How’s this for a mind bender? Paul Bettany stars in two films — “Creation” and “Legion” — that have the same U.S. release date (January 22, 2010), and the characters he plays in those movies are about as opposite as you can get. In the period drama “Creation,” the British actor plays iconic scientist Charles Darwin, a role for which Bettany packed on 40 pounds of weight. In the fantasy-action thriller “Legion,” Bettany lost the weight and sculpted an athletic physique to play a rogue angel named Michael who saves people during an apocalypse.
If that sounds exhausting, how about living it? Bettany did, and this talented actor is holding up quite well, thank you very much. I recently caught up with Bettany in New York City during his whirlwind promotion for both movies. We talked about the challenges of portraying Darwin in “Creation” (which co-stars Bettany’s real-life wife, Jennifer Connelly, as Darwin’s wife, Emma); how Bettany answers religious critics who think Darwin’s theory of evolution is blasphemous; and what it’s been like to star in and promote two movies that have come out on the same day.
Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany in “Creation”
How do you think Jennifer did with her English accent in “Creation”?
She did get it right. She gets most things right [he gives a mock exasperated yawn], which is really annoying. It’s sort of tedious. She has an irritatingly, unerring accuracy as an actress. It’s really f*cking annoying.
If you could talk to Charles Darwin, what would you say to him?
I would like him to tell me the story of him meeting the orangutan Jenny, because I was moved by the experience, and yet I have so much prior knowledge. I’ve watched “Planet Earth,” you watch all of those visual references, and it was still so surprising and beautiful. And I’d love to hear from him what that was like. Sorry to any creationists out there, but there is an undeniable connection, in my opinion, between me and that orangutan. It was palpable. It was shocking. I’d love to hear that from him. And my give back would be to give him a compilation of the Beatles.
Paul Bettany in “Creation”
Did doing “Creation” make you more aware of endangered species like orangutans?
Yes — and, in general, of conservation. I was just thinking about it the other day. My kid broke a plate the other day, and I picked it up and put it in the trash. And I was thinking about that. When I broke a plate with my dad, we would get the glue and fix it … And believe it or not, the next day, it would be fine. We’d get the paper out, clean off the glue, and then we’d eat off the plate. All we do now is throw stuff away. “It doesn’t work! Throw it away!”
With TVs, it used to be that people, from the birth of television onwards, their job was fixing televisions. Who fixes TVs anymore? “It doesn’t work! Throw it out! Get a new one!” People leave the tap on when they’re brushing their teeth. The whole time the tap’s running. It’s so absurd!
In the old days, when you had to go outside and get water in, you brought the water in the bucket, you were careful about how much you used, because you’d have to go outside again. We’re just so into convenience and consumption in the most everyday way, and you don’t even notice when you’re doing it. I go to the fridge, pull some bread out and make a sandwich. I go to put all the stuff back, and the fridge is still open. Why didn’t I close the fridge? What’s wrong with me?
Paul Bettany in “Creation”
What did you learn about Darwin when you were in school? And in doing “Creation,” was there anything that you learned about Darwin that surprised you — anything that you didn’t learn in school?
Oh, loads! My knowledge of Darwin, I thought was really basic. It’s hard for me to differentiate between the time when I made a film with Peter Weir called “Master and Commander” — and I started getting into Darwin then for that role, because I was playing a fictional naturalist, which on some levels was based on Darwin — and what I knew then and what I knew prior.
As a kid, I was brought up a Catholic, and I went to Sunday school and all that, but I absolutely fudged the story of Noah. We were talking about Noah and the great flood, but there was a sort of generalized feeling that it might be a metaphor for whatever. Darwin was taught at [my] school as fact, which is sort of as it should be, because it is [fact].
I hear a lot about the religious right in this country, and I hear a lot about creationists, but I have yet to meet one, except when I went looking. And [when] I went looking to meet creationists, I had to go to Kentucky. I went to the Creation Museum in Kentucky … It was extraordinary.
Paul Bettany in “Creation”
In “Creation,” Charles Darwin is shown at times conflicted over what he believes scientifically and what he has been taught in his religion. Did you relate to any of that at all and how did you prepare to play those emotions?
I think everybody knows what it’s like to be conflicted. Those are the things I can bring to the part. I can’t bring the most intelligent man in the world to the part. I cannot do that. He is the man who arguably had the greatest single idea that a human being has ever had. I think it would be quite easy to argue that, actually, even if you don’t believe in the idea. It is the beauty and simplicity of the idea: the amount it explains versus the amount it supposes is extraordinary. I can’t do that. I can’t bring that human being, but what I can do and what I do know about is loss and I know about madness and I know about being conflicted.
What kind of research did you do?
I bought every book there was on Darwin, and there are a lot! He’s an incredibly prolific writer himself. He wrote at least one book a year. I bought every book written about him, and it was a huge f*cking pile! And the pile of unread books was never bigger than the pile of read books. And I’m a “glass is half-empty” sort of a human being, so the answer to playing Darwin was always in the big, unread pile. There would come a point at night, after shooting, you couldn’t stay awake, and you’d be looking at the f*cking pile going, “Arrgh!”
Randal Keynes (great, great-grandson of Charles Darwin), “Creation” director Jon Amiel, Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany at a photocall for “Creation” in New York City, January 2010
Since you had an appreciation for Darwin long before you did this movie, what was your reaction when you got the script to “Creation”? How did you land the role?
It was really, really traditional. I got sent the script, and I had read the script a couple of years before, and had been really interested in playing Darwin, and the script wasn’t good enough, so I turned it down. It [the original “Creation”] went in a very linear fashion, his return from the Galapagos [Islands] and just went all the way through his life up until his death. I thought, “This is 60 years! It’s [supposed to be] an hour-and-a-half [movie]!”
