Before BSW spoke with Paul Bettany, the charismatic and chameleonic English actor, someone at his management company told us, "Whatever you do, don't ask him about the lesbians and the cockroaches." If ever there was a story that needed to be heard, this surely had to be it. But when he hears this, Bettany only laughs. "My management is probably just bored of hearing that story," he says. "There isn't really a story; it was a passing comment I made once. When I started out, I was living with the two smallest lesbians and five cockroaches. Everybody loves it because it's one of those really easy things to put up in bold print at the top of the article."
These days, there's a lot more to talk about than his humble beginnings. There's his on-screen work, for example. After years of working in European television and films, Bettany made a memorable first impression on American audiences by walking on-screen completely nude as a drunken Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight's Tale, an anachronism-riddled jousting film. His saucy Chaucer introduced what would become a Bettany staple over the years: the brazen intellectual with a penchant for passionate speech. The actor went on to sharpen this image in the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, where his quiet introspection was the perfect foil to Russell Crowe's physically mannered performance. Last year Bettany teamed again with Crowe in the spectacular sea epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, in which he played a ship surgeon during the Napoleonic Wars. With his understated naturalism, he was a comforting port in a storm of shouting and explosions. The actor was nominated for the BAFTA—his country's version of the Academy Award, for which he was surprisingly overlooked. But it was only part of a spectacular year for Bettany, who also married his Beautiful Mind co-star Jennifer Connelly and became the proud father of their new son, Stellan.
This month he will be seen in two new movies. First up is the period drama The Reckoning, opening in limited release this week. Co-starring Willem Dafoe and Brian Cox, the film tells the story of a 14th century theatre troupe that stumbles into a small village where a woman is wrongly convicted of murder. By staging her story, the actors begin to unravel a mystery that has darkened the town for years. Bettany is excellent as a fallen priest who nonetheless urges his companions to risk their lives in search of what is the truth. Next up is Dogville, the controversial Lars von Trier film in which he romances a mysterious Nicole Kidman in a tiny Depression-era Colorado town. Much has been made of Dogville's filming on a bare sound stage, with only chalk outlines and a few set pieces to indicate location. But such choices only call more attention to the superior acting—particularly by Bettany in his first role as an American. He will appear later this year opposite Kirsten Dunst in the romantic comedy Wimbledon. In a frank and expletive-ridden interview, Bettany spoke with Back Stage West about dealing with directors, American accents, and not being a casting director's first choice.
Back Stage West: It has been said you come from a theatrical background. Did your family encourage you to become an actor?
Paul Bettany: When I was growing up, my dad was a teacher and my mom was a secretary. My mom had been a singer, and my dad was a ballet dancer. My grandfather on my mother's side was a pianist, and my grandmother was a singer. So I think it's fair to say it was a theatrical family, just not when I was growing up.
Yes, I suppose they were encouraging. They weren't pushy. If you work with a kid in a movie, you can meet some really pushy parents. My father insisted I didn't go to a stage school; he wanted me to get a proper education. I think he would have been pleased if I'd gone into something else. They were good parents. When I said I wanted to be a pop star, or when I was a kid and said I wanted to be an astronaut, they said yes to everything.
BSW: Would you credit A Knight's Tale writer/director Brian Helgeland with giving you your big break in American films?
Bettany: I owe Brian Helgeland everything, really. He came over to England; he found a videotape of me auditioning for [an unnamed film project Helgeland had been working on], and he went, "That's the guy I want." He flew over, auditioned me, and went back, and they said no. He said, "Well, I'm not going to make the film without him." They said, "You will." And he didn't. He didn't make the film. Then he wrote A Knight's Tale and wrote me the part of Chaucer in it. He came over and auditioned me, and then they said no. Then he flew me over to L.A. three times on his own money. They really wanted to make the picture. And his past track record [showed that] the last time he said he wanted me in a movie, he ended up not making the movie. So they yielded. They didn't want to, but they did and allowed me to be in it. And I owe him my mortgage, frankly. He's a really great man.
BSW: There are endless rumors about how difficult it can be working with Lars von Trier. How did you find working with him in Dogville?
Bettany: It's a really complicated answer. I think Lars von Trier is fabulous. He's probably a genius, and he would be the first person to tell you that. But he probably is. He's difficult to work for, but most of the difficulty comes from your own hang-ups, really. He wants you to sort of just yield to him completely. And having worked with bad directors, you have to sort of protect yourself, and he just wants you to yield all responsibility of it to him. And you just play. So you have no sort of cerebral input at all because at the end of the day you've shot 11 hours, and he has 11 hours of footage because he shoots on video so he can mix it up any which way. By the end of the day, you've done it every which way you can possibly do it, and then he puts it all together. You mix colors for him, and he's Jackson Pollock. There's no way that you can create a performance.
But you know, in film, frankly, any thought you might have of having any kind of control is all an illusion, anyway. Because we live in a time with CGI. At the end of The Score—the movie with Ed Norton, Marlon Brando, and Robert De Niro, [for] Marlon Brando, who I think is quite a good actor and quite respected—they CGIed a smile onto his face because he didn't want to smile in the scene. He thought it was wrong to smile, and he and the director allegedly had a big fight, and they CGIed a smile onto his face. So any sort of notion of control is merely illusory, anyway. I guess all Lars really does is rob you of that illusion. But it's an illusion that's quite comforting at times.
BSW: Have you seen the movie, and are you happy with how it turned out?
