sun 23/06/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Paul Bettany | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Paul Bettany

theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Paul Bettany

The modest movie star on Broken Lines, working with friends, and taking tips from Lars von Trier

Best suppurating actor? Chester (Paul Bettany) resists treatment on the couch

Since breaking onto the movie scene in 2001 with major roles in A Knight's Tale and A Beautiful Mind, London-born Paul Bettany (b 1971) has pretty much gone through the card.

From a Darwinian ship's doctor (in Master and Commander) to Charles Darwin himself (in Creation), via romantic comedies, Dogme nightmares, CGI blockbusters and several turkeys involving religion, he has established himself as an actor of significant (and award-winning) versatility.

Now, having covered everything between gangster and archangel – including a naked Geoffrey Chaucer and an ageing tennis pro – Bettany has taken another turn, appearing in Sallie Aprahamian's unglamorous north-London chamber movie Broken Lines as Chester, a boxer attempting to recover from a career-ending stroke.

Award-nominated and officially selected, Broken Lines is a small-scale story of love and its obligations, tracking the burgeoning relationship between tailor's son Jake (Dan Fredenburgh) and waitress B (Doraly Rosa) and its impact on those around them. As the death of Jake's father pulls him away from his fiancée and family, and the stress of living with the frustrated Chester becomes too much for B, the two protagonists (and co-writers) find themselves reliant on one another, in ways neither seems to fully understand and with which neither is fully comfortable. Just how much, the film asks persistently, do we owe in the name of love? And what is to become of those who are left behind?

From an anonymous suite in a Covent Garden hotel, Paul Bettany talks to theartsdesk about supporting roles in small movies, how to shoot a film in six days, and having to train down to play a boxer.


ASH SMYTH: So, you’ve been big in the business for over a decade now. Can you stroll around here unhindered?

PAUL BETTANY: [Laughs] Oh yeah! Cos Londoners are really on the back foot about that. Even if they recognised you, it’d be a sign of weakness to let you know.

It's different in other places?

Yeah. In Los Angeles it’s really different. I mean, I live in New York, which is much more similar to London in that way – people are more like, “Yeah, fuck it. I’m not gonna look.” Which is nice. But Los Angeles is so much more invested in celebrity culture that even if you’re someone like me you don’t slip under the radar. The guy who parks your car knows who you are: that’s NOT the case in New York, necessarily.

You think Angelinos see it as being part of their job?

No, they’re just more interested in seeing… quotes… unquotes… [he smiles, modestly] “stars”.

Star calibre notwithstanding, would you think it unreasonable if I described your part in Broken Lines as a major “supporting role”?

Oh, no. Not at all. It is a supporting role. It’s a love story, set in north London, and it’s about two people who feel trapped in their relationships and embark on an affair – and I suppose it’s also about the consequences of that affair on their partners, and I’m one of those partners. Olivia Williams is the other.

People really have a skewed understanding of where that point is in a career where you get to choose your work

Presumably you get scripts brought to you for all manner of substantial roles. What made you go for this one? Were you particularly drawn to the character, or the script, or what?

Well, I think it’s a twofold answer. One, people really have a skewed understanding of where that point is in a career where you get to choose your work. Because it hasn’t happened with me yet! And two, yes, I got this script because my best friend wrote it. He said, “Do us a favour and read this. And there’s a part in it for you, if you’d like it.”

This is Dan Fredenburgh?

Yes, Daniel Fredenburgh and Doraly Rosa wrote the script, and Daniel sent it to me, and I read it, and very quickly realised he had done me a favour, in actual fact. It was a great part. And I haven’t done anything else like it.

When he said there was a part in it for you, had he borne you in mind while he was writing it?

I actually don’t know the answer to that. I mean, I don’t think so. I think it was a very long process writing the script, the script went through many different forms, and so I don’t think he could’ve been thinking of me the whole way.

Even if you say you can’t choose your roles, you could always say no?

The only thing you can do, as an actor, is say no. You don’t have the power of yes!

