Toronto: Paul Bettany on Directing Wife Jennifer Connelly, 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' and Working as a Busker

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Paul Bettany

The actor hits the festival with his gritty drama 'Shelter'

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

He’s donning the green Lycra (probably, he's not actually allowed to say) as the newest Avenger, The Vision, in Age of Ultron and has a starring role alongside Johnny Depp’s heavily tweaked Mortdecai mustache as his thuggish manservant Jock Strapp. But before these two rather cartoonish outings hit theaters, U.K. actor Paul Bettany will be offering Toronto audiences his somewhat less kitsch directorial debut, the gritty New York drama Shelter starring his wife, Jennifer Connelly.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Bettany about how he believes actors should be given more freedom and why all that glitters on the Marvel set probably is actual gold.

Where did the story for Shelter come from?

It began with this couple living outside my apartment in Tribeca. Every morning I’d say hello to them, but they never responded. Then Hurricane Sandy happened and we were evacuated, and I totally forgot about them. When we moved back about five months later, I didn’t see them again and began wondering what their life was like. At the time I was living in a hotel so just started writing.

Did you initially write Shelter for yourself to direct?

I actually began writing it for my wife, for two reasons, one noble and one totally ignoble. Noble in that there aren’t enough great parts for women, and ignoble because I knew that she would get the film financed. Plus she’s really, really good at acting. But yes, I did write it for myself to direct.

You’ve said that Shelter is your love story to the New York films of the 1970s. What do you mean by that?

The '70s seemed to be awash with great performances, and I wondered why that was. My theory is that scripts [today] are developed to death, to the point where there’s no ambiguity. If the actor isn’t good enough the story will still work because everything that needs to be understood will be said in the dialogue. Well, A Woman Under the Influence just doesn’t work without Gena Rowlands showing up and being brilliant. Actors can be many things — self-serving egomaniacal prima donnas — but all of the really good ones are absolutely trustworthy storytellers. And I think leaving them something to do is important because that responsibility might be where that dynamism in American 1970s films came from. I can’t actually prove that, but I thought I’d give it a go.

Directing your other half for your directorial debut could be seen as a dangerous move. Was it?

I can see potential difficulties. But next to the risk of having chosen to spend our lives together, the risk of spending 21 days together and making a film together is actually miniscule in comparison. Jennifer gave me everything she had as an actress, and I did everything to protect her performance.

And if Jennifer decided to direct a film, would you star in it?

God no! Of course I would. But she’s incredibly fastidious. If she brought the same amount of fastidiousness as an actor, it would have to be an eight-month shoot. She’s just so committed. In this she plays a junkie on the street, and I lost her going to needle meetings. She's now a card-carrying member of the New York City Needle Exchange.

Did going behind the camera change your attitude as an actor?

It’s the most tired I’ve ever been in my life! I now have so much respect for directors and will never ask a difficult question after sunset again. I think it’s something actors should do to see, "F—ing hell, that’s really hard!" You’re not just sitting in a chair passing judgment.

Do you have any other stories you want to direct?

I’ve written a comedy — a satire about something I really care about. So I’ll be looking to get that off the ground next. I think that there might be parts for Jennifer in it, and I think there’s a part for me. Although I might fire myself.

Can you see yourself ever giving up acting to focus on directing full-time?

I love doing both things. I don’t want to stop. I loved going back to the freedom of being myopic about one person. Your responsibility is your character, and you can be obsessed with that and it’s a beautiful feeling that has only grown since directing for the first time.

How was it going from your own relatively low-budget set to something like Avengers: Age of Ultron?

It was a blast! I’ve never been on a set as big as that. I remember going in on day one and usually you’re like, "It’s amazing how much like marble that looks." [But in this case] I touched it of course it’s f—ing marble! And then there’s drone cameras and stuff like that. It’s a kid’s dream of what being on a movie set is like.

What’s your Vision costume like?

I’m not allowed to tell you that! Every time anyone asks me I look to the hills and see the light glinting off a telescopic lens and a red dot on my shirt. If I tell you I lose my job and get wrestled to the ground and tasered.

As a Londoner living in New York, are there any aspects about England that you miss?

I love New York and miss London in equal measure. I can’t do football over here as it makes me homesick. I go home and I’m immediately an Arsenal fan, but here you go to some English pub at 7 a.m. and you’re drinking beer. It’s not quite right.

Would you move back?

I do get to be in both places because I work so much in London. With Avengers and Mortdecai, that’s six, seven months of the past year I spent in London. But we talk about coming back and might well do so in the next couple of years. Whether that’s forever I don’t know.

Your parents were both performers. Did this lead you to acting?

I actually initially wanted to be a guitar player. I’m speaking to you now from a room surrounded by hundreds of guitars and amplifiers. It’s like somebody with too much money having a jam session, you know, state-of-the-art amplifiers and PA systems and antique guitars. That what I wanted to do — I just wasn’t good enough so thought I’d better do something else. But I do get to go home with the best-looking groupie every night at the end of a gig.

Is it true you used to be a busker?

Yeah, I was a busker all over London. And I’m glad I’m not one now. It’s a lot of work. Actually, when I said directing had been my most tiring job, I obviously missed the whole begging on the streets part. Being hungry is tiring. I was a penniless busker, and now I’m not a penniless busker, and it’s a statement I think that can be proved that not being a penniless busker is better than being a penniless busker.

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