Brit Paul Bettany has played his share of heroes, villains and everyone in between, but with his wild hair and fiery disposition, nothing compares to Dustfinger, the character he plays in the long-awaited film adaptation of Inkheart, a character a tad different from his next role, Charles Darwin no less. Bettany talked to our Los Angeles correspondent Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: It must be very difficult for you to talk about a film that you made quite some time ago, because this has been around for a while. Is it hard to do the publicity?
Bettany: Do you know what? It’s strangely more – some films recede quicker from your memory. This was so much fun. Some films you want to forget. And this was so much fun to make. We were in a really beautiful place. I love Italy. It’s one of my favorite places. And we’re in northern Italy, often in this beautiful abandoned wall town. And being directed by a really good director, and an exquisite host, who knows how to cook. Knows how to pick wine, and knows how to entertain. And we all played guitar, or we played piano. And the evenings and the days sort of became somehow mixed.
Question: Did you work at all during this period of time?
Bettany: It didn’t really feel like that. Honestly. And we had an obscene amount of fun. And my family was out there, his family were out there. Everybody was together all of the time. And it was lovely. It was just – and I think you can see it, actually, in the movie. You can see that everybody really enjoyed each other, and were having fun. And, you know, and then again, you get to be making a movie that was about the power of reading, for children. And a movie that doesn’t beat the parents up. You know, you go to see a kid’s movie. You know, I saw Kangaroo Jack about 50,000 times. I want to shoot myself.
Question: You and me both.
Bettany: Right. And they’re like, ” Oh, can we go and see Kangaroo Jack again?” You know. And it felt important – I wanted to make a movie that my children could go and see, finally, that I’m in. That I’m not whipping myself. But I also wanted to make a film that wouldn’t beat the parents up.
Question: Did you know anything about this book when this came to you?
Bettany: I knew the titlecause I’d looked at it. I thought, ” Why is this” – and I looked, and my son was reading the same book. So, he had already been reading it. And in a sort of entirely cynical attempt to make him think I’m awesome, I decided to be in it.
Question: And did he approve of your choice of this movie?
Bettany: Oh, of my doing it? Yes, very much so.
Question: So you’re the cool Dad now.
Bettany: I’m the cool Dad now, which is a pretty good position to be in.
Question: What did you need to do to prepare yourself for this, if anything at all? I mean, were there any things that you wanted to do?
Bettany: Well, not really. I had to do some juggling, and I had to get fit, because I was going to be stripped to the waist doing it. And it’s very peculiar that in a fantasy movie, I felt like I had so much in common with the character. That probably says a lot about me. But I think about it. And I think that he’s this man that has found himself in a strange, hectic world. And he wants to get home to his wife and children. Which is sort of how I feel on nearly every film set I’m ever on, you know? So it was peculiar. Which is why the whole Jennifer being in it – she did an hour’s work. I went, ” Why don’t you put on a dress, and do this thing? Because it’s one shot.” And it became a really – I thought it’d be a really nice thing for our kids one day, you know? And our grandchildren.
Question: When you shoot a fantasy film, when there’s a lot of reacting to things that may not be solidly there, does working on your imagination remind you in some ways of why you wanted to be an actor in the first place?
Bettany: Yes. I think it does, because there’s a sort of childish appreciation that you have of sort of just playing. But in this movie, peculiarly, there were very few times that we had to do that. The special effects were often augmenting things that were already there. Like, they lifted up a Jeep. You know, in the storm, they lifted up a Jeep. And then they continued it on, with CGI. And there were huge wind machines. I mean, I saw the storm cut together before any of the effects of the walls coming down, or tiles being pulled off, and it worked, entirely. He shot it in a very sort of analog way, which is, I think, fantastic for the film. We were in a real abandoned wall city, that looked magical. And yet, it was supposed to be in the real world. And I really liked that it’s a fantasy story, but it’s set in a real world. It just looks beautiful.
Question: It doesn’t look like a typical Iain Softley movie. How do you define him as a director?
