think the euphemism is called young.

CARTER: Yes.

SIEGEL: You sounded younger at that time. Do you ever get a chance to go back and see yourself in old movies that you did?

CARTER: Only by accident and it's usually horrifying. But it's less horrifying to see yourself 20 years ago than recently.

SIEGEL: You think five years ago is tougher than 20 years ago.

CARTER: Or two minutes ago or like watching "Burton and Taylor" is excruciating.

SIEGEL: Really?

CARTER: Oh God, no. I can't bear it and no one can. Can you bear hearing yourself, Robert?

SIEGEL: It hurts. It hurts, yeah.

CARTER: Yeah, you see the - but now every so often, like I've walked through - Tim keeps all the televisions on all the time. And "A Room With a View" was on, not that he was watching it. But I suddenly saw my son on television - that's a thing. I don't see me. It's like my -Oh, my God, that's Billy - who's 10, by the way. And obviously it wasn't him on television. It's just that he looks like me.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: I see. I see. I see.

CARTER: And I sort of then had a bit more affection for myself, 'cause I thought: Oh, my gosh. You know, 'cause of course I didn't think. I was just hating myself then. And now I go like: Oh, you were so young and vulnerable.

SIEGEL: Well, we're delighted that you came to talk with us here in 2013. And you're...

CARTER: Aww, I'm still here.

SIEGEL: Still here in real life.

CARTER: Yes, in real life.

SIEGEL: That's Helena Bonham Carter talking about "Burton and Taylor," which is on tonight on BBC America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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