Paul Bettany on playing Warhol, family ghosts, and how therapy ‘saved’ him
The Daily Beast
December 19, 2022
Paul Bettany opens up about bullying, his dad’s coming-out and going-back-in, Marvel, his “lost” years, life-saving therapy, and playing Warhol in “The Collaboration” on Broadway.
If and when you watch Paul Bettany play Andy Warhol on Broadway in The Collaboration—which has just been filmed for the big screen—know that there are other unseen figures, spirits and echoes from the past, that have helped shape his performance way beyond the feathery silver wig and skinny jeans.
“I think my dad haunts so many of my roles, particularly since I became the age he was when I first got to know him,” Bettany told The Daily Beast in a recent Zoom call. “From my forties into my fifties he haunts so much of the work that I do. I also begin to see him in my face in a way that I never saw him in face in my twenties when I didn’t look anything like him. I see my father when I look into the mirror sometimes.” Bettany smiled. “He’s still wreaking havoc from beyond the grave.”
Best known for voicing AI J.A.R.V.I.S. and playing android superhero Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bettany, 50, last year earned a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for his role in WandaVision. He is presently starring as Warhol, opposite Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michel Basquiat, in Anthony McCarten’s play which imagines what happened when the two legendary artists worked together to work on a series of paintings in the mid-1980s—today, inevitably, worth many millions of dollars.
More than once in our Zoom conversations, Bettany apologized—his inner cringe momentarily creasing his face—for “sounding like a ponce when I talk about acting. It’s so difficult not to sound preposterous.”
Bettany had not been sounding anything like preposterous; he had been trying to explain how particularly emotional and dramatic moments of his life had seeped into his work. “Often you take little echoes of characters you play. They continue with you, little pieces of them,” Bettany said. “What you try to do is try to something within that character that resonates with you. For instance, with Andy Warhol, it’s his fear. I was very bullied as a schoolkid, and I remember the world feeling like a frightening place. I try to remember that in me.”
Bettany’s Warhol is a global superstar worried by Basquiat’s growing fame as well as concerned for the younger man’s welfare. As they jibe at each other’s artistic practice and nervily begin working together, they also bond. Piles of money literally tumble forth from Basquiat’s refrigerator; a sign ultimately of what the play is about—the many meanings of “value” when it comes to art.
When Bettany keys into Warhol’s fear, he is recalling the bullying he experienced at his suburban British school as a result of other pupils’ discovering that his father, the actor and dancer Thane Bettany, and godfather were gay.
“I was the ‘gay boy’ of the year that was beaten up in the showers and pissed on and stuff like that,” Bettany told The Daily Beast. “My father had been a dancer and actor. My mother was a singer. We had gay people all around us. I wouldn’t take part in any of the homophobic banter around me, and the consequence of that, well you can imagine… I sort of refused to bend on that.”
Thane was much older than his wife Anne, whom he married in 1968, becoming a first-time father at 42. “He lived a whole life before marriage,” recalled Paul. “It was very late in life for a man to be marrying in that era. He had a whole life before that, which transpires was a very gay life.”
When Thane finally came out to Paul when he was 63, “it was such a relief for everybody—and he seemed relieved. This was a man whose name I had taken off the toilet walls in our local area when I was a child. We knew he was gay. After he came out, he had a nearly 20-year relationship with a man, Andy, till Andy died. Then my father came to see me, and said, ‘I have gone back to my Catholic faith.’ I said, ‘Wait, how does that work with you being gay?’ He said, ‘What are you talking about? It never happened.’”
Thane renounced his homosexuality, and went back into the closet? “Yes. I tried to really dig in with him about it. I asked him, ‘But dad, what about Andy?’ He said, ‘Well that was only physical for a very short time.’ Him going back into the closet was just horrifying. And he stayed there. I was with him when he died. He was dressed, and in his pocket was a vial of Andy’s ashes. My dad himself died a few years later (aged 86 in 2015).” Bettany paused. “So… a complicated man, my father.”