Bettany: I think among the very best I’ve ever worked with. He never gave me a bad note, that is – there are not many directors I can say that about, that never gave me a note that I went, ” Really?” And every time I did what he told me to do, it made it better. And I think he’s got a great aesthetic. I think – you know, he’s – I think he’s a real classy act. And I think people will realize that at some point. You know? Because I think Wings of a Dove is a brilliant movie. A brilliant movie.
Question: Your career is balanced between doing some of these bigger movies, as well as doing these sort of character-based English films, which we’ve seen you do. What are the challenges for you to balance your desire as an actor, with your need to obviously earn a living?
Bettany: Yes, yes. I don’t have a private income. You know? So I’m going to make some moves to make some money. It’s absolutely true. But that’s not always – that’s not always unfulfilling. I made a film in the summer that’s actually not coming out until 2010, partly because of – well, because, I mean, I think the strike. Everybody has so much product suddenly. You know, they had a lot of stuff to release. And also because it’s Screen Gems, and they have this three-day weekend, which – you know, they did Underworld, and it’s going to be the same three-day weekend as Underworld, but next year.
Question: Which film is this?
Bettany: It’s called Legion, and it’s a sort of apocalyptic end-of-the-world story set in a diner on the edge of the Mojave Desert, with – and I play Archangel Michael, come down to save mankind from God. So, there’s a job, right? Where you also get paid. But it was so much fun. I had so much fun doing the. And I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t. I also had fun playing Charles Darwin, but in a very different sort of way. And I received very different things from playing the part. But this was – so, I think, yes. You’re right. Sometimes you do jobs for money. But it doesn’t mean that they necessarily have to not be fun. I like, and I reserve the right to try and do as many different types of films as I can. Just because it’s – life’s too short.
Question: But are your family obligations in some ways determining your schedule? I mean, do you sort of base a lot of the decisions on, do I – how much time do I spend away from home? Is Jennifer working at the same time? And all that.
Bettany: Yes, but it’s not to a sort of impossible point. It’s always negotiable. If Martin Scorsese rings up and says, ” Jennifer, I want you to be in the” – and I go, ” But you’ve just worked, and it’s my turn now, and we said we were gonna be with the children,” I would be – it would be cruel. You know? My wife’s – a happy parent also has to have a life in which they feel fulfilled beyond their children and their husband, you know? So, I think all of these things are open to negotiation. But of course my first priority is to my family. And the same is true of Jennifer. And that’s the way we do things. But it doesn’t mean that you – at some point, it’s also – every time you do a job, it’s a scheduling fucking nightmare. And we have two children, one of which has another father, who sees him every other weekend. And then suddenly you’re in this really tricky scheduling situation. You know? So, every time it’s difficult. But it’s – I can’t think of another job that I could get paid that much money for in such a little amount of time, and not have to hurt anybody. I don’t have to hurt anybody in my life, and I love that. I really do. I can make money, and not f–ck anybody over. And that’s a good feeling. And, occasionally I get to do a job that’s actually edifying, and that really moves me.
Question: What kinds of work, or roles, are you looking for, the older you get?
Bettany: Well, I think – you know what? I think it sort of changes. And so I’m loathe to say now what I want to do. But at the moment, I think what I have discovered is that I had a really exciting year doing lots of different things. Action, like angel, cuts his wings off, kung-fu-y kind of movie. Playing Charles Darwin. Kids’ action-adventure movie.
Question: What’s the Charles Darwin film?
Bettany: Jennifer plays Emma Darwin, and I play Charles Darwin. And it’s about Darwin. And it’s about the writing of Origin. And it’s really about their marriage, which got into crisis, at the death of their child, Annie. Emma Darwin was a fervent Christian and Darwin loved her. And sat on this theory that for 20 years sort of drove him mad. It drove him mad, not writing it down. But he was also a social conservative, that had this revolutionary idea. And it was, in some regard, stealing his wife’s comfort from her.
Question: Is it an English studio?
Bettany: John Amiel is directing it. Of Entrapment fame, and more – for me, when I was a kid, more importantly, he made The Singing Detective, which so influenced me as a young kid, and soon-to-be wanna-be actor. You know, I was still before drama school when I saw it. But. I was very influenced by that.
