Paul Bettany has been living in Disney’s world of late, reprising his role as Vision in Marvel’s mega-blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War and suiting up as villain Dryden Vos in Lucasfilm’s Solo: A Star Wars Story which began international rollout this week and releases domestically today. The latter is a reteam for Bettany with director Ron Howard following collaborations on 2001’s A Beautiful Mind and 2006’s The Da Vinci Code. In a recent chat, Bettany and I geeked out on Star Wars, but touched on many other topics as well. Those include life inside the MCU, his future projects and that Master And Commander sequel Russell Crowe has teased in the past few years, as well as a bit of expletive-laced advice Peter O’Toole once gave a then-novice actor (check out some video excerpts below).
Addressing the hiccups that Solo went through on its way to fruition — original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired months into the shoot and replaced by Howard — Bettany, who joined after the change, called the choice of Howard “a brilliant piece of producing from Kathy Kennedy” because “if there was any resentment, it would be impossible for that resentment to be passed on to Ron. It can empirically be proved that Ron Howard is the nicest person in the world. Not only is he a great director and shot 80% of what you see, he is also literally the perfect person to put in to take over because it’s impossible to dislike him.”
He added, “You always come on to a film set at different times and in different moments and it felt very normal and the cast was very welcoming. Ron has a very steady hand. You needed that — the ship had been sailing without a captain for a minute. But that can also be overstated. There are lots of people that make movies. It’s not just the director. There are really strong producers on those films and you’ll have a 2nd unit running with a 2nd unit director. I think the whole thing has been less dramatic and traumatic for everyone than it may appear to have been in the press.”
Bettany recounted to me when we sat down for an American Pavilion-hosted discussion in Cannes that he was six-years-old when the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977 and that it “took me out of a gray and miserable 1970s England… and transported me to a different galaxy. I think it was very instrumental. You know, I might lie and say I wanted to become an actor because of Cassavetes movies. But that’s not true. The world changed for me in 1977, so 40 years later to be a part of that and walk up such a famous red capet with that movie it was sort of stupidly and pathetically meaningful to me.”
Bettany and Howard have stayed close over the years. “It seems like all the way through my career, Ron has put his hand out and helped me.” Bettany got the job on Solo, he explained, after “begging” Howard when he took over the film. “I don’t know what he’s said in the press, but I’m sure he’s said ‘I immediately thought of Paul Bettany.’ That’s not true. I texted him and I said ‘Hey, Ron I hear you’re taking over Star Wars. Have you ever spent long winter evenings wondering like I have why you’re not IN Star Wars?’”
Bettany didn’t want to do the typical “bad guy” voice for Dryden Vos. “I think there’s an opportunity in the standalone movies to have a different tone because they’re not as encumbered with the same set of responsibilities that the main franchise is,” he said. “I wanted it to be more playful. And perhaps if (Howard) didn’t have the confidence in me, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that.”
Going from good guy Vision in Infinity War to Vos in Solo was somewhat schizophrenic. “They were finding purple make-up on the back of my neck” when he flew in from the Avengers Atlanta set to the UK’s Pinewood.
Bettany called being on Solo “magical.” When he first walked onto a set as a young actor, he recalled, he had an “innocent, unjaded, wide-eyed feeling” and had told himself “It won’t ever be the same again, remember it.” He didn’t have that feeling again “until I walked down a spiral staircase and an R2 unit went by with champagne flutes on its head and there was a girl in a gold lamé dress dancing and singing. I was a kid again, it was amazing.”
The actor is not only doing blockbusters these days. A British indie he starred in for director Saul Dibb, Journey’s End, was released earlier this year and won him the Best Supporting Actor prize at the recent Beijing International Film Festival. The film “was special to me and Saul Dibb did a fantastic job. He’s a brilliant director and I’m really proud of the result. It’s a super movie and, you know, it will find its audience. It really struggled despite having amazing reviews… I was surprised that it didn’t get any traction, but I think it’s so hard to make noise in amongst all these juggernauts.”
Film and TV have switched roles, Bettany opined. He last year starred in Discovery’s Manhunt: Unabomber playing Ted Kaczynski and says he would 100% do TV again. “Film used to have to be niche and find its audience in a little art house cinema, and TV had to work for everybody. And now it’s kind of flipped where there’s so many platforms that TV can be incredibly niche. So I think we’re all trying to find our footing on ground that is just constantly changing,” he said.
