The real question was how to play this legend. How to hit the high and low points of her life in an 8 week shoot. Playing her 15 years old to 65. It was a daunting task but I was ready to take it on. Or so I thought. It was truly the most difficult role I have ever played in my career as an actor.
At the core of my endless research was the mantra: I want to discover and illuminate the WOMAN not the legend/icon. That was the most I could give this experience. There are so many misconceptions about people in the public eye. I have had them directed at me. And directed them about others that I look up to as well. This was not the mistake I wanted to make. I was determined.
I really hoped Elizabeth would meet and speak to me. I was told she would only do this if (a) certain things were removed from the script and (b) if she were compensated monetarily. This is what I was told anyway. We could not accommodate her wishes unfortunately. The fact that I was on my own only motivated me even more to keep the integrity of the piece in tact. Which during the process turned to be a fight at times.
The original script was quite good. By a well know writer who later took his name off because the producer kept rewriting scenes. Literally, himself. On the back of a truck with a small table and a haggard assistant at his side as he barked out orders. It was crazy and ridiculous. Thank God I had a good, strong lawyer at the time. And his work was cut out for him on this one.
The first issue to tackle before filming was the fact that Elizabeth had an ever changing accent. Sometimes it was there in full force, other times it was gone completely. It often coincided with who she was married to at the time. So how to play that without just being called inconsistent as the actor??!!!!
It was decided by my dialect coach and I that I would always have a slight but distinct accent. So we worked for weeks and she accompanied me on the set as well. Thank God. First problem solved but many more were to come fast and furious.
We started shooting very quickly it felt. I was flying by the seat of my pants. When you play someone as well know as she is, the wardrobe had to be meticulously accurate. This called for endless fittings as most of the costumes needed to be made from scratch.
The first day on the set of what would be 6 day work weeks for 8 weeks was chaotic. Keep in mind that as an actor your day does not end when the filming ends. You need to study for the next day. And in my case I need to always look at the next 3 days so I can get the words in my head and begin to memorize. And with an accent. At the time my first born was only about 1 and still nursing. It was consuming on every level.
So the very first day started out funky. They put me into a tiny, dodgy and septic smelling trailer. I was so angry. My dear makeup artist (and i do mean artist she was nominated for her work on the show) said to me she was going to teach me two very important words. "Prairie Scooner." What?? That was the name of a beautiful trailer that even had the ability to get wider if the space permitted. And that with all this intense work and time on the set and constant fittings IN my trailer and my baby coming, it was the least they could do.
I promptly called my managers,agent and lawyer and when I arrived the next day on the set there she was. Beautiful, big and gleaming. Also wide as all hell and not smelly. Now THIS is what Elizabeth deserved! Remember, I had a young child at this time who spent a lot of time on the set with me. Still nursing as he was and the love of my life. With a brutal schedule this would be the case and he and I deserved to be taken care of appropriately.
The schedule was always hectic. Many scenes per day. Wardrobe fittings between scenes. I was dropping weight like crazy. Not because I wanted to. Because it was exhausting and I was being pulled in many directions constantly. Not to mention a series of "husbands" coming on and off the set wanting to rehearse, give me their notes, or in the case of the actor playing Richard Burton just drink alcohol 24/7. Method acting? Or just an excuse to be loaded all the time, don't know, don't care.
I love the Katherine Hepburn quote: Acting makes a woman more of a woman and a man more of a woman. Sad but true.
The character of Elizabeth as a woman was like my own mother in many ways minus a successful career. Many husbands, lots of glamour and makeup, certain addictions and a lot of men and children left as causalities of a narcissistic lifestyle. This proved to put a stress on my psyche unlike any other I had ever experienced before or since on a set. It took therapy later to realize what was actually going on.
I have never before or since shut down a set. On this show it happened two times that I can remember. The body and the mind do not remember really painful things. That you will learn if you have had a baby or someone close to you does. Without drugs. It is interesting how it works. Or a severe car accident, you just kind of black out. So I don't remember it all really specifi
cally but what I do, I will share here and now.
cally but what I do, I will share here and now.
The personal notes of my heart and soul the work was hitting combined with the intense schedule and the fierce commitment to myself to do this woman and her life justice even though she did not want me to make this movie almost put me over the edge. No, it did put me over the edge but I bounced back.