Bettany recalls that when his father’s father found out Thane had sold his wartime ration tickets on the black market so he could buy ballet lessons, he told Thane he had a choice between joining the Army, Navy, or Royal Air Force. “My dad chose the Navy because he liked the uniforms,” Bettany said. “When my dad was growing up, they lived on the edge of an RAF airfield which got bombed all the time. They had a bomb shelter built for them, but his father wouldn’t let them use it because they were not scared of the Germans. Imagine being a young gay man with that father.
“Then, when I was getting bullied in school, my dad sent me to sea cadets ‘to make a man’ of me. I forgive my father for all of his complexity. I didn’t ever really get to know him. My father had some carefully curated anecdotes that made up the history of his life. Only by going through papers and photographs and talking to people did I discover the extent of his life as a gay man, and that he had lived as a gay man much longer than a straight man.”
None of these experiences made Bettany homophobic—quite the opposite. “Never. I literally didn’t understand homophobia, and never have.” (As well as Warhol, Bettany has played another aging gay man in Uncle Frank.)
Besides the bullying and his father’s sexuality. another pivotal early experience was the death of Bettany’s then-8-year-old brother Matthew after a fall when Bettany was 16. “Oh God, yes, it changed everything,” Bettany recalled. “It blew up my family.”
In the past Bettany has spoken about using cocaine and alcohol to numb the pain he felt, after all he had gone through so young. Today, Bettany keeps talismans representing his brother which he keeps near when he is acting. “Some people are better at accessing their emotions than me. My wife (movie star Jennifer Connelly) is able to access her emotions incredibly easily without having to imagine other things and can just be in the scene. I have to work at it. I have these talismans that I have with me out of shot. I loathe talking about it because the older I get the more foolish it feels. They help entertain me.” Bettany laughed. “I don’t know. It’s such a weird thing.”
Bettany is in therapy, and has been for years, yet has moments when he says he thinks, “I’m 50 years old, moaning on about this fucking person still. I can’t believe it. I think, ‘What is wrong with you? Why am I here with this thing scratching at this wound, trying to make myself feel better filming this movie or TV show?’ Still, I do it because it’s my fucking job. But the older I get the more ridiculous it feels. It all made sense in my twenties, but, you know,” he smiled, “neurosis is only attractive when you’re 20.”
Is therapy still helpful? “Yes, I have been in therapy a lot for a thousand years, and it’s absolutely saved me. Right now, it’s very intermittent because of my work schedule. Right now, I am flying solo.” Bettany let out a cute, eek-terrified gasp.
Has it really been life-saving? “For all the boring reasons. In the absence of the little baby Jesus I found therapy is only thing that’s had a real impact on me, and the impact really has been in understanding the transference and my own behavior towards other people and how I move in the world, the things I’ve done to other people, or others have done to me, and what triggers those old triggers. While I understand therapy is like having a chronic injury where you need to constantly be doing physical therapy and massage or you lean back into old patterns of behavior, I have also discovered it has really saved me.”
“I was very lost for a number of years”
Growing up, acting was not something Bettany was drawn to, but rather music. “I wanted to be a guitar player. When I finish my day job now, I pick up the guitar, but I am a pretty shitty guitar player. I thought I was a musician until I had my middle child. Stellan (19 years old) is a prodigy, like those fish who have more cones in their eyes and can see more color. He experiences music in a different way. I fell into acting. I like telling stories, that’s all, whether it’s me as a writer, director or actor, or frankly me at a dinner table telling an anecdote that my that poor wife has had to listen to God knows how many times in over 20 years of marriage.”
Bettany busked on the streets, went to drama school, and made his stage debut in Stephen Daldry’s 1992 West End revival of An Inspector Calls. Stage work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and early screen appearances (including Bent, 1997) followed. He broke through in movies in Gangster No. 1 (2000), and A Knight’s Tale and A Beautiful Mind (both 2001). “I was very lost for number of years, but there were always something that saved me or people that saved me, like my auntie Jill and my dear friend Shosh—people giving me a vocabulary for things that I had no language to think about,” Bettany said.
