Paul Bettany Dreams of a Better World

A lovelorn tennis player, a gangster striving to be numero uno, a vampire slayer, Geoffrey Chaucer, and lately, a superhero robot… Paul Bettany plays these roles and more. In a career that allows you to be someone else, Bettany talks to us in an aspect of so many Americans: an anxious voter
Published: 21 March 2024


(Editor's Note: The interview with Paul Bettany took place in November 2020, during the US elections.)

It is the day after 3 November and Paul Bettany sounds weary over the phone. “I’m just a little shell-shocked.” His words have that leaden air of someone who is spent. Like most Americans, Bettany stayed up all evening and into the wee hours of the morning, just waiting on the results of a continuous election. “[Joe] Biden is still predicted with a 90 per cent chance of winning. But yet again, the polls got it wrong, the media got it wrong… I just don’t know how democracy survives if there are two sets of facts. How do you vote if both sides have been fed by their own media outlets?”

Bettany is political and is aware that his celebrity might get in the way of said politics but he couldn’t just be quiet on social issues. So, four years ago, when Donald Trump was inaugurated, the British actor filed for US citizenship. He had already lived in New York for about 16 years then and wanted to dig in to save the republic. “I’ve lived here for a long time and I understood the political processes, what the electoral college is, which is the remnant of slavery, and that is still deciding our elections, instead of the popular vote.

“And so, I’ve decided to vote. I decided to get involved.”

Then a fatigued beat. “What I didn’t realise is that I should have also moved to Florida [to make some sort of difference].” Bettany catches himself. “I mean, this isn’t the conversation you were probably expecting.”

It wasn’t. But we weren't surprised either. The interview was supposed to focus on Bettany’s latest project, WandaVision, but given the climate (Nevada still hasn’t finished tallying the votes), politics does seep in and momentarily hijacked the conversation. In this year’s election, President Trump faces off with former Vice-President Biden and the numbers aren’t looking too good: the purported ‘blue landslide’ that was supposed to occur didn’t. And even if the Democrats squeak by with a win for the  presidency, they still do not get a majority in the Senate, which makes it harder for a Democrat president to get anything done in the White House. In a world where Trump, an erstwhile businessman and a reality show host is the 45th president of the United States (though ‘united’ might be a bit of a stretch at the moment) of America; this is the world that Bettany must contend with.


In a different world, Bettany might not have been Vision.

He was the voice of Tony Stark’s AI. As JARVIS. His voice is a spring-heeled walk across syllables—light and precise—the dependable Girl Friday who handles Stark’s affairs with aplomb. As the story goes, Jon Favreau, who appeared with Bettany on Wimbledon, was the director of Iron Man and said they needed “the voice of a personality-less robot” and thought of him. Bettany found that funny and agreed. He voiced JARVIS in the Iron Man trilogy and first Avengers film before transitioning to an acting position as Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Speaking with BBC Radio 1, Bettany confesses that a producer told him his career was over, which blew up in a shouting match. When Bettany stepped outside, he was gripped with this fear that maybe there was some truth to it; that maybe he was done. As he sat on the sidewalk on Sunset Boulevard, trying to compose himself, he got a call from someone. It was Joss Whedon, who was going to direct the sequel to The Avengers. Whedon was calling Bettany, asking him if he wanted to be Vision.

If that was a movie, you couldn’t have written that scene any better.

As Vision, Bettany has a lot of scenes with Elizabeth Olsen, who plays his love interest, Wanda Maximoff aka the Scarlet Witch. Olsen and Bettany display that sort of rand relationship that’s doomed from the start—she a living, breathing mutant; and he a robot that’s only alive because of the soul gem.

Bettany is rather resistant to the idea of on-screen chemistry. He’d describe the incredulity of a scene where the blocking, the too-bright lights, the heavy make-up that “looks great on celluloid but not in real life”, is just concrete ground where any real emotion finds no purchase. It is acted out, which—surprise, surprise—is what Bettany, an actor, does really well.

But that is not to say Olsen and Bettany don’t get along with each other. They do. Both are professional thespians who are cognisant of being on time to the set, being judicious about their lines.

Having shuffled off the mortal coil in Avengers: Infinity War, Vision returns. Kind of. We’re not sure as Disney likes to keep a lid (with an NDA pasted over the hasp) on its projects. But this is what we do know: Wanda and a seemingly alive Vision returns in a TV miniseries called WandaVision.

Exclusive to Disney+ online streaming platform, the show is based on two story arcs from the comics: Tom King’s run of The Vision creating a family and living in suburbia, and Brian Michael Bendis’s House of M storyline where the Scarlet Witch’s reality-warping powers created a world in which mutants have sovereignty over human beings.

“I’m sure you’ve seen the trailer,” Bettany says. “It is as mad as it looks. Jac Schaeffer did such a great job with the writing and the show works as a beautiful puzzle box—it shows itself the more you peel back the layers.”

