When casting a movie about Elizabeth Taylor, Helena Bonham Carter would probably not be the first actress you’d think of to play one of the most iconic, revered, and beloved women of the 20th century. Not to worry, though, Bonham Carter won’t take it personally, since she’s not her first choice, either. Still, when producers of the BBC Four telefilm cast their movie about Taylor, ex-husband Richard Burton, and their ill-fated turn in the 1983 revival of Noël Coward‘s play Private Lives, it was Bonham Carter who came to mind. Good thing she said yes, as the two-time Oscar nominee is now a front runner for her third Emmy nomination, as well. Studio System News chat with Bonham Carter about her performance in the role.
SSN: Did you ever meet Elizabeth Taylor? Did your paths ever cross?
Bonham Carter: No, sadly not. I never did. I’ve met lots of people who had met her, friends of hers, but I never had the luck to meet her. Of course now, having played her, I feel like I have. It’s a very big responsibility to play someone who actually existed, and without having the chance to have that firsthand meeting with them, inevitably you can find someone who was around and knew them. You depend on other people’s firsthand accounts.
SSN: This is not the first time you’ve played someone iconic. A couple years ago, you got an Oscar nomination for playing the Queen Mother.
Bonham Carter: Clearly, Elizabeth is an important name to me. (laughs) I was lucky in that one of my oldest friends was Elizabeth Taylor’s god daughter. When I was asked to play her, I was shocked, because of course I look nothing like her. When something like that happens, you feel like you have to ask permission, but if the person is dead, you really can’t, can you? So I asked my friend, and she said, ‘she would find it funny.’ So that, combined with their permission and the fact that she had such a great sense of humor made me think, yeah, I really want to do this. More than that, I was honored to do it.
SSN: Playing someone like that could, potentially, be a no-win proposition, can’t it?
Bonham Carter: When you’re in the public eye for so long and are famous, it can become a travesty. I don’t ever want anyone to play me in something. But in the case of this, this particular biopic, it was not about who they were or their fame, it was about a love they had. Also, the script was not about the people we were playing, but about this beautiful story. A story about love. A story about people who could not be with each other, but also could not be without each other. On top of that, a love story about people in their 50s is not something you come across very often. it resonated beyond the fame thing.
SSN: One of the things about the movie that is so interesting is that it’s so specific a moment in time. It’s not covering decades of their lives, but rather one experience right at the end of Burton’s life.
Bonham Carter: It’s not a traditional biopic. What we did was take a tiny slice of a moment of their lives. These two bashed their heads against the wall trying to be together, saying, ‘we can do it, we can do it, we can do it.’ They really loved each other, but they didn’t make each other happy.
SSN: Your performance never felt like you were trying to impersonate her. It just seemed like you were playing someone who happened to have been Elizabeth Taylor.
Bonham Carter: Well, the way I approached it—obviously I don’t look like her, but then no one does. She was so exquisite and extraordinary. When I did my research, I found she was not defined by that exterior. I thought I would benefit by playing her from the inside out—how she came back from nothing, her determination, her sense of humor. She had a great ability to deal with fame, not only because of how long she’d been famous, but unlike many of her contemporaries, she never identified as a victim. She was very pragmatic; very direct. There was nothing pretentious about her and she had a gift for intimacy in that she knew how to connect with people. I think the main reason she was so beloved is not because of what she looked like, but because of who she was as a person. Her strength and her kindness and her huge heart.
SSN: Do you get something extra out of playing a role like this?
Bonham Carter: One benefit of working in his profession is that I can learn from other people and, hopefully, be left with a bit of it, some residue. Even though I never met her, I feel like she’s given me something, you know? When you meet people in real life, without being selfish about it, you hope they give you something. When you do what I do, you end up having a conversation with somebody who is long gone, but they give you something and enrich you and become a part of you. Boy, I really am getting pretentious here, aren’t I? (laughs)
SSN: But isn’t that part of the attraction of being an actor? Isn’t that part of why you do it?
Bonham Carter: Certainly part of it for me is that I get to have these paid educations. It’s like, ‘Oh, I get to go learn about this now!’ They’re all like children within me. Usually, when the film’s over, you get rid of them. It’s like having a lodger in. But I must say, Elizabeth has stuck around.