Paul Bettany Interview
Paul Bettany plays the scientist Charles Darwin in Jon Amiel’s Creation, which is based on the book, Annie’s Box, by Randal Keynes about the life of his great, great grandfather. Oscar winning actress Jennifer Connelly plays Darwin’s wife, Emma, and they star alongside Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Described as part ghost story, part psychological thriller and part heart wrenching love story, Creation brings vividly to life history’s most eminent scientist as a deeply conservative man tortured by arguably the most important discovery in history – the theory of evolution – that will deal a body blow to religion and the Christian beliefs that his devout wife clings to for comfort after the death of their beloved 10 year-old daughter, Annie.
Told with flashbacks from the past – when Annie was still alive – to the present where Darwin delays releasing the findings of his meticulous research which will eventually be published as On The Origin of Species. The film is timely, of course, as this year marks the bicentenary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of his most famous work.
Bettany, 38, was born in Harlesden near London and studied at The Drama Centre before starting his career with roles in television, including Killer Net, a Lynda La Plante thriller and Sharpe’s Waterloo.
His portrayal of a ruthless crook in Gangster No. 1 paved the way for a film career that has included A Knight’s Tale, A Beautiful Mind, Dogville, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Da Vinci Code, The Secret Life of Bees and The Young Victoria.
Q: Were you nervous at all about working with Jennifer?
A: More in the build up to it because it was like ‘oh my god, we’ve said yes to this and we’re actually going to work together and what’s that going to be like?’ Because I can’t go home and slag off the leading actress to my wife – because she is the leading actress. (laughs).
Q: So what was it like?
A: I’d probably lie anyway, but I don’t have to, and the truth is it was such an easy working relationship and she is a fantastic actress. I knew that before and I know it even more now. It was great, really great.
Q: But didn’t your home life and working life begin to blur a little?
A: You know when you are shooting those sort of movies and you are doing 15 hours, six-day weeks and you get home and play with your kids and put them to bed. And on Sunday you want to spend your time with them. They are on set the whole time, so they are with us, but any spare time you want to devote to them. And, frankly, you are too tired to bring it home with you. You just get by. But actually if you need to talk about a scene you are doing together the next day you have the person you are doing it with right there, so that’s good. Jennifer is so fastidious that when I thought about the two of us making a film together, I thought ‘we’ll be up all night talking about it!’ (laughs). But the truth of it was that we were in rags – we would go home, put the kids to bed, eat and go to bed.
Q: Did you know much about Darwin before you started on this project?
A: I felt like I knew quite a bit about him actually but then when you are going to play a role like this it gives you the perfect opportunity to be entirely specific about one person in history.
Q: There must be a lot of material out there…
A: Absolutely – there is so much. He himself was so prolific with like a book a year. I now can’t separate to what I knew and what I learnt. I will say that it was an exercise in complete frustration because the amount that he wrote and the amount that has subsequently been written about him, you were always looking at a pillar of unread books.
Q: But what did you take from the research that you could actually use in the performance?
A: You are always looking for the thing that conflicts inside the person and there’s a lot of things that like – the conflict in his marriage, the loss of a child, his wife’s religious beliefs and the fact that he is in the process of killing God.
Q: What conclusions did you draw about him?
A: I think he was a social conservative with a revolutionary idea and that’s painful. He moved at glacial speed anyway and we know that he wasn’t the greatest student but what he could do was look at something fresh and I don’t think he had a snobbery about where the information came from – so whether he was talking to a farmer or whether he was talking to a professor, it didn’t matter it was all about the information. He was rigorous and he moved slowly and I think these ideas came to him. He read a book on economics and he sort of took the formula and saw it in nature everywhere and suddenly couldn’t stop seeing it. And what he discovered, with meticulous research, meant that he couldn’t deny the fact that gradual changes over time happen if you want to survive in your environment.
Q: Survival of the fittest…
A: Survival of the fittest has actually become a bit of a problem whereas it’s more the survival of the most apt and survival of the most keen to adapt, really. And he just couldn’t stop seeing it and I think that made him ill. So that’s even before you get into the whole thing about his wife’s religion and knowing that his discoveries were going to be like a bomb going off. He knew of course that his wife took great solace in her religion after the death of their children. In the film we focus on the loss of one child but in fact they lost three.
Q: You clearly built up quite a picture of the man. Did you like him?
A: Yes. I haven’t found a bad word said about him apart from on the Internet now. People that knew him say he was a decent man and a great father. I once heard it levelled that he sort of would study his children like experiments, but when you think that science was such a huge love in his life then it becomes an act of the utmost love to do that.
Q: How important is it that the film is based on Randal Keynes’ book?
A: Very important. I got the script and I thought it was beautiful – its one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. It’s John Collee who wrote Master and Commander and he’s the bollocks. And Randal Keynes is all things Darwin – he is his great, great grandson, which was important because you have that seal of approval right from the beginning and that’s crucial because you are dealing with that biographical stuff. But moreover it worked as a script and as a story even if you took out the fact that it’s Darwin. This is a story about a marriage in crisis and the loss of a child. It’s compelling enough even if it wasn’t about Darwin.
Q: The film shows that Darwin took a long time to publish The Origin of the Species. Why do you think that was?
A: There were a lot of contributing factors – his wife, his fear of social disorder, of being ostracised by this world that really embraced him. It embraced him prior to this just because of his writings on the Beagle (his findings from a five year voyage on HMS Beagle established his reputation). He came back and he was a bit of a star in that scientific community immediately. So I think there were a lot of factors that stopped him. He writes about it himself. He quite clinically thought ‘why did I come up with this idea? How did this come to me?’ And he put it down to the fact that he was incredibly observant – he has this over developed muscle for observation without putting any pre-determined ideas on it. He would talk to a guy who was a pigeon fancier in the pub exactly the same way he would talk to a professor at Oxford University and everything he heard had the same weight, whether the syntax was right or not, it was all information for him. Also, he was clearly incredibly thorough and that’s also part of why it took 20 years.
Q: The film is very much a love story, too, isn’t it?
A: Oh my God, he loved her. She had ten children and in their marriage there was not a time she wasn’t pregnant, they did not stop having children. She had her last child at 49 and in that era it’s extraordinary. They were so in love with each other. It doesn’t come into our film but they used to play backgammon every day and he kept a running total of who was winning – they just entirely adored each other but had had this incredibly alienating experience at a time when she was being drawn into religion and he was being pulled apart.
Q: You live in the States now. Have you settled to life over there?
A: You know, work wise it doesn’t really matter were we live. I’m in a lucky position that it just doesn’t matter for me anymore. But we are there for the family. Jennifer has lots of relatives there and I love it in New York and we also have a place in the country, which is fantastic. It took me three years to realise ‘**** I’m not going home! I’d better get some American mates..’ And I’ve got some American mates now but I keep in touch with all my mates back in London and they come out and see me, too, which is great. But yes, I love it there. Maybe we’ll come back to Europe at one point in the future but not for a few years while the kids are going through schools.