British actor Paul Bettany greets you with a hearty "Hello, mate" - lanky, clean-shaven and much more laid-back than the uber-intense archangel Michael, his character in the apocalyptic new horror flick "Legion." And a far cry from the bearded, brooding, decidedly plumper Charles Darwin, a role he plays with zeal (and an extra 45 pounds) in the provocative new drama "Creation." Both movies opened Friday.
And both have Bettany's character pitted against God - or so it seems. In "Legion," he's hellbent on saving the world from a deity who's bored with mankind. In "Creation," he offers a close-up view of the troubled man whose little notion of "evolution" rocked the world.
Bettany's real-life wife, Academy Award-winner Jennifer Connelly, signed on to play Mrs. Darwin, a devout woman who fights for her husband's soul. The two actors live in Manhattan and are raising two sons.
Bettany, seen in "Master & Commander" and "A Beautiful Mind" (both with Russell Crowe), "Wimbledon" (opposite Kirsten Dunst) and "The Da Vinci Code" (as everyone's fave masochistic monk), recently sat down with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio at Manhattan's Regency Hotel.
How much did you know about Darwin before shooting "Creation"?
More than most, because I played Dr. Stephen Maturin in "Master & Commander." He was a naturalist. So I'd used Darwin as a research aid.
So he felt familiar.
Yes. Although the pressures one feels playing a fictional character are nothing compared to the feelings one has for a human being who not only lived but [chuckles] changed the course of the world.
No pressure there.
What surprised you most about Darwin?
What a great father he was. And that he was into hydrotherapy, which . . . you know, has no science to it.
We see those treatments - it's like they unleash fire hoses on him.
He said it made him feel better. I think his symptoms were psychosomatic. Vomiting, restlessness, shaking, inability to sleep - it's all probably stress-related.
Guess he was going through a bit of that, yeah.
I think he didn't really want to change the world. I think he happened upon a revolutionary idea, and it made him ill. Also, his wife got so much solace from religion, and he was potentially taking that away from her.
Do you think the film will be controversial?
I don't know. I'm suspicious of controversy. With "The Da Vinci Code," I heard about controversy but went around the world on the press tour and didn't see a single protest. I think it's exciting for journalists to [speculate] about but . . . nobody threw an egg at me. [He smiles.] Cut to somebody throwing a load of tomatoes at me on this tour, but . . . I don't know. I've never actually seen it happen.
Is there anything you miss about Mother England?
People. [He pauses.] Certain places. Pubs. But I don't really miss Englishness. I love Manhattan. When I'm away, I miss here.
Sounds like you're a convert. Do you do the "summer in the Hamptons" thing?
No, but we get to Long Island every year because we have friends there and that's where we go for our summer beach.
A diner, avenging angels, zombie grannies - "Legion" sounds pretty exciting.
It's fun. I grew up loving horror movies and the director is the same age as me. I think we watched the same movies when we were kids.
My favorite horror movie of all time is . . . "Dawn of the Dead." I love those old movies where you've got zombies outside a shopping mall and people trapped inside, and you get to know them before anything too dreadful happens - then you're invested by the time they get killed. Or eaten. "Legion's" got that sort of feeling.
Did you and Jennifer talk about your work on "Creation" at home?
Absolutely. We'd have our day at work, come home, be with the children, have dinner, put the kids to bed, and then we'd talk till the wee hours about what the next day would be like . . . and then fall asleep. Then get up and do it all over again.
Being husband and wife, on camera and off . . . was tiring. Because usually one of us is on parental duty while the other is working. That's our modus operandi.