Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s final tempestuous reunion – the 1983 stage revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives – is brought to life in BBC Four’s new drama Burton And Taylor. Its stars, Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter, discuss immortalising the iconic couple.
Liz and Dick are huge characters – were they intimidating to play?
Helena: Definitely. There’s a photo of us in our blue contact lenses on the first day [of filming] and we both look absolutely terrified.
Dominic: With Richard, I only got his voice right once, after a very heavy night drinking and smoking.
Helena: But you didn’t have the stamina to do [that] every day… I relied on the costumes; Elizabeth had signature shapes. She wore lots of make-up; she loved lip gloss. And she liked her Toblerone, Earl Grey teabags and eating mashed potato, fried chicken and chilli from [Hollywood restaurant] Chasen’s. She drank a lot; they had bloody marys at 11 o’clock on set.
Dominic: Celebrities today have to be much more careful and less colourful because they just get into trouble.
Did you remain in character throughout filming?
Helena: I did, practising all the time is the fun of it. I love getting away from myself. It’s a holiday for me, but it drove Tim [Burton, her husband] mad. Elizabeth liked lots of diamonds; I had my birthday during filming and Tim bought me a gift and it cost him a lot of money. It’s funny how things educate you because I’d never have been interested normally.
Dominic: At one of the first rehearsals we had with the director Richard Laxton, Helena was talking about the jewels and said, “We’re going to have to have some real jewels because you can always tell.” And you could see Richard go, “Yeah sure... this is BBC Four.”
Helena: You can tell!
What did you discover about the characters?
Dominic: The revelation for me was that Elizabeth wasn’t this spoilt pain in the arse. She was ballsy and fun and great to be around and that’s why Helena was perfect to play her. And you’re also the same height.
Helena: Five foot three… and I’m fat [laughs]. I eat, I have an appetite.