So this [final “Creation” script] was written in a very clever way. It was concentrated on potentially the most boring bit of his life in which he wasn’t able to write a book. It’s f*cking boring to do a film about somebody writing a book, let alone somebody who is unable to write a book. I thought, “What the hell?” And then I thought, “That is so clever, in that is asking the biggest question: ‘Why 20 years? Why [did it take] 20 years after [Darwin] came back from the Galapagos [for him to write a book]? Why?’” And, of course, the answers are manifold and looked into in our film. And I really appreciated that.
[“Creation” screenwriter] John Collee is a great writer. He wrote another film I was in, called “Master and Commander.” He’s a very smart human being, and he’s a doctor. John is incredibly knowledgeable … John is very articulate and very bright, and I felt safe with the people I wanted to do [“Creation”] with. He asked me right out to do the film, and I said yes. And I never say “yes” in a meeting. Ever. And I said, “Yes.”
Paul Bettany in “Legion”
Isn’t it ironic that you play an angel in “Legion,” which opens the same day as “Creation”?
Yeah, I just try to keep them all guessing. But I sort of like that. And also, if I was asked to play Prometheus, I don’t necessarily have to believe in Zeus.
It’s been a while since there’s been an actor who’s starred in two different movies that open on the same day. What’s it been like trying to promote both “Legion” and “Creation” in the same time period?
It’s really weird, actually. It seems to happen in a different dimension, where all of those junkets are actually stitched together with no actual life in between. So you come in the door, and it seems like two seconds before, you were promoting “A Beautiful Mind” or “A Knight’s Tale.” It feels like they’re continuous. You think that each time you’ll have more energy and time to rejuvenate, as it were. The four-minute interviews at press junkets are getting worse and worse, because the time is getting shorter and shorter and shorter …
Paul Bettany at the Los Angeles premiere of “Legion”
The journalists in those four-minute interviews all want the same soundbites.
Of course. It never gets a chance to go anywhere or become a conversation. So it actually becomes like the scene between Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier [in the 1976 movie “Marathon Man”] … “You just asked me this question!” At the end of the day, you’re like, “Tip me on my f*cking head and pour water down my nose!” It’s bad for [the journalists], and you can tell. It used to be seven minutes, six minutes, which is like an eternity, compared to this four-minute thing. It’s awful for both the actor and the journalist.
What can you say about “Legion” and your experience working on that movie?
Well, when I took on the job, I couldn’t interview any angels. There are less books to read, right? But what I did do was go to museums and look at paintings and statues, and they’re beautiful. They’ve all got swords and spears and armor. There’s one standing with his foot on a demon, with huge wings. I thought, “Oh my God, [‘Legion’] is exactly the same, except we’ve given [the angel] M-16 machine guns.” So I got on with going down to the gym.
I just had really frank conversations with the director [of “Legion,” Scott Stewart]: “How do you play celestial? I don’t think you can play celestial. I guess I’ll play a soldier, and then you’ll just CGI some wings on my back.” And that’s really the practical conversations that we had. Do it like a soldier who is defying the chain of command and not murdering a village full of children. Play that, then put wings on my back … and it’ll end up looking like an angel, hopefully.
Paul Bettany in “Creation”
Do you think “Creation” will convince people to believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution because he’s presented sympathetically in this movie? Do you think people who find science boring will be more appreciative of Darwin if they see this movie?
I don’t know. It’s such an acceptable idea to me that I was not making the film to make it more palatable for a human being, but to open up his life to sort of an examination, rather than his theories. I feel very clear about his theories abut the mechanisms of evolution. I didn’t make [the movie] to convince everybody.
I think a big part is the way he is vilified by people. The anger that is directed toward this incredibly gentle, quiet human being who just had a f*cking idea. That’s all that happened. This idea came to him. And he was a beautiful human being … His children all wrote memoirs about him and their upbringing with him. He was a great man and a great father. How many of those are there?
Paul Bettany and Martha West in “Creation”
And the only thing that was leveled against him is that he sometimes looked at his children like they were his experiments — bearing in mind that science was the greatest act of love that he could conceive of. The case for the defense rests. I think he was a man so full of love, and to see people get violent toward his memory just seems weird; it seems strange to me. What? You’re not allowed to have an idea? You’re not allowed to think things and follow them through?
A big part of this movie for me is it’s a movie about tolerance. [Charles Darwin’s] wife and he had vastly different ways of dealing with loss and life. And [they] did not change their opinions but managed to spend a whole life together, be supportive of each other, and be respectful of each other’s opinions and co-exist peacefully. And I don’t know why we seem less and less able to do that. Darwinism and religion are not mutually exclusive. [He says to Darwin’s critics] Calm the f*ck down!
Paul Bettany in “Creation”
What do you think you would’ve been like if you lived around the same time as Darwin was alive?
I don’t know. Genetically, a part of me would be in Ireland and a part of me would be in Italy. I would’ve been lower middle-class, I think.
What’s next for you?
I just made a film called “Priest” with [writer/director] Scott Stewart, whom I made “Legion” with. I finished that in December , and I’m at home doing the best thing there is to do, which is watch my children grow, which is the real privilege of doing what I do.
For more info: “Creation” website
RELATED LINKS ON aerochug.com:
Interview with Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany for “Creation”
Interview with Jennifer Connelly for “Creation”
“Creation” news and reviews
Photo credits: Photos #1, 6: AP. Photo #7: Screen Gems. Photo #8: Sony Pictures Entertainment. All other photos: Newmarket Films.