Earlier this year when it was announced Lindsay Lohan would portray beloved screen star and AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor in Liz & Dick (premiering on Lifetime November 25), a look at the legendary romance between the actress and two-time husband Richard Burton, a mini-brouhaha erupted. Taylor’s fans wondered if there was a more dignified choice to play the actress (who died in 2011) than Lohan, once a promising starlet in hit films such as Mean Girls but lately better-known for court appearances, arrests, and stints in rehab than for challenging acting roles. Liz & Dick producer Larry Thompson, a veteran of numerous other biopics, defends his controversial casting choice and tells Out about any regrets he later felt about the decision, the parallels between the two women, and what he feels Taylor would think of his film.
Out: What is it about Lindsay Lohan that made you feel she was the right person to play Elizabeth Taylor?
Larry Thompson: Well, to make a movie about Elizabeth Taylor required something exceptional, and while we could hire other actors who could give us a competent performance, we felt that Lindsay could bring magic to Elizabeth Taylor. We felt that, while it probably was risky on paper, that the reward she could bring if it happened right would be wonderful. And I'm guardedly optimistic that the audience will feel the same way. I do think that there was an inner essence about Lindsay Lohan that allowed her to understand Elizabeth Taylor maybe better than some other actresses of her age. And I don't know how many young actresses have that...have been divorced four times at 29 and have lived such a public life‚ living to excess and all that. Lindsay Lohan could relate to Elizabeth Taylor, and we felt that with the combination of her acting talent with her personal experiences similar to Elizabeth Taylor‚ she could bring a level of maturity and understanding to the role that maybe others might not.
While there are certainly parallels between Lindsay's life and Taylor's personal life, there's not really a physical resemblance, although in makeup, she does resemble her. Are there physical attributes that made you want to choose her for the role?
When you're making a movie about iconic figures, I'm quite aware that the first thing people ask is, "Oh, do they look like them?" Having made a movie about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and having made a movie about Sonny and Cher and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, I know that the first thing people want to know is, "Do they look like them?" But at some point, shortly into the movie, if all you've got is someone who looks like them, but can't make you feel that they are that person, they could be identical and it won't work. So what's important is to do a combination of the right look with the right talent. We're not out to do an impersonation. We're out to do an impressionistic portrait of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
What was Lindsay's work ethic on the set?
I think that she recognized this as an opportunity to show her many fans and dissenters that she still had it and that she was on her game and committed to deliver the performance of her life.
What kind of research did she do? Did you ask her to watch Elizabeth 's films?
Oh, I gave her everything we had, from books, magazines, movies. She devoured Elizabeth Taylor. She channeled Elizabeth Taylor. She was obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor. She became Elizabeth Taylor.
She had already done a photo shoot as Elizabeth Taylor [for Interview magazine in 2006]. Was she already a big fan?
She had already done a photo shoot. She was a fan, and I think that had a lot to do with it. She was a fan for some of the same reasons that I just mentioned earlier. I think she could relate to her.
What were the challenges in getting insurance for Lindsay?
It was an enormous challenge, and we were not sure we were going to be able to get insurance at all, because we not only had to get cast insurance, which insured us from health—meaning accident and sickness—we had to get something called incarceration insurance, because she was on probation and we had to make sure that, if she were to breach that probation, that she wouldn't wind up going to jail and we'd have to close our movie down. That was out of Lloyds of London. So we had a lot of insurance, and I will say that had we not been able to get the insurance, we could not have hired her. But when she walked on to the sound stage, she was the most insured actress who had every walked onto one.
When all these mishaps happened during the filming, like the car crash in June and the paramedics being called to her hotel room, were there any regrets about the casting?
Well, it was too late for me to have regrets. I was in the middle of production. But they were challenges nonetheless. And, you know, producing a movie with Lindsay Lohan is not for the faint of heart. I did turn 50 shades of white.
There were reports that Elizabeth Taylor's original dressing room trailer was loaned to Lindsay during the filming, and was returned with cigarette burns and furniture missing. Was this true?
I rented the trailer for the movie. We used it in the movie. Lindsay Lohan never had any possession to it other than acting in it. So all those reports were just nonsense.
Many of Elizabeth’s fans weren’t happy with your casting Lindsay. What was your reaction to the public outcry?