His title role in Gangster No. 1 was “a real calling card” for Bettany. “Things really changed after that. Also, in a really personal way, placing yourself imaginatively in someone else’s position is literally the only edifying bit of doing this job. There are so many unedifying things that come with it—money, ambition, celebrity, and judging yourself only though the praise of others. All of these are terrible, terrible things. The one really good thing is being able to imagine yourself as another person, and the amount of empathy that can engender in you. So yes, there have been pieces of work that I’ve done that have really stayed with me and I hope have made me a better person.”
Bettany was BAFTA-nominated for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), and also made memorable impressions in Dogville (2003), Wimbledon (2004), and Margin Call (2011), and wrote, co-produced, and directed Shelter (2014). Last year he played Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll—husband to Claire Foy’s Margaret, Duchess of Argyll—in A Very British Scandal.
Bettany said he had never thought of himself as ambitious, but observing the acting game now thinks how he could not have been. “It’s more that I have a really strong work ethic. Although I was young and a mess, I realized early on when I was trying to get jobs that there was so much in auditioning that I couldn’t control—whether I was appropriate for the part, or if someone was more attractive or famous or more talented than me. The thing I could control was being the most prepared person auditioning that day.”
Bettany smiled. “There were times that I didn’t get jobs, when the more famous and attractive actor got the part, but when that famous actor got a better job offer two weeks out from production I was the person they remembered. ‘How about that kid who knocked it out of the park, but we didn’t give the job to?’”
What also changed his life was marrying Connelly, who he met while making A Beautiful Mind, and learning how to “nurture” himself through becoming a parent. The couple have three children: Kai, 25, from Connelly’s previous relationship; Stellan; and daughter Agnes, 11.
“When I’m away from them too much I begin to revert to older habits,” Bettany said. “I have definitely learnt to nurture myself through my children.” He paused. “This is going to sound so stupid, and my 11-year-old daughter doesn’t do it… but seeing my two boys cook for themselves, the care they put into it… If I am on my own I get a piece of bread and cheese. But they like themselves, they want to do nice things for themselves. And I mostly learnt about that by wanting to do nice things for them.”
Bettany said he had also been saved by work. “I couldn’t just fall apart. What was making me feel safe and relevant was my career, rather like Warhol. Then my children came along, and all of that disappeared like mist. The thing that became paramount was raising three lovely human beings who will hopefully be able to take care of themselves.”
Bettany thinks he and Connelly have “a pretty good balance” when it comes to talking about the professional pursuits they share, or in gleaning the other’s advice, “although god knows why she would come to me for advice,” Bettany said, laughing. “But we’re not constantly gaming things out as some couples do. It’s much more prosaic planning—picking up the kids, planning holidays, or the kitchen needing redoing.”
Kai is an engineer, Stellan is at music conservatory studying to be a classical composer, and Agnes… “The jury is still out. I don’t know what she’s going to do. And she doesn’t know what she’s going to do. We were just talking about it. She’s 11. She said she wants to be a tollbooth attendant, so she can read all day. She’s very smart, which is probably why I don’t think she’s going to be an actor.”
Bettany recalls the high of making A Beautiful Mind, and the low years later of acting work drying up. “Back then, I was in America making a movie. That felt extraordinary and unimaginable for a boy from Willesden. I had a cool loft apartment. I felt like I was in Cagney and Lacey!” He laughed. “I loved it. And defining what you like doing—telling stories—is a powerful thing to discover about yourself. To discover what you love doing. That felt really empowering. And when it went away it felt really bad.”
This downturn occurred, Bettany said, post-2008 financial crash when he “made some movies that in retrospect probably weren’t great movies but they were movies that helped us financially. We had kids, suddenly we had a fucking mortgage. I thought, what if this thing comes tumbling down? For around two years I couldn’t get a job. It was fascinating to see it still meant something to me. I remember going to see one producer—who years before I had turned down over a role before my son was born, which had clearly stuck in his craw—about doing another movie who told me, ‘Paul, you’re done in this business. It’s over for you.’
