Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West are taking on the toughest roles of their lives as iconic couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They tell Kate Whiting about their latest screen appearances.[divider]
Helena Bonham Carter is holding up her iPhone, accessorised with gold bunny ears, to reveal a photo of her and Dominic West with Eighties hair and make-up and very scared expressions on their faces.
“We look like gargoyles, that’s the thing – I mean, THE most famous couple…” she says, breaking off into giggles.
The couple in question is Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, two of Hollywood’s all-time biggest icons, and Bonham Carter and West have teamed up to play them in a feature-length BBC Four biopic.
“They’re incredibly intimidating!” adds Bonham Carter, whose maternal grandmother was Jewish. “I hadn’t really met Dom before and I walked in and he just said, ‘Piece of cake isn’t it?’ and I was like ‘Yeahhhhh?!'”
Burton & Taylor is a snapshot of the famous couple in 1983 when, having married and divorced each other twice, they teamed up to appear in a revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives on Broadway.
“It was a total publicity stunt,” says West, who’s dressed in a crisp blue shirt and casual navy waistcoat, a gold signet ring on his little finger.
“For her, no, maybe she wanted him back. Her career was in the doldrums though, wasn’t it?” he asks Bonham Carter, who’s quirkily clad in a floral tea dress, grey striped blazer and red-framed glasses.
“Yep it was. He was doing better because he’d gotten dry too,” she replies, drifting into Liz Taylor’s American drawl. “And you’d found Sally! I was lonely, I’d just gotten rid of husband number four. I was bored and I did need the money. It was £70,000 a week, it was a huge hit.”
Throughout our chat, she keeps slipping into character, which is both hilarious and disconcerting. At one point Bonham Carter, who also brought children’s author Enid Blyton to life for BBC Four, says: “I’ve got to stop doing that, I’m revealing myself as totally psychotic!”
She admits taking Taylor – who converted to Judaism in 1959 – home with her during filming too, which was slightly unnerving for her family, including director partner Tim Burton.
“That’s the only fun of doing it, I love pretending to be other people – I get away from myself, which is perfect, it’s a holiday. But it’s not a holiday for everyone else, it’s really annoying!” she adds.
The actress also developed a love for jewellery, which Taylor adored. “I had a birthday during [filming] and Tim did actually buy me a present which cost him a lot of money,” she explains.
“It’s funny how things educate you, because I wasn’t really that into jewels, but I got a few during the Elizabeth Taylor phase. In the Enid Blyton phase, I would have been a very cheap date!”
While most people remember Liz Taylor, who died in 2011, West was surprised to discover that “no one under 30 has ever heard of Richard Burton”, adding: “Well certainly not the woman who did my hair.”
“She just thought he looked like Wolverine,” says Bonham Carter, referring to the long, wispy grey sideburns West sports in the film.
In a biography of Burton and Taylor’s relationship, which Bonham Carter read as part of her research, it appears the Cleopatra star authorised the book because her former husband’s fame was dwindling.
“When the writers approached some UCLA film students to say they were doing a Burton Taylor biography, their response was: ‘We didn’t know that Elizabeth Taylor was married to Tim Burton!'” says Bonham Carter.
“Elizabeth Taylor was so horrified that, these days, the Burton name meant Tim and not Richard, she said, ‘Write it! You’ve got to write it!'”
Bonham Carter also discovered she and Taylor were born around the corner from each other in London’s Golders Green.
“I never met her, but I had lots of friends who did and there were a lot of bizarre coincidences. A really close friend of mine was her goddaughter, so she convinced me to do it and brought some photos of her.
“I didn’t realise she was such a clown, she was so funny. She was famous for being this extraordinarily beautiful woman and sexy, but she was also hugely powerful and fun and had great joie de vivre and strength of character to survive.”
West adds: “The great revelation for me was that she wasn’t this spoilt pain in the ass. Well she was, but she was also ballsy and great to be around, and that’s why Helena was perfect to play her. There are very few actresses in the world who could do it.”
Best known for his roles in The Wire and The Hour, it was West who faced the biggest challenge because Burton – who was born in Wales and became a huge star of the stage and was nominated for seven Oscars – had such an iconic deep voice.
“In the read-through, the opening line of the script is, ‘The most beautiful voice in the world says…’ I got his voice once, which was after a very heavy night’s drinking and smoking, but I couldn’t do it every day,” he recalls.
It seems he wasn’t first choice to play Burton, as he learned from the film’s director that Liam Neeson was originally “keen”.
“I thought, ‘What? You couldn’t afford him I suppose’,” says West, flashing that cheeky grin again.
During the run of Private Lives, Burton flew to Las Vegas to marry his fourth wife, make-up artist Sally Hay. He would die the following year, in 1984, of a brain haemorrhage, but he and Taylor stayed in regular contact until his death.
Taylor, meanwhile, was going through one of the worst phases of her life, battling addiction to drink and drugs (“They’d have Bloody Marys on a shoot at 11 o’clock,” says Bonham Carter). Once the play’d finished, she became the first celebrity to announce her admission to a rehab clinic.
“I don’t think he was aware before they started [the play] that she was having severe problems,” says Bonham Carter. “This was the worst time in her life, she was out of it, by her own admission, and then she checks into the Betty Ford clinic.”
West adds: “I think part of the reason they did Private Lives was because they had a great time acting together.
“The best scene in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? is where he’s playing a shy clown and giving her a flower – they’re amazing together. They must have loved doing that and, against his much better judgment, he must have agreed to do [the play] because he’d never acted with anyone he felt so comfortable with.”
Taylor and Burton met and fell in love in 1963 on the set of Cleopatra, but both were married at the time. They began an affair and, when it became public, were denounced by the Vatican. “They were the first big immoral couple,” says Bonham Carter.
Do she and West think Burton and Taylor would ever have reunited? “I feel yes, there would have been a third time around,” says Bonham Carter.
“She often said that and I think it would have been interesting once both of them were sober, then maybe there’d have been a future.”
But West isn’t so sure. “They were great, but giant egos, and they would always have burnt each other up. It was great when they were young and healthy, but I think he needed a nurse,” he says.
“I think they’d always have been good friends and loved each other more than anyone else, but living together was out of the question.”
:: Burton & Taylor is on BBC Four on Monday, July 22