The series has Wanda and Vision live out their lives in different sitcom settings—the black-and-white backdrop à la Leave It to Beaver to the vibrant hues of the ’70s—and each framework has a “reason and purpose” according to Bettany. It’s also Marvel’s way of having a conversation about the history of American sitcoms, which Bettany says makes the series “very different from any of the other Marvel stuff”.

To understand the periods and genres his character goes through, Bettany brushed up on his sitcoms. “It was really pleasant research. There were lots of Malcolm in the Middle… you know, lots of shows with a loving family unit and all of those sort of references. And it was interesting to see how they become more cynical throughout the years. In the ’50s in America, they were buoyant; during the ’70s with shows like The Brady Bunch, where it’s so happy but it feels false because of the Vietnam War. Roseanne, in the ’90s, has a blue-collar family that argues and talks about [real things that affect real people]… sitcoms become less gilded and less romanticised.” The sitcoms he grew up watching in the UK were different. There were the reruns on Saturday mornings like I Love Lucy but he remembers Only Fools and Horses and later Blackadder.

The idea for WandaVision is to have the same sort of production values as any Marvel movie. But you’re working on eight hours of television for the production cost of a two- to three-hour movie. “It was difficult but that was easily mitigated by one director, Matt Shakman, an absolute genius.”

Bettany reveals that like a sitcom, the first episode was shot in front of a live studio audience. “Done in two days, shooting it like what they would have done back then, afforded some clever time management as the time taken is usually focused on the tail end of production to shoot the big action stuff.”

As part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), WandaVision is supposedly tied into the feature film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The careful crafting of the MCU means a punctual release of its projects but with a worldwide pandemic, films are withheld from screening in the theatres; productions have halted. While without specifics, WandaVision is expected to debut in December but that remains to be seen.


A Different Path Not Taken

There was a moment in Bettany’s career that hinted at the promise of an action hero.

In 2010, he played the gun-toting archangel Michael, who fell to earth to prevent the end times. It is as gonzo as it sounds. It was an unexpected role for Bettany, at least to me, who had played in more dramatic outings like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and A Beautiful Mind, both Oscar winners. Then a year later, Bettany did Priest which was based on the Korean comic book of the same name. In it, he plays the titular character who battles his way through a vampire horde to rescue his niece. Again, it is exactly as gonzo as it sounds.

While Bettany isn’t opposed to being the lead of another action film, Priest and Legion weren’t box-office hits. The movies came out during the post-recession years, a period that economists cited as the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. He was married to Jennifer Connelly with two children to care for and another that was just born; Bettany needed to find work to support his family. “Everybody was scrambling to get jobs, to make some cash in case the world fell apart. Luckily, Vision happened for me around that time, I think,” he says.

As for the unexpected action hero role, Liam Neeson has donned that crown since Taken. “Was Neeson in his 50s when he did Taken?” Bettany asks. “Give me another 10 or 15 years. Maybe by then I can take over, move into that market position that Neeson has taken.”


A Simpler Time

While it would be nice for a simpler world, Bettany can’t get behind the idea of a superhero team unilaterally deciding to ignore sovereign borders and carry out extrajudicial killings. “I think that would be awful. That’s what Captain America: Civil War was about. In fact, that would be more like The Boys.”

As consumers of entertainment, the superhero genre offers a respite from the real world. It’s an escapism. But Bettany is active in causes that he feels are important. With this celebrity, he is amplifying movements that he cares about. “I’m kind of an optimist in that way.”

And assuming Trump gets four more years?

“Trump claiming a victory now without all the votes being counted is no victory. Right now, I can only see as far as the ballot counting. At the moment, we’ll have to get through this.” There’s a pause on the other end. “[If Trump is elected again] it’s very likely to be dreadful.” The numbers show a country that’s divided. Regardless of who wins the presidency, one-half of the population will feel disenfranchised. The wound remains open, the split threatens to widen.

But one of the keys to being an actor is empathy. Bettany sees acting as “trying to [place] yourself imaginatively in different people’s circumstances”. He believes that the power of films is the spellbinding evocation of empathy. And maybe, all of us can be actors, in our own ways.

We can escape to new worlds of our choosing, but for Bettany, this is one he opted for the long haul. Despite its sharp edges and surprising joys, this is the world he lives in and will continue to do so.

Our World, Now

After the interview, Bettany will nurse a cup of coffee. As the caffeine fires up his senses, he will ruminate about what to get for his wife for her birthday. Then his mind will hopscotch to Christmas, and then he’ll pore through scripts, deciding on what other new places to explore. He wonders about the reception of WandaVision, he’ll prepare to do press for his next project, an Amazon Prime Video film called Uncle Frank.

Invariably, he’ll excessively read the newspapers and scroll through his newsfeed, hoping to see if the numbers have changed, hoping to catch a glimpse of light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Originally published in December 2020

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