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Interview: Paul Bettany

Not exactly up to monkey business in Creation, though orangutans do grab some collaborative air time, British star Paul Bettany does double duty as he debuts in two films this week. One where he grapples with the idea of survival of the fittest as Charles Darwin in Creation, and then getting to apply that whole notion to reality a bit, as an archangel battling malevolent forces on behalf of survival of the fittest doomed humans, in the supernatural thriller, Legion. Stopping by nearly in character as Darwin for this interview, Bettany was in zesty standoff mode against the historically revered British scientist’s religious critics for whom he just about recommended anger management rehab, while confessing his own offscreen Darwinist groupie tendencies. He also got candid about being made sequel offers he can’t refuse, and getting up close and personal with wife Jennifer Connelly for first time in Creation. But not letting matrimony get in the way of transvestite orangutan bonding as well, not to mention the challenge of monkey gender reassignment, for a movie.

Q: What’s with all these films that you’re drawn to about religion, with Creation, and also Legion and The Da Vinci Code?

PAUL BETTANY: I’m atoning for my sins! No, it’s simply the way the cards have fallen out. For instance, the film Priest, that I made with Scott Stewart, which is coming out this summer and he also directed Legion, it’s a movie about a cowboy, really. I don’t see him as a priest.


And the archangel Michael is a soldier who defies his general’s orders. And I say that not to escape this conversation! But because there’s simply nothing else for me to do. I can’t play an angel, I don’t know what one is like. And I don’t know how to interview one.

But what I assume, is that I’ll play a soldier, and then they’ll CGI some wings on my back. And then everybody will go, oh he looks like an angel!

Q: Will Legion and Priest be franchises?

PB: Nearly all of those movies are being set up as franchises now. Whether they’re then picked up is another decision. But the studio doesn’t want to get itself into such a situation, where they have a massive hit, a runaway hit, and then you can ask for twenty million dollars. So they make the deals with you for those movies ahead of time.

Paul Bettany stars in Legion.

Q: Would you do those sequels?

PB: You’re contactually obliged, is my point. There’s no choice. If you want to make the first one, and then they make three of them, you’ll be in them. Because you sign a contract.

Q: So how great a challenge was it getting your head around such a big science legend like Darwin?

PB: Well I’m not sure I managed it! But yes, it really was. But I really wanted to, and then it became a reality. And suddenly you’re playing, arguably, somebody who had the greatest idea that any being has had.

Q: Why are you so obsessed with Darwin?

PB: Because I am a Darwinist. I like Darwin, I’m a fan of Darwin’s. And I started getting into Darwin when I made Peter Weir’s movie, Master And Commander. I like the man, and thought it was an interesting life. And to me it’s peculiar, that his ideas are not as broadly accepted as one would imagine. After a couple of hundred years!

Q: Do you have those creationists in the UK like we have here, dissing Darwin all the time?

PB: Oh yeah, they’re all over the world. And I think there’s quite a tendency for smugness there. And they’ll say that forty percent of the country doesn’t believe in evolution. Well, then that’s a lot of people who do, sixty percent who are rational and reasonable, out of a whole country.

And I’ve never met one of those forty percent. Unless I went to actively seek them out. Like at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, I went there with a camera, for a Vanity Fair article that just came out. I met some creationists there. But other than that, I’ve never met anybody who believes that tortoises are in different parts of the world because they got on rafts after the flood!

Q: Well beware, especially if you go on The View, one of the hosts is a creationist.

PB: No, I’d love to discuss it. Because there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark as well…Right?

Q: Dinosaurs?

PB: Well obviously, they put them on as babies. Or else they would take up too much space! So that clears up that problem…

Q: And what about those tortoises?

PB: It says in the Creation Museum that tortoises existing all around the world, is a problem for scientists to explain. Well no, it’s not a problem for scientists to explain, it’s a problem for creationists to explain.

But they answer it brilliantly, actually. Which is that after the great flood, fallen trees formed themselves into rafts. And that while Noah was letting off the dinosaurs, because that’s a big job, the tortoises snuck on. And got off at the Galapagos Islands! So you need look no further to explain that phenomenon.