Does how a project will be distributed inform his decisions whether it be as actor or filmmaker? Yes, he said. “It’s sort of sad in one way or another because you’re thinking, ‘OK, so two of three things have to be great: the cast, the script and the director. If two of those things are great, should I do it? Well what about who’s producing it and what about where it’s going to be placed in the festival — if it’s going to be placed in the first week or the second week that will signal to the distributor who should pick it up’ and it becomes such a more complicated decision than ‘I love the script I think the director’s great.'”
Bettany made his directorial debut in 2014 with Shelter, a story set amongst New York’s homeless and starring his wife Jennifer Connelly. He’s thinking about returning behind the camera and is currently writing something at Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine with A Beautiful Mind scribe Akiva Goldsman “keeping an eye on me.” The project has a role for Connelly, although he joked, “I’ll probably put her through a quite lengthy audition process and obviously I’ll be looking at other actresses.”
I asked Bettany about Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World, Peter Weir’s critically acclaimed 2003 10-time Oscar nominee (and two-time winner) that has a beloved place in many hearts. Star Russell Crowe has previously teased a sequel could be in the offing. Bettany acknowledged, “Somebody told me that recently, but I think he’s done that every couple of years maybe hoping that somebody picks up on it.” If there were a second film, would he do it? “I would revisit those waters in a heartbeat,” he said.
Bettany is “proud of that one. I love that movie. I loved working with Peter Weir. I think he’s one of the greats and will be remembered as one of the greats. It was a really magical time.”
He described working with Weir as a unique experience. “We’re on a boat with extra cast that he spent a year casting from all over the world. He would have speakers up in the masts and he would get a microphone and tell the story of where we were when we were about to shoot the scene and there would be translators. But it was like he was telling a story that was enthralling and it was amazing and he did it every day… I think that’s why the frame always feels alive with real people in the background that are invested… He’s always there supporting you and seems to have all the time in the world.”
Bettany also spoke about being on the stage and how young actors today don’t always have “the chops to be doing the things they’re being asked to do. There’s a reason Peggy Ashcroft is so famous for playing Juliet at 35. I do think there used to be a world where an agent would protect you and say ‘Go and be in rep theater and do plays for five years and then we’ll talk about movies… There was a time for you to become seasoned before you were thrust out there.”
He then recounted a great lesson Peter O’Toole once taught him. “I was having real trouble with a producer who kept telling me I was dreadful in the rushes.” So Bettany asked O’Toole what he should do. The Lawrence Of Arabia icon said, “Once upon a time, I was in a David Lean movie… and they were premiereing the film at Cannes and the producer called me onto his yacht and he told me I was terrible in every scene.” So, O’Toole said, “I went back and I got very drunk and swam out to his yacht, climbed up the anchor chain and I stole all of his cigars.” But what was the moral of the story? O’Toole, Bettany said, responded, “Well, where does an 800-pound gorilla sit? And I went, ‘Anywhere he f***ing chooses’ and he went, ‘Anywhere he f***ing chooses.’”
So, O’Toole suggested, “The producer is scared you don’t know what you’re doing, so this is what you’re going to do. Tomorrow, he’s going to come up and when he says hello to you, you’re going to smile at him and you’re going to say ‘f*** off.'”
Bettany followed the advice. See him tell the whole story in the video below:
Fast forward several years on from that lesson, and Bettany’s been a staple of the Marvel universe. He said switching gears to going from Jarvis to The Vision “has been a really nice journey. You had this sort of omnipotent creature who was also super naïve and that was fun. And as the movies progressed, he was experimenting with what it’s like to be human and getting things wrong and as you see in (Infinity War), he maybe does the most human thing that you can do.”
Working in the MCU films, “has been a real privilege. Usually as a film actor you’re not often working with the same people again and again and again, so your jokes become funny every five months and you can get away with the same s***. We as a team have gone through not just the Avengers, we’ve all gone through real-life stuff. People have had children. People have got married. People have got divorced. We’ve been through real-life stuff all together and it’s been a real privilege and a unique experience. You can end up living your life pretty incrementally and that’s boring.”
So what’s next? After being in what Bettany termed the “Disney press pinball machine for two films,” he’s looking forward to summer holiday. “I kind of want to sit on a beach and drink an Aperol spritz.”
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