Yes, that’s the only thing you can do, as an actor, is say no. You don’t have the power of yes! I mean, certain people do… You could say no, but I thought there was enough opportunity in it for me that, with a favourable wind, I could do something good. So I jumped at the opportunity.

Did it attract you because it’s not something you’ve done before?

Yeah, and also I thought there was a purity of intent to the piece. Which is quite separate from the result of any piece – that you can tell they were really trying to write a movie that was about something, about people being trapped in their lives. For me, it was about shame. I was really moved by the sort of shame that Chester feels and I wanted to be a part of trying to bring that to fruition.

Chester is trapped in more ways than one, of course: physically, on top of the pressures of relationships and surroundings that everyone else has. Do you have any experience of this kind of thing, or know anybody who suffered a stroke or some physical disability?

No. What I did… I read a few books, accounts by people who’d suffered strokes, and I also had Doraly and Daniel interview, on video, a bunch of people: hours and hours of incredibly moving, frank interviews with people who’ve survived strokes, and their hugely varying responses to what had happened, people dealing with it better or worse… There were some unifying themes, though, if you like, and one was a real frustration and anger towards one’s own body. A sort of fury at having to relearn things that one takes for granted: at feeling childish. And – and this was very important for me - it was where I went “Ah!” and felt I’d got some way towards who Chester is – a sense of shame surrounding feelings of dependency and helplessness.

Chester is a man who has expressed himself almost entirely physically, and suddenly he finds himself confined more or less to his mind – and that is not a comfortable place for him

And given that he’s an ex-boxer and physical activity is obviously his personal sphere…

Right. He’s a man who has expressed himself almost entirely physically, and suddenly he finds himself confined more or less to his mind – and that is not a comfortable place for him. Y’know, he’s unable… his identity is very wrapped up in being a man, and what manliness is, and I felt he felt robbed of that identity. And so all of those themes, all of those things that I’ve been talking about, that seemed to be repeated in all of the books that I read and the interviews that I saw, were compounded in a man like that, of his profession and his age. He’s young…

If I remember rightly, there is also a literal impotence moment in the film, where the manliness issue is really brought out.

Yes, but I think that there is no physical reason for him to not be able to consummate his relationship. He just somehow doesn’t feel himself any longer. That’s awful… I guess what I meant about “shame” was it often happens with me, like that, that you’re lucky enough to find one thing in a role that makes you really understand. I mean, I can understand a bunch of things intellectually, but to really understand a battle with shame – which surely is something all of us have felt at some time or another – that was really my “in”.

With the issue of disability – physical in this case, more than mental – is there an additional pressure on an actor to be getting the part “right”?

It’s really hard to stop yourself moving down one side of your face

Yes. And I remember watching the film and thinking that at times I was successful and at times I wasn’t. That’s also the pressure of doing something in six days. Especially with the physical thing, you want lots of goes at it. It’s really hard to stop yourself moving down one side of your face, to will it. I couldn’t think of a way to create that effect that wouldn’t harm me! Or some expensive prosthetic that we couldn’t afford…

A vast number of really attention-grabbing roles would be to do with... not “over-acting” as such, but certainly a great deal of physical flair and drama. And here you’ve got a guy who can’t really move and doesn’t really want to say anything. That must represent a challenge for any actor.

Yeah, it’s a really interesting tension to play. Daniel, for instance, has a much harder time of it in the script: the things Jake feels trapped by are much more obscure, to do with his upbringing and his relationship with his father. Whereas I think my difficulties are very clear, and it’s very easy for an audience to understand them, so I’m really helped in it by that. But I mean, you’re absolutely right: Chester doesn’t wanna fight to get better. It feels an impossibly punitive thing that’s happened to him, he feels totally stripped. And in the end, what’s beautiful, I think, is he finds himself faced with the decision to either hold this woman, B, to him, or to let her go. And it’s a decision he has to take as much for himself as for her.

It seems rather like Chester and Jake move in opposite directions. As you said, you have the advantage, in some ways, of the audience basically being sympathetic to you as a matter of course, but Chester almost goes out of his way to behave in an unsympathetic way: even when he’s bashing his head against the doorframe we’re not really rooting for him. Whereas Jake obviously is behaving badly, in broad terms, but he’s the hero.