By the way, I didn’t make that up. That is what is written at the Creation Museum. You can tell that I find it shocking. But the thing that I find really shocking, is the inability to sort of co-exist. And the way they talk about Darwin, is like angry. Really furious. And you think, surely one of the main tenants of Christianity, is forgiveness. So just forgive the man! He was just doing his best.

And what I love about this movie, is on one level, it’s also about tolerance. He and his wife had wildly different beliefs. But they looked after and supported each other all their lives. And they found that they could deal with having wildly different beliefs.

And that’s beautiful, the example of their relationship. And then one wonders why we all find it so hard to have differing ideas, and not be friends. It’s crazy!

Q: But there seems to be no middle ground at both extremes.

PB: Oh, I think that’s true too. And there are lots of Darwinists who believe in God. It doesn’t mean that you need to be a card carrying atheist. And I think people’s definition of God differs, you know?

Q: We’re familiar enough with the impact of Darwin on history. But what about the impact of Darwin’s historical moment on him, and what made him who he was then?

PB: Well, he was very influenced by the economic theories of Malthus. Should Darwin have been as surprised as he was? I don’t know. Ideas do seem to have a time when they’re investigated. But he could really put aside his own preconceptions, and was in no way a snob. He was genuinely able to listen to the farmer, in the same way as he would listen to a professor.

So it was all just knowledge, that was there to be checked. And with no sort of value judgment on anyone’s position in life. And so I think that was what was extraordinary about Darwin, and made him the man of his time. But coupled with a fierce social conservatism. He didn’t publish for years. And that’s why I think it was really uncomfortable for him to have this revolutionary idea.

Q: Any concerns about having your own wife as your leading lady in this movie?

PB: Well you’re always looking for good people to work with. And she’s quite good at what she does! And I’ve wanted to work with her for a long time. But we hadn’t found anything that we could do together. And so any sort of fears, were overridden by the desires we had to work with each other.

Q: Was it very organic how she got involved?

PB: Yeah. Entirely! I said to her, this seems to be a part that our actual relationship can inform. And not hinder!

Q: How about your scenes with that orangutan?

PB: That was just one of the highlights of my career. The process of doing it, was just amazing. Because you have all these plans and you talk to the trainer, and none of that stuff happens. And she – actually it was a he – he played the harmonica. And he took a pen, and started drawing.

So none of it was planned. I was writing notes, and he came up and took the pen out of my hand and my pad, and started drawing. Then I started playing the harmonica, to see if we could get her – I mean him – to dance. And he took the harmonica from me, and started playing. That was amazing.

And I defy anybody to sit down with that orangutan, or any orangutan. And deny a connection between you. It is undeniable.

Q: Getting back to bonding of the human kind, what’s the big difference between acting opposite your wife in a movie, as opposed to any other actress?

PB: I don’t know that there is. There is a difference in the level of comfort I have. And I think for this film, it was a really good thing in that there’s a temptation to telegraph a relationship between a married couple, when they’re not married.

You know, you sort of look at them like somehow you are in love with them. Whereas in a real marriage, and a marriage of some years, there’s a lot of ignoring that goes on! And you hardly ever see that going on.

I’m sure that when people talk about chemistry on screen, they’re actually talking about someone overacting. And looking at each other too much. Because people don’t do that. They don’t.

And actually, that’s an interesting thing. Because the whole chemistry business thing is such a…I’ve seen some journalists write down, oh I had such chemistry in that scene with the actress. And the actress had actually gone home, and I was talking to nothing but the camera! So it’s just nonsense.

But I do think that in marriages, people are easy with themselves physically. And so they’re not looking at each other the whole time. And they are ignoring, and they are dismissive. And they do take each other for granted. And we were absolutely helped in this movie, by our marriage.

Q: What do you want people to think when they walk out of Creation?

PB: I can’t stress enough my feelings about the film, and its message of tolerance. It’s hard to find a bad thing written about Darwin as a person. And his children adored him, he was there for them constantly. How many great men, were also great parents? It’s hard to find one! And he was.

You know, if you feel angry about somebody who had an idea, it’s foolish. At least go watch the movie, and see if you still feel angry at him.

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