January 14, 2012
If there’s something Paul Bettany, wolfing down a bowl of chilli in a New York restaurant, cannot bear, it’s actors moaning: “‘I had to go to Mexico for four months, it was so gruelling.’ Rubbish. You were looked after, you got paid well. It drives me nuts.” The 40-year-old British actor, 6ft 3in, with a rakish swoosh of blond hair and playful growl, is stoutly realistic about his profession. He says he would “never” have plastic surgery, nor would his wife, the American actress Jennifer Connelly.
“I understand the pressure, but if I’m getting paid a lot of money to play a super or action hero and don’t do a bunch of push-ups, I have failed in the most impor- tant aspect of my job — ’cos you’re not getting paid to say the f***ing dialogue.”
Bettany, who lives with Connelly and their three children in Manhattan, abhors actorly pretentiousness and pauses over answers to questions lest he sound “a tosser”. His character in his latest film, Margin Call, which also stars Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, is similarly direct. A lead trader in a bank, he is complicit as his company tries to divest itself of toxic holdings before they destroy it. Unlike movies such as Wall Street, and at odds with the stereotype of bombastic traders, the film feels melancholy rather than macho.
“It’s a humane look at an inhumane industry,” he says. “I met some traders who were bright, creative, intelligent. It would be churlish to make a film saying ‘all traders are greedy’. For hundreds of years we’ve been raping the Third World and nobody bats an eyelid, and suddenly all our financial deeds come home and everyone’s like, ‘This is outrageous.’ I’m a just a blond actor who didn’t go to university, but it seems necessary to regulate the industry. Asking someone who gets a bonus for corralling as much wealth as possible to regulate themselves won’t work.”
Making Margin Call “was the first amazing artistic experience I’d had in years,” he reveals. “It made me think I can’t be a gun for hire any more.” He doesn’t have a problem with Hollywood: “It is totally neutral, it just asks, ‘How much money can I make out of you?’ When I’m there I stay in the Hills, looking down on the city to say, ‘You haven’t f***ing got me.’ I need to be happy, and if that means making films for less money, so be it.”
His childhood was materially comfortable, but painful. His parents were both former actors. The family shuttled around different churches: Methodism, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism and “something called the White Eagle Lodge”. Bettany hated school: “I felt ill-educated, badly read and out of my depth, so I tried to look enigmatic. I went to a terrible school, did terribly academically. I was dyslexic. I was terrified of reading aloud — it was so humil- iating that I used to hide.” This is all said without self-pity. His parents’ attitude was “1950s, a lot of ‘you’ve got to get on with it’.
“I was a really bullied kid,” he remem- bers of his secondary school. “My godfather was gay and I would challenge every homophobic comment I heard. Consequently I had the shit kicked out of me because they thought I was gay. I used to bunk off and had a lot of revenge fantasies where I thought, ‘One day you’ll be sorry.’ ” His desire to act was “absolutely” fuelled by this.
When Bettany was 16 his brother Matthew, 8, died after a fall. “It was a heart- breaking, alienating experience. I felt like I was harbouring this huge secret. I was so fragile. As a teenager, you should be feeling your most indestructible. Our family life was over.” A friend’s mother, a therapist, gave him “the vocabulary to cope”. Today, his memory of Matthew is “in the present”.
“I might have the colour of his sweater or eyes wrong,” he says. “Of course every- thing has eased, unless you’re blindsided in the middle of the night — then it feels very recent again.” His brother’s tragic fall “is right there” when his children jump on the couch and he feels terrified. “I have to stop myself from shouting, “Stop it.’”
After Matthew’s death, Bettany moved to London, busked, then attended acting school. His stage debut was in Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls. “Acting became a vocation. I don’t remember thinking it was about money until I had kids.” In his early twenties he became a cocaine addict. “I was 20, in London. I tot- ally fell in love with it the moment I started doing it. I did it all day long. Cocaine ended really abruptly for me when I realised I couldn’t work while using it, and work kept me on an even keel. It made me incredibly paranoid that people were staring at me — and when you’re an actor that makes cocaine a ludicrous drug to do. I stopped because it was threatening my ability to act: the one thing that gave me self-worth.”
Bettany’s first lead film role was in the British film Gangster No 1, which led to his first big Hollywood movie, A Knight’s Tale. While filming A Beautiful Mind he met Connelly; roles in Lars von Trier’s Dogville and Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (opposite Russell Crowe) followed, with awards and a Bafta nomination for the latter. He won’t name the films “which have made me the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time so I could get back to my family”. When his son, Stellan (now 8, named after the actor Stellan Skarsgard), was born, he took a year and a half off.
When Bettany met Connelly she already had a son, Kai, and both were involved with other partners, so nothing happened. “I had never been close to someone that beautiful before. It’s hard to separate the moment my breath was taken away romantically and lasciviously.” When both were single, September 11 happened. “I was in Tuscany and spent two days trying to contact this woman I had made a film with.”
After their romance blossomed in London he joined her in the US, “like a mail-order bride — suddenly I was the step- father of a four-year-old boy”. He didn’t know he’d ask Connelly to marry him “until five seconds” before he did; they played Twister at their wedding reception in 2003. “It was peculiar because it was quite Victorian: we didn’t live together before we were married.” Is he a good husband? In crisis moments, he says. “My instinct is to talk about it, but I’ve found cuddles and saying, ‘I know, it’s awful’ are a better way to go.”
He missed the UK “horribly” for the first five years, then enjoyed the “freedom” of New York. He is about to return to make a film but moving back permanently is a more difficult prospect: Kai’s father lives in New York and arranging the 14-year-old’s movements is “complicated”.
Was hitting 40 last year a turning point? “No, I was saved from that by our daughter [Agnes] being born four days later. I’m less worried about ageing than about dying. The idea of it all ending is pretty shit and miserable; even more so when I think of my children dying.” Being a parent cannot fail to change you, he says. “It’s wonderful and terrifying. You’re aware that you’re capable of the most love possible, the most selfless acts, and also that you’re totally, without question, capable of murder.”
Does he want more children? “I think we’re done. When I see myself in the future I see Jennifer and me, a young 50, on a moped on the Amalfi coast. Having another baby summons up a different image of faster-greying and receding hair.”
Is Bettany in therapy? “God yes, four years on and off. In a world absent of Jesus, it’s the flawed, but solitary option.” He laughs. “She’s the woman who stops me murdering people on the streets of New York.Once you get past the desire to entertain or fear that you’re boring them, it’s amazingly helpful with so many difficult things.” He remains “full of self-doubt — I do not operate from a place of certainty”.
For Bettany, fame “waxes and wanes”. “People lean in closer to hear what you say, laugh more loudly at your jokes,” he has noticed. “But you shouldn’t be sustained by other people’s adulation. What if it goes away?” That doesn’t seem likely, but his expression says that he wouldn’t be devastated if it did.