“You have about 8 minutes with Mr. Bettany,” says a bleary-eyed publicist as we walk down the hallway at Manhattan’s Regency hotel. To promote the Charles Darwin biopic Creation, Paul Bettany has been doing interviews here for the last six hours. A delta force of publicists and handlers stalk the 19th floor, shuffling around faceless journalists, on a mission to organize press for Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, his wife and co-star, who I spot coming out of the elevator. Eight minutes is not a lot of time. It seems like even less when I remember that I’m clutching a notebook with five pages of questions. And then even less when I consider I’m trying to interview a guy who’s appeared in movies like A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander and has Creation and also the, uh, very interesting looking Legion coming out this month. Honestly, press days suck. How am I going to get him to say serious and smart things to me? He’s done it for other journalists, but they must have had at least, like, 12 minutes. (Serious things he’s said include, “I wish I did have faith.I think it would make life so much easier. I just have not discovered God in my life. I mean, I don’t see him.”) I decide not to wallow. I walk into the room. Paul Bettany’s sitting there in the stale air looking bored as hell. We start to chat. In the end, I got 19 minutes and 40 seconds. It’s all after the jump.
Do you enjoy press days like this? Um, well, [long pause] I don’t mind it too much when I know I am trying to represent the movie well.
I have to admit, I hate doing interviews like this. Ok good. I’m glad we can start off like this.
Well, let’s actually start off with Legion. I know you’ve said before that you like to mix it up, but Charles Darwin to this? I did Legion first and then I did Creation and then I went and did the vampire movie [Priest]. I like vampire movies. I love all sorts of movies. There are loads of ways you can get pigeonholed. You can get pigeonholed by other people, or you can pigeonhole yourself and say, ‘I only ever do cool, art house movies, important movies about historical figures,’ or say ‘I don’t do those sort of things I only do action movies,’ and I just refuse to be one of those people. I just want to do as many different things as I can, and to act on my own whim. I’m making a movie about Charles Darwin and I’m thinking, ‘maybe I’d like to jump about on a wire after this?’ The two movies are very different disciplines. You know when you go to the movie theater, you are going to get a very different thing from seeing Legion than you are from seeing Creation. It’s the same when you’re making it.
Do you worry about the reviews when you make a commitment to film a movie like Legion? All in all, I really don’t care how the movie reviews, or what the acting reviews are like. In Legion, I’m an angel. It’s a movie that wasn’t made for critics. I made that movie because I wanted to see people’s popcorn go up in the air. I went to see it the other night and it’s a really visceral reaction. It’s like doing comedy. Horror is like doing comedy. You see people laughing at your jokes or you see people going “Ouoooghhh” and popcorn going everywhere. And it’s gratifying in a really nice way.
What was the last thing you were doing where you had to look around to see if anyone was watching you do it? That is a really funny question. It happens to me every morning. We are making a film right now and we have paparazzi outside of the house. It doesn’t usually happen, or just randomly during the summer. Well, it’s my job in the morning to take the dog for a walk and so there comes a point where I have to put a plastic bag on my hand and pick up the dog’s shit. And I’m always looking around for paparazzi. In fact, Jennifer went jogging, she went running with our dog and it pooped, and she thought about what might be worse, to have a picture of her leaving the poop or a picture of her bending over in my lycra pants picking up the poop? It’s like FUCK! I always find I look around for paparazzi before picking up poop. Get it at the right angle and what not.
You’ve played Geoffrey Chaucer and Darwin. Would you say you’re drawn to personalities in history? I wouldn’t say I usually am. Not to the point where I’d really like to play George Washington or something. With Charles Darwin I just got really interested in him after I made Master and Commander. And I went to the Galapagos and I was reading, as I’m sure anyone who has gone to the Galapagos has, his diaries from The Beagle. I can’t think of any other examples where I have actually had any sort of a plan. Which is terrible. I don’t have any plans. It’s terrible. It’s incredibly shallow. I believe I’m a very shallow personality. I have no plans, it’s awful.
That’s sort of refreshing? I don’t know if it is. Maybe. But it’s probably more along the lines of a bit stupid. Some people have great plans and they work out really well. But then some people have plans like Stalin. Stalin had a seven year plan that went really badly. So who knows.
Were you prepared to be bombarded with questions about your faith and religion after completing Creation? No. Not as much as I am. What is really interesting is that evolution and there being a god are not mutually exclusive. They are not. I am an atheist but there’s no intellectual reason for there to be a conflict.