Well, on one hand, I knew that I couldn't please everybody. But I was surprised that I was called everything from an idiot to a genius. And while the jury's still out on what I am, I think I'm basically a producer. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton‚ now that you've seen the movie you'll understand this‚ they lived such a large life, they had such a large romance, they had such a loud existence of more, more, more, that even the Pope himself denounced them. It required a contemporary actress who could understand that, who could bring her youthful, generational audience to a movie who might not know who Elizabeth Taylor is, and to sort of be large and have a young generation understand that. Living on the world stage might be good reading, but with living that life comes peril and danger. I think Lindsay Lohan brings all that to her role. And while I go on and on about how great Elizabeth Taylor was and how well Lindsay Lohan portrays her, I think that Grant Bowler as Richard Burton is the cherry on the sundae.
I agree with you. I think Grant anchors the film and conveys the essence of Burton well.
I think he brings to the role of Richard Burton such a gravitas. And I think he anchors them as a couple, and really focuses the audience on the seriousness of who they are. And hopefully, once people get past the curiosity of Lindsay Lohan, and once they start to feel the reality of their love and tumultuous relationship, it settles down into a real movie. And it's interesting, I embrace everybody's reasons for coming to see our movie, whether it's to see a train wreck in their minds or whatever, to see Lindsay Lohan fail or succeed, or whatever reason they come, or to come to see Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton. But I think when it's over, they're going to see a performance by two actors that they're going to be really delighted by. I think Grant Bowler as Richard Burton steals your heart, and I think Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor breaks it.
Some of the dialogue in the film must have really rung true for Lindsay, like when she's complaining about the bad photos of her being printed in the newspaper. Was this discussed on the set?
Well, of course, yes, it's certainly not lost on us. Meaning, the script by Christopher Monger was written before Lindsay Lohan was cast. So all the dialogue existed prior to Lindsay coming on board. But one of the reasons we wanted Lindsay to come on board was because we felt she was that person. I mean, that's why when she read the script, she just got it, she understood it. It's one thing to say the lines like, “Oh, you paparazzi, you want more shots. Don't you have enough of us?” It's another thing that you've lived that and you know what that means.
How do you think Elizabeth would fare if she was a young actress today, with the press so much more invasive, without a studio like MGM to protect her?
Well you know what, I'd have to pray for her, because she managed to become the most famous person in the world when there were restrictions. I can't imagine her today without any restrictions. She would just, you know, be Lindsay Lohan.
Scandals seem to have really enhanced Elizabeth's fame, yet they've obviously hurt Lindsay's considerably. Why the dichotomy?
Because I think you're judging Lindsay in the short term. I think that fame is the accumulation of all the falsehoods, truths, goods, bads, rights, wrongs, accolades, scandals that you accumulate around a person and a name in your life, that suddenly you become who you are. Meaning, in our movie, at the age of 29, going through her fourth divorce, she was scandalous and, as I said, denounced by the Pope and a lot of people thought she was a wanton woman and a danger to the institution of marriage. That's some pretty bad stuff. Yet, by the time she was a more mature lady in the winter of her years, when she's suddenly Dame Elizabeth Taylor, and most people who are young today think Elizabeth Taylor is some woman sitting in a wheelchair next to Michael Jackson. She mellows out, her image mellows out, and you start to oversee her entire life, and now you think, Wow, she's Dame Elizabeth Taylor. I think the same thing with Lindsay.
I think if you're judging Lindsay at this moment in her life, you tend to focus on that which is surrounding her stardom at this moment. I think that the jury is still out on whether she'll ever be Dame Lindsay Lohan. Lindsay Lohan is a young girl who's doing things right, making a lot of mistakes, dealing with her own life and at the same time trying to be an actress. So I'm hoping that our audience can take a quiet breath and judge her by her artistry as opposed to her antics, and enjoy a riveting story and learn about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and maybe a little bit about themselves.
Before Elizabeth died, when there was talk about another film project, she said, “Nobody is going to play Elizabeth Taylor but Elizabeth Taylor herself.” What do you think her reaction would be to this film, if she had seen it?
I think Elizabeth Taylor would be very intrigued and tickled by it. Meaning, I think the only thing that would make Elizabeth Taylor turn over in her grave is that we hired someone who the public didn't care about. Because I think Elizabeth Taylor did everything big and she did everything loud, and that's certainly what we're doing.
What would you like to say to people to convince them to watch the film?
I think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the most famous royal Hollywood couple that has ever lived, and you see two people who suffered from an undying but impossible love. And while you may think of them as the guy who bought her all this jewelry, I think you'll find that their love for each other shined brighter than any piece of jewelry he ever bought her. The truth of the matter is that diamonds may be forever, but love is eternal.
Liz & Dick premiers on Lifetime November 25.