A Conversation with Burton and Taylor Creator Richard Laxton

“Love is not a drug,” Elizabeth Taylor says in the biopic Burton and Taylor. But it certainly can appear that way for those who watch the film, which concentrates on the later years of Hollywood’s most infamous couple.

BBC AMERICA chatted with its director, Richard Laxton, who approached it as a film “about two addicts” who feed on being around each other, no matter how difficult it may be.

Laxton gained substantial recognition directing episodes of BAFTA-nominated dramas Bodies and Outlaws, as well as the film An Englishman in New York, starring John Hurt. His latest credits include the film Nightwatch, starring Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch) and Claire Foy. (Upstairs, Downstairs) He is currently in post production for the fourth series of the widely popular UK comedy series Him and Her, for Big Talk/BBC3 starring Sarah Solemani and Russell Tovey.
BBC AMERICA: How did you become involved in this project?

RICHARD LAXTON: My agent sent me the script. I wasn’t really that keen to get involved in doing another biopic about them after directing a couple bio films like the one about [comedian] Tony Hancock. Also trying to portray a screen icon is challenging. But I couldn’t put [the script] down, it was a page turner. I realized it was a story exploring the prisms of addiction and love, and the kind of befuddling nature of trying to be a functioning human being even in middle age. And also, it’s a story about middle-aged people in love. I was completely bowled over by the script, and thought, I’ve got to tell this story.

BBCA: Why set the story in this specific backdrop of their relationship while performing in the play Private Lives?

R.L.: What better way to explore two people who have viscerally connected in love but when they’re with other people, and not together as a couple, and throw them together within the pressures of a stage production? I think [Richard and Elizabeth] took on this play because she’d had success starring in The Little Foxes and he was such a good stage actor, and they couldn’t not work together. And by virtue of working together it forced seismic changes in their relationship with themselves. They were both forced to face her demons in a way they hadn’t before.
BBCA: Why do you think people continue to be so fascinated by Burton and Taylor to this day?

R.L.: I think they were both sexy. They were the first true celebrity couple in which people felt that they had a living, breathing soap opera to follow. They were also both very very talented, and we as human beings are naturally susceptible to story. Celebrity culture has almost become a religion now, especially in the UK. But the aspiration of two movie stars who flew around the world…they had a boat they stayed on on the Thames when they were in London just so they didn’t have to put their dogs in quarantine. They genuinely lived on that boat. I mean, how exciting!

BBCA: Is there a celebrity couple that’s comparable to their fame today?

R.L.: I don’t think there is. I suppose you could argue that Brad and Angelina sort of are. For the Brits, there’s a more unobtainable quality to them that makes them more exciting. Whereas, we’re slightly less interested in Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge’s relationship since they’re attached to the royal family, and Brad and Angelina are attached to Hollywood. When Burton and Taylor were at the height of their celebrity and desire, there would be stolen snapshots and photography that would be like gold dust to public, but now you can just do a Google image search to see what someone wore at the Emmy Awards or something.

BBCA: What about these two actors in particular (Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West) encapsulated Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton? What was the casting process like?
R.L.: It’s very hard casting a man with the volume of masculinity that Richard Burton had, especially today where men have had to slightly adapt their masculinity to get in touch with their feminine side. And Dominic West is a man in the true sense of a word. He’s a true hunter. The thing about Helena was she has this sense of mischief, like Elizabeth. There’s also this innate kindness in Helena, as there was in Elizabeth, which was why Richard fell for her. They also got on incredibly well and were great fun. Helena also had the balls to take on a role that was sort of a gamble. During rehearsals she just kept saying “we’re just so wrong for this, we can’t do it.”

And I would say, “We’re exploring the complexity of being in an addictive love affair with two addicts.” But in the end this is about two damaged people who can’t live with each other and can’t live without each other.