“I said to him, ‘Look, this town is full of second and third acts, and you should mind your fucking manners.’ I walked out. My legs went because I acted so tough! I thought, ‘Oh god, maybe my career is over.’ Then my phone went, and it was (Avengers: Age of Ultron director) Joss Whedon saying, ‘Do you want to play Vision in the Marvel movies?’ And it turns out when he was pitching me to (Marvel president) Kevin Feige, I was already playing the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. Feige asked Josh, ‘Well can he play a superhero?’ And Josh able to show one of these movies I thought was the nadir of my career to say, ‘Yes he can!’ So, life is curly, and you never know what comes from any action you make.”
Last year, texts Bettany exchanged with his friend Johnny Depp were made public at the latter’s court case with Amber Heard, in which they discuss killing her. “I’m not sure we should burn Amber,” Bettany wrote. “She is delightful company and pleasing on the eye. We could of course do the English course of action and perform a drowning test. Thoughts? You have a swimming pool.”
Previously, Bettany described the revelation of the texts to the Independent as “a strange moment” that had given him an “unpleasant feeling.” Today, he declines further comment. “Here’s the thing. I tried doing this every way I can, but whatever I say becomes a click link. I can’t. Even if a journalist reports what I say word for word, the click link doesn’t. That is then picked up by other publications who only use a portion of a quote. I refuse to put more fuel on this fire that’s just been really unpleasant.”
“Originally, I didn’t want to play Warhol”
“I find different things in him every night,” Bettany told The Daily Beast of playing Warhol in The Collaboration, which first played in London earlier this year. “I have a great scene partner. Jeremy Pope every night brings new things and I try to bring new things too. It’s been a fascinating journey to do this is in three different iterations. Originally, I didn’t want to play Warhol. When the producer Denis O’Sullivan said to me, ‘Shall we make thing?’ I said, ‘That sounds great. Who’s playing Warhol?’ There is a reason he’s always the cameo in films and stuff. But maybe there could be something else there. I just I didn’t know how to get underneath the wig and glasses and monosyllabic, curated public persona.”
Bettany changed his mind when he read Warhol’s diaries, realizing the artist had dictated his entries to Pat (Hackett, Warhol’s collaborator). “It was fascinating to see these long, circuitous sentences that sounded more like Truman Capote than how I thought Andy Warhol might speak.”
Bettany also spoke to those who knew Warhol, like Anna Wintour, who confirmed he could be very verbose and acidly witty in private. “Then I thought that maybe the trick in playing him is as a frog in water, not noticing the water is heating up—to start by showing a more familiar hesitant Andy Warhol, then slowly have him become more fluid with language while hoping the audience doesn’t notice.”
On more than one occasion the men come very close to each other’s faces—confrontation and jousting see-saws with a kind of testing flirtation.
“Who knows where Jean-Michel was in that moment?” says Bettany. (In the play, a girlfriend played by Krysta Rodriguez is featured, though Basquiat’s relationships with men is also mentioned.) I think we can say that the fiftysomething-year-old, very gay Andy Warhol would have found Jean-Michel Basquiat attractive,” Bettany said. “I don’t think that’s making too controversial an assumption. He was an attractive man. I find Jean-Michel Basquiat attractive. We play with that a lot. Jeremy as Jean-Michel plays with it as a response to Andy fucking with him. I think that’s in the air.”
Basquiat wants to get Warhol painting again, Warhol initially wants to film Basquiat because he’s frightened of the younger man, and it is his way to trying to understand him and control their relationship. “Andy was gay, and this almost albino child living in working class Pittsburgh. The world must have appeared very frightening to him,” Bettany said. “And he changed the world. I think that is hard for us to imagine today. But The Face magazine would not have looked like The Face magazine without him. The design world would have been very different. Imagining a world without Andy Warhol is like imagining what if there had been no Beatles. He was powerful and magic enough to make the world see him as a star.
