52 Minutes With Paul Bettany

Photo: Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Paul Bettany, the British actor and lucky husband of Jennifer Connelly who plays Charles Darwin in the new movie Creation, is loudly proclaiming himself an atheist in a very quiet public place. “I wish I did have faith. I think it would make life so much easier. I just have not discovered God in my life. I mean, I don’t see him. It’s not that I’m closed off to the argument, but I do feel the burden of proof.”

Of course, this public place—the Hall of Human Origins in the American Museum of Natural History—does offer a certain protection from unsympathetic, prying ears. Not too long ago, though, Bettany stood in a nearly identical room where such statements (coming from the albino villain of The Da Vinci Code, no less) might have had a more incendiary effect. “I went to the Creation Museum in Kentucky in a fit of openness, thinking, God, I should really see the other side,” he says. “It’s bananas!

“It was so monumentally peculiar and sad, actually. It’s sort of set out to look like a museum of science, but of course there’s no science in it. There’s a lot of statements, particularly about how scientists have difficulty explaining why tortoises are on all sides of the globe.” He points out that scientists do not have any difficulty explaining such things. “But if you believe that Noah landed on Mount Ararat, you have to come up with the explanation which is, after the flood, obviously there were a lot of trees ripped up and they formed into rafts. And I guess once when Noah was looking the other way getting some kangaroos off, these tortoises got onto the raft and they turned up in the Galápagos. I mean, how else did these things travel across oceans, unless massive rafts were made by the trees?” He pauses. “Which does beg the question why more humans didn’t survive.”

Bettany had been a Darwin fan long before he saw the Creation script, which centers on the scientist’s domestic life, including the loss of his daughter Annie and the dilemma he faced living with a devoutly religious wife while publishing a book that bolsters the arguments of atheists.

But despite doing oodles of research, he had to accept that “as a shallow blond actor,” he’d never grasp what went on in Darwin’s mind. He could, however, try to look the part. So he shaved the top of his head and wore wigs depicting Darwin’s varying amount of hair over the twenty years he worked on On the Origin of Species. This proved more difficult to handle than he’d anticipated: “I don’t think of myself as a particularly vain human being. I think if I was going bald, I’d just go, ‘Oh, I’m bald.’ But when you’re not going bald and people go, ‘Oh, are you?’ And you go, ‘No, I’m not! I’m absolutely not bald.’ It was weirdly challenging.” He also had to put on 45 pounds in part because in the film, Darwin believes in a pseudo-scientific wellness treatment called hydrotherapy, which required Bettany to take a basin shower onscreen and look more Darwin’s weight than his own. “I was indeed a fat bastard,” he says. Fortunately, “I don’t really think my wife noticed. She laughed at my hair, but she doesn’t really notice when I’m in shape. It bodes well for the future. She’ll stay with me and I’ll leave her in a heartbeat if she goes bald and fat.”

Connelly also stars in the movie as Darwin’s wife, making this the first time she and Bettany have acted together. (They didn’t share any scenes in A Beautiful Mind, the movie on which they met.) Bettany adored the experience, especially since being married gave them a kind of emotional shorthand that’s often hard to portray on film. Not the gooey-eyed kind, either. “There’s actually a lot of ignoring each other that goes on in real marriages.”

For a period-piece science movie that features graphic nature scenes involving maggots, Connelly’s presence may be its best chance to pull in an audience. “I’ve got no doubts that she is the bigger draw,” says Bettany, “and no ego attached to it. Darwin is a hard sell, even in my country, and that’s where Darwin came from.”

Bettany passes by a glass case filled with carefully labeled butterfly and beetle specimens. “Poor Alfred,” he says with a smile. “I always feel sad about Alfred [Russel] Wallace. He’s sort of forgotten by history. So it’s nice that somebody has his stuff.” Wallace, he explains, was living in the Spice Islands and came to the same conclusions as Darwin. “He sent him a letter with a sort of summary of his theory of the mechanism of natural selection, and Darwin went, ‘Fuck!’ and published finally after twenty years.”

So, why didn’t he make a movie about poor, forgotten Wallace instead? “If I can’t get a movie about Darwin seen … ”

A museum employee comes up and gives Bettany tickets to come back and see an Imax movie with his family. After this, Bettany says, he’s picking up the kids from school, and then he’s got a bunch of apocalyptic scripts to work through. (Bettany’s other new movies include Legion, in which he plays the archangel, and Priest, which has him hunting down vampires.) “A large percentage of scripts I get offered have that sort of theme. And, you know, a boy’s got to work.” Besides, “I am quite shallow and I get bored very quickly, so whilst I’m making a small, heartfelt movie about Charles Darwin, I’m thinking, Fuck, I should really go kill some vampires in the next film. I’d think that perhaps Darwin’s ideas would have been more broadly accepted at the time had he had an AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle. That would’ve been survival of the fittest.”

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52 Minutes With Paul Bettany