Yeah, but it’s funny, isn’t it? We have really strict moral codes for people in films and plays in a way that we don’t in real life, somehow. We are much more willing to embrace contradictions. In a film we say [in Daily Mail housewife voice], “Oh, but he’s a baddie, he’s knocking his wife around, his wife’s lovely!” but in actual fact life is much more… grey and… curly, and people do terrible, cowardly things, born out of terrible things that have happened to them. 

The role of Chester is a distinctly unglamorous, un-Hollywood kind of part: hardly one you’d seize upon thinking, I’m going to look good on this poster!

It’s the one thing that can be edifying about being an actor (though it’s often not): it demands of me that I at least try to feel how that person feels. It’s about trying: at least putting in a real effort, to try and imaginatively put yourself in that person’s situation. Of course I will never manage it, and I would never dream of saying that I know what a person in that situation feels like. But I think it makes me more embracing of contradictions and less judgmental, more understanding and empathetic. And that’s a side of acting that is not to do with vanity – as a lot of it can be.

You said you had six days to shoot the film. With six days as the macro level, how do you get your head into the part when it comes to shooting each scene?

There were scenes I don’t remember. Usually it’s a much more leisurely pace

It was so quick that there were scenes I don’t remember. Usually it’s a much more leisurely pace, and that’s both good and bad. But I don’t remember having time to think, fuck, I fucked that, I fucked it! because I didn’t have time to analyse before I’d moved onto the next thing. Lars von Trier [he looks bashful] once said this thing to me: he said, “Paul, you’ll become a good actor one day when you lower your expectations of yourself.” Brilliant! But perhaps working at speed might help me do that. Because I made another movie recently called Margin Call, which is coming out in the autumn, and it’s with me, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore and Simon Baker – who’s fucking great – that’s quite a cast! And we shot it in 17 days, the whole movie. The average movie I’m on is three and a half months, and I’ve been on movies that have taken five months. Master and Commander was ludicrous, the length of time it actually took.

I really enjoyed the experience, though, of a film shot so quickly: the need to be in a state of preparedness. I like being prepared; but I’ve often worked with actors who, halfway through the day, I’ve thought, you haven’t actually read this scene, have you? I swear to God! Big names. You think, wow, that’s fucking… ballsy! I can’t imagine having the confidence to think that I can wing this shit. Sometimes I’m surprised at the results, at how together it all seems. But I’m pretty convinced in my opinion that things would’ve been better if you’d read the fucking scene.

Is this a laziness based on the fact that you know you can stop and start again? Does it happen any less with theatre-trained actors?

I don’t know. Maybe. The great thing, I think, about the experience of acting on film, as opposed to on stage, is that it can remain a rehearsal. Which is great. Because the notion that you can stop at any point can imbue you with a confidence and a risk-taking. Y’know, you’re not working towards a performance so much – because it’s fucking impossible. Because it’s an illusion. I’ve been in a scene where they’ve flipped the neg and I’ve been talking to somebody else: so the illusion that you have any control… What’s the name of that movie with Ed Norton and Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando? The Score. I know this story that at the end of that movie Marlon Brando refused to smile. So they CGI’d a smile onto Marlon Brando’s face! Now if they’re fucking with Marlon Brando, they’re fucking with everybody. So the idea that you have any control, that you are working to a performance, If they’re fucking with Marlon Brando, they’re fucking with everybodyis mostly – unless you're Daniel Day Lewis and have done some Faustian pact with the Devil so that you’re just always a genius – is ludicrous. But what I can do is try and stay relaxed, and have some happy accidents that some brilliant editor can use and make it look like I had a plan!

Something slightly unusual about your role as a boxer – or rather as an ex-boxer – is that we never see you at your prime. And Chester looks like he hasn’t got off the sofa in weeks. So you’ve got all this baggage, which you’re supposed to imply and we’re supposed to infer… How "Method" are you about this sort of thing? With respect, you don’t have the classic boxer’s physique.