Question: Is it opening later in the year? Or is it…
Bettany: Well, you know, Jeremy Thomas’ stomping-ground is really Cannes so, if he can get it ready for Cannes. But we finished it in December. So, I mean, I think it’s going to be whipping it into shape very quickly if he does. It was a really good script. And if we fucked it up, it’s our fault, because the script was really good.
Question: Is it frustrating when there is the perception that when a film takes this long to come out, that there’s obviously something wrong with it? Clearly that’s not the case with Inkheart.
Bettany: Oh, no. I mean, yeah. I think if anybody’s thinking that; I haven’t read anything about it yet. But it’s sloppy research. Because actually, what happened is that we were a New Line film. And then New Line dissolved, and we became a Warner Brothers film. And Warner Brothers suddenly had a huge slate of movies that it had no schedule for. And frankly, had to put its new press team on, selling the movie and packaging the movie, and all of that. So that was – it has been lopped off. I saw it with my now five-year-old son, who was five in August. I saw it with him when he was four. So, it’s been lopped up, and ready for over a year. I saw it in LA over a year ago, during the fires. So, yeah, well over a year ago with my youngest son.
Question: What are you working on now?
Bettany: Nothing. I’m working on my family at the moment. We literally just finished a movie just before Christmas, and then Jennifer was on a press tour.
Question: Is it fun working together?
Bettany: It was really great. It was really great. I mean, it wasn’t a sort of fun piece. But it was really great. And it was quite exhausting, because we’re both – I will stay up ’til all hours trying to work something out, and so will she. And on top of it, you’re bringing up children. Whereas usually, I’m picking up the slack for her, or she’s picking up the slack for me as a parent, you know? When one or the other is working. So we exhausted each other.
Question: The first time I ever met you was at the junket for A Knight’s Tale. Are you surprised at your own evolution as an actor, and how things have transpired for you since then?
Bettany: I really don’t ever think about it. Well, no, that’s not true. I suppose I do, when I think about, ” Well, what do I want to do next? What sort of things do I want to do?” And I actually did. I suppose I do. Because I got to a point where I was just so bored with acting. I really was. I was sort of – I was thinking, ” Well, I’m not enjoying this any more. I do it entirely for the money, which is great.”
Question: What changed your mind?
Bettany: As slowly as – it wasn’t that I suddenly realized. I slowly realized, actually. And again, I slowly realized that I was enjoying it again. And I looked at the choices I had been making, and they were different. I went and made a friend’s film in England for no money, just to sort of help him get some financing for his movie. And then I made – you know, I’d already been brought on to do Darwin. And I sort of suddenly realized, ” Oh, I’m enjoying it. I’m receiving something other than money, from the job.” So. I don’t think there was any one thing that made me start to get tired of it. And it certainly wasn’t one thing that made me re-find my enjoyment of acting.
Question: Will you do anything else, besides acting in terms of the arts. Do you have any desire to write, direct?
Bettany: I might direct one day. I might direct. That isn’t to say that I’ve got plans to direct, but it is something that I’ve kind of gone, ” Well, maybe I can do that.” Because as I get to know more about film, it begins to seem more possible.
Question: Will you direct Jennifer?
Bettany: I wouldn’t dream of directing Jennifer. She’s far too – she would direct herself. She’s far too clever.
Question: Do you miss the UK? Or, do you go back? How often do you go back?
Bettany: Well, I’ve just been back there for three months, and the weather’s fucking miserable. So, there are absolutely things – I think living away from home focuses, actually, on the things that you really needed. You know, you slowly realize, ” Oh, I didn’t actually need that. Or that person that I thought was so sort of integral to me, actually isn’t.” And you’re left with this sort of group of people and things that remain important to you. And I think it’s been fantastic for me, actually, living away from home. It’s been made very clear who is integral in my life. And I do miss it. But it took me four or five years to get comfortable with living here. And I missed New York whilst I was in London, for the first time, this trip. When I was making a movie. That was the first time. Because usually I’d go home, and I’d be like, ” Oh, thank God. It’s a relief, I’m home.” And this time it still felt like home. But I also was like, ” Oh, I can’t wait to get to New York.”