What was the best thing that you learned from making Creation? I think it’s about tolerance of ideas. Tolerance of other people’s ideas. I think that it’s a large message in the movie that isn’t really hammered home, but it’s certainly a message that one can glean from the Darwin’s marriage. He was agnostic, but when the child dies he goes toward science and his wife goes toward religion. And somehow they go on together, looked after each other, supported each other and coexisted while having these wildly different opinions. His wife absolutely believed in heaven and hell and she didn’t change. And somehow we are getting less and less able to be able to have different opinions and still be able to be at peace with one another. I mean you go on the internet and people get so angry at Charles Darwin. It’s so weird. I mean, calm down. So you don’t believe in it? Just calm down.
I read that you had a hard time getting into Darwin’s inner turmoil, especially about spirituality, so you focused on looking the part. Is that true? Well, there are certain things that I can understand about Charles Darwin. There are certain things I can’t. I can’t understand the ability that he had to focus and observe and re-observe life. His way of freshly looking at things and not just saying, ‘well I know what a cup looks like,’ but to actually look at it without all of his preconceived notions of the cup. I do know what loss feels like. I concentrated on those bits that I could control. I cannot become the most intelligent human being that has ever lived, but I can sort of do an impression of that for the camera [laughs].
Were you at all surprised to see what a few wigs and a couple of pounds would do? I gained 40 lbs because I just made Legion and I had been in a gym for 6 months. There are these scenes with Darwin where I knew I didn’t want to look like I do now…so I better start eating sandwiches! It wasn’t that I wanted to get fat, it’s just that I didn’t want to have a 6 pack for the movie. It would have been wrong. Wouldn’t have done Darwin justice. I also have a great makeup artist called Veronica McAleer. She is brilliant. She put wigs on me.
Now that you have experienced hydrotherapy, do you believe it does much good? No! It was freezing cold. I don’t know what it does. It’s great for your pores. You know, it’s really interesting. He was so sick. He had traveled all the way around the world as an incredibly robust youth who liked hunting and sports and was a jock in a weird way. He went all around the world and was fine and then came home and was sick for the rest of his life. I think it was psychosomatic. He then went to hydrotherapy and hydrotherapy has absolutely no scientific basis. I mean there is no science to it and yet, he’d come out and say, ‘Oh I feel much better now, I feel great!’ He was a scientist! Which leads me to think that it was psychosomatic.
Publicist interrupts: Times up! No, let’s have a few more questions, shall we?
SomepPeople are saying that you guys had a surprising lack of chemistry on screen. I felt that there was this sort of disconnect between you and Jennifer on screen. But I thought it was so purposeful and made the relationship touching, the two of you portraying the real disconnect that can happen in relationships. You know I was so surprised to hear that criticism because that was sort of the point. Darwin was a scientific man. Using science I could prove to you that the chemistry of the film is a bananas concept. People talk about on screen chemistry and I can promise you it doesn’t exist. It’s about acting. And you can in actual fact, overplay these things on film. If you don’t have a relationship with the person, you tend to feel the need to sort of telegraph it, gazing into their eyes a lot, and overplay it.
I have been married for seven years and there’s a massive amount of ignoring each other that just goes on, not because you’re tired of each other, just because you know the person is there. You know what they look like and you’ve got the kids to get right, you’ve got things to do. And the way you are physically with them, which might seem without chemistry, actually comes from a slower and deeper love for that person. You know they walk by you and you don’t even have to look to know where their hand is. Cause that hand’s been in the same place for the past seven years in our case. And the Darwins had been together for 15 years when we meet in the film, so they had the same familiarity. I’m glad you picked up on that because that was the whole fucking point. The fucking point wasn’t that they were falling in love. The whole point was that their long marriage was in crisis. Married people don’t behave like a new couple. I don’t do that and I have two kids. Imagine what it’s like with fucking ten children? As if they really have time to stare at each other?
What are some movies you really enjoyed watching in the last year? You are gonna laugh at me. But the Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s fucking brilliant! It’s my movie of the year.
What was the last movie that you saw? A Serious Man.
The last restaurant that you ate at? I just got back from LA. It was the Four Seasons, but that was because I happened to be doing a hotel junket. If I were going to make one up the Blue Hill. But, really I haven’t eaten there, I would just be making it up.
Of all the directors you have worked with who was the most difficult? Lars Von Trier.
If you could take a piece of any actor today and make it yours, it could be anything from a talent, to abs, to George Clooney’s eyebrow, what would you want? I want everything that Daniel Day-Lewis has. But with my family. I love his talent. He has made a deal with the devil. Also, all of Meryl Streep.
All of? Well, except for the boobs and the vagina. They’re lovely! They really are, but I’m happy being a man. My wife would be shocked if I came home with a pair of Meryl Streep’s boobs and her vagina. I think she’d be more than shocked.