Bettany: I saw the movie last week for the first time. I couldn't go to Cannes or New York because I was working. It was on at the London Film Festival, and I couldn't get a ticket. I was loath to say, "Do you know who I think I am?" So I finally got a video of it last week, and I was really pleasantly surprised. It's a fucking tough film—it's three and a half hours or whatever, and it really only heats up after the first hour and a half. But my feeling about it is, you spent so much time investing in the minutiae of these people's boring lives that, when everything goes wrong, you've really thought about them and had time to consider them. So I thought it was amazing, actually. I was really impressed by what he had done and really struck by how little you need. My friend was saying, "It's amazing how little you need to actually draw people in."
BSW: Dogville is also the first time I've heard you do an American accent. How did you go about finding that Colorado drawl?
Bettany: That was a big, big argument with Lars, because Lars, frankly, didn't care. I wanted a coach, and they wouldn't pay for one. I just thought ethically he should fucking pay for my fucking voice coaching. So I didn't have one. Then I got to film it, and Nicole lent me her voice coach, Liz Himmelstein, and we sort of tried to bang it into shape. So I think my accent gets better as the film progresses because we shot it in sequence. Liz deserves all credit for that. Mostly I was just sort of trying to attempt a lighter voice than I have. It strikes me as a bit like a Frank Capra movie, so it's kind of like James Stewart. Except this is It's a Shit Life.
BSW: Do you do anything to adapt your acting style in movies as grand and epic as Master and Commander to the more minimalist ones such as Dogville and The Reckoning?
Bettany: I would say that The Reckoning was the most kind of epic in terms of acting, really. It was the most stylized. Often it seems to be, the bigger the budget of the picture, the bigger the acting in it. But Master and Commander is an action movie, and I think I had a very different experience from everyone else who's ever made an action movie, because it was made with Peter Weir. And also the nature of my job in it—Peter sort of wanted me to be a place of quiet for the audience to kind of go to. Actually, two of them are quite similar, really. I think it's a quite revelatory film, Master and Commander; it just doesn't wear it all over its sleeve like Dogville does. It's an action movie with real human beings in it, which I think is a real accomplishment of Peter Weir's. He managed to make a $105 million action movie with two men who play the violin and cello together. So it wasn't such a different process, whereas The Reckoning was really quite stylized.
BSW: Master and Commander marked your second collaboration with Russell Crowe. Was their any hesitation about reteaming when your relationship in A Beautiful Mind was such a plot point to that film?
Bettany: No. I think Peter had those concerns, and it was a very long audition process.
BSW: You had to audition?
Bettany: God, yeah, endlessly. I quite like auditioning, though. If a director wants to give me a job, I sometimes ask them to screen-test me. Then they can't sort of blame me if they're not getting what they wanted later on. It's like, "You fucking hired me; you saw what you were getting." I screen-tested endlessly for it. He was worried that we would not be able to escape the same dynamic we had in the previous movie. I think the consequence was we spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship more so than we maybe would usually. And I think it really paid off. That's something you learn at drama school and then forget about. When you've got a scene between two people, there's sort of three people there. There's you, and then there's the partner you're acting with, and then there's the relationship between you that often has its own nature. In the rush that it is to get things committed to film, I often neglect that bit of it, whether through laziness or blind panic. So it was really good to kind of work specifically on the relationship.
BSW: What do you enjoy the most about acting as a profession?
Bettany: God, that's a really good question. I don't know. I should preface this with the fact I'm in Canada at the moment. My wife is making a movie with Walter Salles [a remake of the Japanese horror film Dark Water], and I look after the baby. And the thing of it is, it's a position in life I feel dangerously comfortable with. You get all the free meals and none of the pressure. It's fabulous. But I suppose the thing that I love about it most is, you get to work with extraordinary people. You spend enough time with [Reckoning director] Paul McGuigan and Peter Weir and Lars von Trier, and it's a hell of a life. They're extraordinary people to be around.
BSW: And the worst part about the job?
Bettany: It's twofold, actually. The traveling is wonderful and a real privilege. You get to go to places like the Galapagos, places I've never dreamt of being. But then you miss your family. And that's very, very hard. As I'm sure it is for people who work on oil rigs and go away for four months, for a lot less pay. Too much is spoke about the hardships of acting. It's a real privilege.
But I would guarantee you that the worst thing about this job is press junkets. Because it doesn't happen like this, where we're having an interview and it sort of turns into a conversation—and a quite gratifying one, because it's all about me. But these press junkets are sort of four-minute interviews, and the poor journalist is shitting himself because he's got 10 questions that his editor says he has to get in. So the moment he's asked a question, he or she is desperate for you to finish it so they can get on to the next one. And if you do press for six weeks, you want to drive a railway spike through your head. But you have to do , or studios are unlikely to want you to work for them again. It's in your interest for your film to be publicized. So you kind of become this salesman through complicity.
BSW: What advice would you give to actors who are currently trying to make it in such a competitive business?
Bettany: On one hand, it's a bit inelegant to give advice to somebody without full knowledge of them. I don't really know how these things happen. All I do know is there's a million different reasons before your talent, or lack of it, for why they don't give you the job. It's so arbitrary, and frankly, on every audition that I went up for I would work my ass off, even knowing that if Jude Law couldn't do it, and they went to Jonny Lee Miller and he couldn't do it, and they went to whoever, and if whoever was busy or ill, they might go, "Oh, what was the name of the kid who came in and gave that good audition?" BSW