“In the play, Basquiat to him is this young, up-and-comer who’s doing this figurative, neo-Expressionist work that for Andy must have felt like a step backwards from the conceptual art he was doing. Initially Andy films him to catch him out, embarrass him, to eviscerate his vision. But the power of Basquiat’s work is so undeniable, extraordinary, and urgent that Andy, in the second act of the play, wants to understand it and what is driving this young man and care for his soul.”
Bettany notes that the value of the art works in the hundreds of millions today, and the men’s relationship beginning so badly—the press referred to Basquiat initially as Warhol’s mascot and the two men didn’t speak—to them becoming true friends, photographs showing them hanging out happily together. The play is a leap of imagination, Bettany emphasizes, adding McCarten had told him that “documentary can only get you so far. It takes an imagined narrative in a film or play to invite you in.” Bettany laughed. “You have to make shit up.”
Bettany is looking after his voice as the theater is “not great acoustically,” and the last act is “very emotional. That’s tough to do night after night. Frankly, going to sleep is problematic afterwards. And I have to get up in the morning because I have a child who wants to be filled with breakfast and love and be taken to school. When I did theater 25 years ago, I went out till 2 o’ clock in the morning. I can’t do that now.”
“We live in frightening times”
Like this author, Bettany is a Brit who lives in the U.S. who has become an American citizen. “I did it because I was tired of getting shouted down on Twitter for having an opinion about the country where I pay taxes in,” Bettany told The Daily Beast. “There are things about Britain and Britishness that I really, really miss. Then there are things that I don’t. I really believe in a democratic republic. I have always found this country wonderful, fascinating, and at times awful—and I also feel that way about my country of birth. As I get older and hurtle towards my dotage, I am so much less certain and definitive about things. I feel that everything is so much less black and white for me as my knees give out. I see everything in shades of grey, including people’s behavior towards me. I feel much more forgiving and less brittle than I used to be.”
Bettany thinks about politics “a lot to an unhealthy extent. I try to sort of pull myself out of the news cycle because it was so dominating my thoughts. Everything you’re reading—editorial and opinion, the monetization of news—is so extreme, aimed at fueling outrage on social media. It’s a ghastly, ghastly thing.”
The midterm election results, which fell far short of a Republican rout, felt like a “reprieve” for Bettany. “We’ll see. At my most optimistic I think Trump has to keep running and if he doesn’t win the Republican nomination runs as an independent splitting the vote, which would be great for Democrats. If Trump doesn’t run, and Ron DeSantis is the Republican nominee, I think we could all be in a lot of trouble. We live in frightening times. What happens in those gentle capitalist societies with strong social services when right-wing politics rises within them?”
Immediately after Bettany finishes his final Broadway matinee as Warhol, he begins filming his next movie, Here, co-starring Tom Hanks and Robin Wright and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Based on Richard McGuire’s graphic novel, it tells the history of America from one corner of one room inhabited by different families. Bettany declines to discuss his character much, except to say he is 20 years old in 1946, and that he plays him through to his mid-80s. He heaps praise on the “buoyancy” of Eric Roth’s script. “I can’t wait,” he said. “After that I don’t know what I’ll do—but I’ll definitely be taking a break.”
Should it ever be adapted for stage or screen, Bettany’s dream role would be to play Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov, the lead character in Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel Darkness at Noon, “because he has a choice between life or death after going through a show trial. He has to decide between trying to bring down a revolution or to die and hope the revolution rights itself. It’s a really interesting conundrum, and a fantastic book.”
Mulling his own mortality, Bettany says he gets “solace from the idea of my children. But sometimes I’ll be buying some piece of equipment and it says ‘25-year guarantee’ or ‘50-year guarantee,’ and you’re like, ‘Wow, I don’t need that. That’s a sobering thought.”
Bettany says he can foresee not acting at the pace he currently does, and “only doing things I really, really want to do. But that day is not upon us. I still really love it. I still find it exciting. Not that I can’t imagine hanging up my acting tights at one point or another. I can.” He smiled. “Pottering around some farmhouse? Yes, I can imagine that.”