Paul Bettany gives us the lowdown on his 2011 slate, including some great vampire tidbits about Priest
Paul Bettany is one of those rare actors who has never made a bad film. He seems to have the knack for finding good parts opposite great talent. In The Tourist, he plays Inspector Acheson, a dour Scotland Yard detective hell bent on catching an elusive criminal. He spoke at length about working on The Tourist and two other films coming up next year.
In Margin Call, he stars with Kevin Spacey in a story about a bank on the verge of collapse in the beginning of the financial crisis. He totally switches gears in Priest, where he stars as an ass-kicking vampire hunter trying to save his niece. Paul was gracious enough to fill us in on the stories of both films, and show me the concept art for Priest, which I must say looked pretty spectacular:
The Tourist is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's second film after the critically acclaimed The Lives of Others. This is such a different film. What was he like on set, particularly in dealing with such famous stars as Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie?
Paul Bettany: He is a fan. He is an enthusiast. He loves movies and loves the people he's working with. It's infectious, that enthusiasm, although he can be frustratingly specific at times. You'll be doing something again, and again, and again; then he's got it. Then you can move on. It can be frustrating, but it can be really safe because he's not looking at his watch. He will not move on unless he's got the scene, and as an actor it makes you safe in his hands. He was not nervous in any shape or form.
Where does his confidence come from? Is it the difference in being a German filmmaker?
Paul Bettany: No, it's innate in him. He needs to get things right, his vision. And he's right, it is his film. It's not anybody else's film. That's what people are buying. That's wonderful. The only frustrating thing makes you feel safe, because if you've got it wrong, he's going to f**king tell you.
This film has such subtle reactions from the actors. There's a great scene with you and Johnny where you're winding him up, but it's all in the face. How do you get that performance? Is it all reaction shots?
Paul Bettany: Sometimes you do, you'll get bits used from different moments. Sometimes you'll get a piece of footage from earlier on in the scene that they use later. But this is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film. What I realize as I get older is that any illusion of control you feel as a big time actor is just that, an illusion. You will end up in a dark room, in an editing suite, with someone doing something to you. And that's just the beginning of it, especially with CGI. What's that film with Edward Norton and Marlon Brando?
Paul Bettany: They CG a smile on Marlon Brando 's face. He refused to smile. If they're f**king with Marlon Brando, then they're f**king with everybody. So you might as well just yield to your director.
Florian seems to take a lot of care with each performance. If he's taking this much time getting a great performance out of the concierge, how does he give everyone else the same direction and time?
Paul Bettany: I think so, much more than other directors. I think he got very lucky with his two leading actors. They would wait around on set. I won't mention names, but there are so many who will be off, gone. Then every time you lose them back to their trailer it takes thirty minutes to get the f**kers back on stage. Whereas Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie would hang out, they were company players. I like company players, people who feel they are in a company of actors and crew, not something separate. The reality is they are the leading actors and we are the supporting actors. Say it's different and I'm the leading actor, like in Priest, then I want to participate, I want the person I'm with to take the scene and do great. For some actors it's really competitive on set, and I've never gotten that. That's making acting a sport, and it's not a sport.
A question about your choices, you've done such different films during your career. For example, you're the voice of Jarvis in Iron Man? Then you're the straight man in The Tourist? Then you're in a vampire action film, Priest? A lot of differences there..
Paul Bettany: That's a good question. I really enjoy doing very different things. I get bored quickly. I don't like anyone telling me what I can and can't do. I was told I couldn't be an action star. So I went to the gym and did an action movie. It's childish, but you know what, f**k you, I can f**king do it. Jarvis happened because Jon Favreau rung me up. He was in a film with me, Wimbledon. He goes; I need someone to play a computer. I need someone with no personality and I immediately thought of you (laughs). I went and laughed my ass off. He was on the phone talking me through it. I remember doing a bit of dialogue, but most of the time it was just us playing around. I went away, forgot about it, Iron Man comes out. I'm on stage making a film and a crew member goes, you're in Iron Man. I'm like, I'm not, you're confused. Oh yeah, I am in Iron Man (laughs). Both times I have just gone in a room for an hour and just pissed myself laughing with Jon Favreau. My kids, it's the one thing I've ever done. Forgot Charles Darwin, you're in Iron Man!
What's a good script you're thinking about?
Paul Bettany: Sometimes I read a script and go, that's amazing, I have to do it. I just did a film called Margin Call. Amazing script, Kevin Spacey - who I'm a big fan of, Stanley Tucci, we shot in twenty-one days in New York City. It's just gotten into Sundance and I'm so proud. It's about the last couple hours in a huge financial institution before the crisis hits. It follows all the decisions, really interesting. Or sometimes I want to be on f**king wires trying to kill vampires. Or Peter Weir is making a movie. I want to work with him. It's so many things. Sometimes I need some dough and I have to go out and make a movie (laughs).
What can you tell us about Priest? There seems to be a lot of early buzz about it.
Paul Bettany: It's based on a graphic novel published out of Tokyo Pop. It takes place in an alternate universe. There are comic books that bridge the stories, but our story is slightly different. I am not the Priest from the graphic novel. It's interesting; they did a very good job bridging the stories. Ours takes place in a world where vampires and humans have co-existed in a very violent fashion. In our world, the vampires are a feral creature, if one bites you; you become a slave to the vampire community. There was a huge war, finally won by the Priests. They're like Jedis; they have a tremendous ability for fighting.
So do they have guns, is it martial arts combat?
Paul Bettany: No, he doesn't use guns at all. It's all knives and fists. They can't fly, but they can leap farther than human beings. And they're incredibly quick. I've seen it; I think its fabulous fun. I think it looks beautiful. The third act, the fifth reel is intense.
So it is more stylized, gritty, a lot of CGI?
Paul Bettany: There are CG elements, but I did 90% of my wirework. There's a lot of blue screen. Part of it was a fight on top of a train, but we actually towed a real train through the salt flats, with me hanging on going fifty miles an hour. Yes, you're tethered by wires, but you're hanging off this train being pulled at f**king fifty miles an hour. It's an amazing feeling. Scott (Stewart, director) tried to get as much in camera. The CG is augmenting the vampires. I have a picture on my phone...
They're not glistening beautifully like in Twilight...
Paul Bettany: No (laughs), they're monsters. I guess at the heart of the story is a man coming back from war. He's now being asked to integrate into society, but he's being shunned. He's made himself unfit for normal life. And then a vampire rebellion takes his niece, they broke out of these internment camps that they are all in. Then I have to go and save her. I'll see if I can find a picture...
[Breaks out his Iphone and shows me all the concept art for Priest. I wish I could have gotten some of these shots to show you, but it's pretty awesome looking...]
Paul Bettany: Awesome right? They're pretty exciting. The way they move is exciting. If you're me, this isn't really my genre; I really haven't done many of these kinds of movies. So if you're flying through the air, on wires, stabbing a blue pillow, a bit of you is going, I hope I don't look like a moron (laughs). You want that monster to be real. And it looks pretty f**king spectacular.