No, I untrained! I’d just made some movie where I had to be all butch, so I actually untrained. I wanted to really lose it for this, and then I wanted, when Chester goes to the gym, to put on a big puffa coat, so he’s really hiding himself from his friends, an attempt to hide what his body looks like.

That’s a quick scene, as well.

It’s a quick scene, and I was trying to throw in a line – I can’t remember if it’s in there – a little “You look good.” Y’know, it’s fucking killing him seeing these guys working out, and feeling frail and vulnerable in a way I just don’t think he’s used to. It’s amazing – I don’t know if you’ve ever done it, but I’ve had to do it twice or three times on jobs – where you work out, and it really changes how you feel about yourself. In good and bad ways. It makes me ludicrously… it’s weird: it is vain… fixated. Because you’re trying to achieve something.

Do you find it addictive?

No! No. But I have a really strong work ethic. So if I’ve said, “I’m going to look like this guy,” I will do everything I can to make sure I look like him by the time we start shooting. And I get fixated on doing that. But the moment those jobs are over I can’t be fucking going down the gym… I have a trainer, who has become a great friend of mine; but I don’t work out unless it’s a job.

Coming back to the London aspect, the film very clearly frames itself as a London movie. It’s not just in London, but there’s something about London in it as well. What’s your take on that? What is the film trying to bring out?

It’s weirdly indefinable how it captures London at this particular momentYou know what, because my character’s sort of agoraphobic, really, my experience of shooting the movie was really grim. It was all inside this one house that he won’t leave. So I didn’t take part in that side of it. But I totally take your meaning. It’s weirdly indefinable how it captures London at this particular moment.

And it’s not Big Ben "London", either.

No, it’s Finsbury Park. And it really has that feeling about it. Real London. It’s a part of London that Daniel and Doraly grew up in. They’re both north-Londoners and they wrote this script, and it somehow feels imbued with north London. And also this sort of great idea that Jake has escaped all this, and gone to Kingston-on-Thames, and yet is really drawn back to where he came from.

What’s it like working alongside the writers of the film, having them as fellow actors? Does it make a difference?

It really didn’t. I think Doraly was really… respectful of me and the stuff that I wanted to bring to it. But also that relationship was never really tested because I had no real criticisms or difficulties with what she and Daniel had written. It seemed in really good shape when I turned up, and I didn’t see a reason to fuck with it.

A director, too, on a first-time feature? Was everyone looking to kick ideas around?

Sallie, yeah. Sallie had a very clear idea of what she wanted to do, and she was in a position, financially, where we had to shoot in a really restricted time. I flew in, and was able to have one evening with her, discussing the film. We’d spoken on the phone before, but there’s something very different about being in the room with somebody. And then… there were no rehearsals. The other two had rehearsed endlessly, because they had written it, and Sallie had been involved for a very long time, and then I turned up and just shot all of my stuff. We just went through everything that had to do with me, and got me out of Dodge.

I love working with writers around, cos I can fucking ask them what they mean

But I love working with writers around, I love making films with the writers in, cos I can fucking ask them what they mean. And that would come up occasionally – and one of them would answer for me. But I felt that they’d already done a good job; it’s not like I had to go in and untangle something or take it apart.

So, what’s next?

Well, there’s Margin Call coming out. And I have two irons in the fire, that I’m very excited about… but I can’t talk about them. I keep not getting jobs that I talk about!

It’s a hex?

It’s a hex. And/or, I don’t work with people that I say, “Oh, I really wanna work with that person!” For instance, Daniel Day Lewis. Years ago someone asked me that question and I said, “Daniel Day Lewis.” He's the hero of every actor my age, and I’d kill to work with him – and I haven’t. I haven’t. Now, that’s hampered by the fact that he only works once every five years… and perhaps by the fact that he doesn’t wanna work with me, I dunno. But the point is, I haven’t. So I now regard talking about these things as a kind of curse.

Perhaps you’d like to list a few people…

... that I DON’T want to work with! You don’t know how fucking tempting that question is.

It’s the one thing that can be edifying about being an actor: it demands of me that I at least try to feel how a person feels

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