About halfway through the filming was when it got really bad. I remember thinking I am only halfway through her life...how will I finish this thing. I was about 100 lbs and looked so worn out. My philosophy teacher got mad at me and said: Its not like you are playing Joan of Arc. She was a proper broad who spoke like a sailor and could drink most men under the table. Stop killing yourself for this role. But I did not listen. To me her humanity made her a saint.
In my research I stumbled upon a piece of candid footage that was for me a photograph into the woman. It became the touchstone of who she was and was seared into my memory. She was boarding her and Richards yacht, the Kalizma. Named after a few letters of each of their children's names. And with shaky, hand held footage I saw the woman I was seeking to play and understand. A photographer accidentally called Richard "Mr. Taylor". Bad move.
Her head whipped around and with a snarl on her lips all of her seeming refinement had vanished. She sought the offense with fire in her eyes and venomously asked: What did you say. He stumbled and spattered his apologies. Her reply to his I'm sorry was simply but powerfully: You better be.
There she was peeking out from all the Hollywood bullshit glamour. A tigress for the one she loved. She'd have taken him out. It was palpable her energy. Her passion. I loved her in that moment more than any other. There was the real Elizabeth. Only ever to be seen on film in my opinion in "Who's afraid of Virginia Wolfe." That is her. To me anyway.
You must keep in mind that she was of the age of Hollywood packaging their stars. That meant to great lengths they would go to control the image. Dressing them and in most cases controlling almost every aspect of their lives. I often feel that is why as she got older her clothes got more character and kind of odd. Because she would no longer be "styled" by someone. Left to her own devices there were some interesting fashion statements. But I loved them because it is in some of those clothes you get to see the real Elizabeth. The one packaged by God, if you will, not the studio.
So I remember I got sick with a cold/flu thing going around and could barely get out of bed. I did so and was barely functioning on the set. My manager was new in my life so I called the one person I have counted on my entire life to help me. My oldest big brother Leo. He promptly came to the set, took one look at me and basically told the producer that he was taking me home. NOW. That a doctor would meet us at my house. He wrapped me up, put me in his car and away we went. My hero....
The doctor demanded that I take the next few days off. Since I was in 95 0/0 of the scenes production had to shut down as well based on locations and other points. I remember being in bed, wondering how I would ever get through the second half of this filming.
My immune system already having been compromised the next time this happened was even stranger. I was doing a scene with the actor playing Eddie Fisher and breaking up with him. I was all dressed up in a canary yellow dress, make up perfect, hair an updo dream. But as I tried again and again to do my close up I was told I was looking into the lens instead of at the actor. During most close ups, the actor off camera is put as close to lens as possible so the feeling are deeply conveyed and that much more potent.
I fought and told them they were ridiculous, that I was NOT doing that. I was a professional and I knew not to look into the lens. We all began arguing and fighting and I felt that I was losing my mind. Again my brother came to the rescue never having seen his little sister in such a state. He removed me from the set again as the producer protested asking if we couldn't just finish this scene. Leo would have hurt him if he was not such an old man.
Once home my doctor made another house call and declared that I had "stress fatigue syndrome." What?? He shared that this is something that soldiers at war get. Their brain shuts down and their body just keeps going but rather inefficiently. WOW. It oddly rang true. Although it seemed odd to compare making a movie to war. Yet it had been a war of sorts. And emotions are fragile when pushed too much, hence nervous breakdowns. So production shut down for the second time.
Later in a therapy session the truth of what was happening the latter time had been made clear. This man, this actor, reminded me of my second father. Someone I had loved deeply and who my mother had left for another man, hurting him deeply. A part of me hated her for that. In some weird abstract way I could not do it to him. I could not look in his eyes and do what she had done. I had a physiological response. The wounds go deep if one has the courage to look.
There are more stories from this experience but I fear its gone on too long already. So I will close with a verifying moment for me. I used to see this old, well known dermatologist. I was at his office after the show had aired getting a treatment. As I waited the door opened and an attractive older woman peeked her head in. She said she was a friend of Elizabeth's. That although she had never contacted me, she was pleased with the end result. What more could I ask for.....