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'Burton and Taylor:' Helena Bonham Carter takes on Elizabeth Taylor

Helena Bonham Carter wasn’t sure she should take on the role of legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor, so she sought out some advice.

“My mother said, ‘For Christ’s sake, don’t even go near it; don’t touch it with a barge pole,'" Bonham Carter said during a conference call with reporters. “Because she’s a screen icon, everyone knew what she looked like. And I didn’t look especially like her.”

Despite her appearance—and her mother’s advice—Bonham Carter took the role and plays La Liz in the made-for-TV movie “Burton and Taylor,” which premieres at 8 p.m. CT Oct. 16 on BBC America. The film takes place in 1983 as the twice-divorced Taylor and Richard Burton (Dominic West) reunite for a revival of Noel Coward’s comedy “Private Lives.” Panned by critics, it would become the final time the couple worked together.

William Ivory’s screenplay, with its poignant look at the end of one of the great public romances of the 20th century, examines the addictive qualities of love. It's what originally drew Bonham Carter's interest in the project.

“I knew for some reason I had to do it,” she said. “By Page 10 I thought, ‘Uh-oh, I’m in trouble here.’ And by the end I just thought, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to do it … It didn’t make any sense but I had to try.’”

It didn’t hurt that she’d already played another well-known Elizabeth, the one we most remember as the Queen Mother, in the 2010 movie “The King’s Speech.” (“I only do Elizabeths,” she joked. “I’m looking for a third.”)

Yet before accepting the role, Bonham Carter also consulted Lil Heyman, a longtime friend who just happened to be Taylor’s god-daughter and knew the actress well.

“I did say, ‘Listen, what would she have thought?’ And [Heyman] said, ‘Oh, she’d have found it hilarious, go for it,’” Bonham Carter said. “So I felt like I had her blessing.”

Heyman showed her private photos of Taylor that revealed a side of the actress beyond her well-known public persona and beyond what people knew about her relationship with Burton. The actress discovered that she could present a Taylor who wasn't so recognizable.

“I didn’t realize how funny she was. She was such a clown. That gave me a sense of her playfulness," Bonham Carter said. "I mean, she had fun and she made people laugh and she was a real life enhancer."

The period "Burton and Taylor" covers, however, was a low point in Taylor's life just before she very publicly sought help for her prescription drug addiction. The movie depicts her insisting on doing the revival in order to possibly rekindle something with Burton, who was dating the woman he would soon marry. Like one of the couples in "Private Lives," Burton and Taylor--despite their incredible love for each other--couldn't help but fall back into old warring habits.

Angry with Burton at one point, Taylor walked on stage holding her parrot, something she knew would upset him.

Still, Bonham Carter walked away with a new admiration for the woman.

"What's central to Elizabeth that kept on coming across was her ability to recover from the depths. She kept on resuscitating herself," Bonham Carter said. "She had an amazing resilience."

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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