The British actor talks Broken Lines and reveals how he copes with homesickness.
Paul Bettany must be the kind of co-star most actors dread. Not bolshy or flamboyant in a quest to get noticed, just a bona-fide scene-stealer. He’s done it to Russell Crowe. Twice. Now in the low-budget Brit drama Broken Lines Bettany gives another standout performance, this time playing an ex-boxer trying to deal with the after effects of a stroke with stunning authenticity. Bettany sat down with LWLies recently to talk about the role that brought him back to his hometown London and the challenges of getting films out there these days.
LWLies: How did you first get involved in the film?
Bettany: I got sent a script by my friend who said, ‘Would you do us a favour and read it, and if you like it there’s a part in it for you.’ And I read it and very quickly realised that it was him doing me a favour and that he’d thrown this great part my way. So I said absolutely, I’d do it. So it was a very simple process.
Were you always in mind for the part?
It was a very long process writing the script and I think it went through many different stages, so I don’t think he wrote it with me in mind. I think they came to a point where they felt they had finished this script and he sent me it with this rather lovely offer. I was so gobsmacked by how great I was, the pair of them had been beavering away for a couple of years on this thing and then suddenly it’s there and it’s beautiful.
What attracted you to the part of Chester? He’s a pretty raw, intense character.
Well, I mean… that, really. It’s nice to do things occasionally that feel they’re about stuff. They seem to be few and far between nowadays. I think that there’s a dreadful sense of shame in Chester and I found that really moving. There was something that I could comprehend in that.
And what kind of research did you do?
I did a fair amount. I did a lot of reading of different firsthand accounts from stroke survivors. I live in New York and I didn’t want to talk to stroke survivors there because there is a real stoic national characteristic that British people have, a reticence. So what I did was I got the filmmakers to interview British stroke survivors on film, hours and hours of footage of these really frank, moving interviews. I watched them, and their responses to the predicament in which they found themselves were really varied, as varied as human beings are.
But, and I speak for myself here, I thought there were some unifying things that all of these people felt which were overwhelming frustration and anger at their body; a fury at having to re-learn simple things; a terrible sense of injustice; and a shame surrounding feelings of dependency. I thought in somebody like Chester that would be so compounded because he’s lived an incredibly physical life, an almost exclusively physical life, and now he is left with an almost exclusively cerebral life and his mind is not a place where he feels comfortable.
And were the videos a visual tool to capture some of the physical traits of stroke survivors too?
Yes, the people that were gracious enough to be interviewed for this, which I think was incredibly brave, did so with the knowledge that it was never going to be aired in a public way. They were impossibly open and honest about their predicament and would move and walk and speak very clearly about the things that they were feeling at different stages of their progress.
So you brought these things to the role…
I tried to bring those things to the role, it’s for other people to say whether it worked or not. But I really tried to.
We wanted to ask about the writers actually playing the leads too and how that worked on set with developing your role...
I don’t remember any issues at all. I remember them being incredibly respectful of the way in which I worked, but I don’t think that relationship was really tested in that way because I wasn’t unhappy with anything they’d written. I could see a situation where working with actors who were the writers of the piece could be really fucking tricky if the piece was badly written, but this wasn’t the case.
Was there any kind of improvisation that went into it or was it mostly out of the script?
No, it was really solidly scripted.
How did you find working in London, given that you now live in the States? How do you view London when you come back?
I miss it. I really miss it. And I am noticing, actually, because it’s coming on for ten years since I went away, I’m noticing now funnily enough that I feel really odd driving through the streets on my way back from the airport yesterday. I got out early and walked down Upper Street, which I’ve known all my life, and I felt like a stranger. I thought what is it that’s changed? Obviously Islington has changed hugely, but I think it wasn’t Islington that changed as much as me.
It was a weird feeling because obviously I’m not a stranger here but I felt apart from it for the first time. It was really unsettling because I think of myself as a Londoner. I do, I miss it hugely. We live in New York, which I love too, for family reasons – my oldest boy’s biological father lives in New York so in order to facilitate that relationship we live in New York. So it was the most peculiar feeling for London not to feel like home and that’s not to say that I don’t miss it.
The film was made in 2008..
So how is it having that gap now that you’re back in London to publicise it?
Did you watch the film again?
No, I didn’t. I have watched this one. There’s a bunch of film’s that I’ve made that I’ve never seen but I did watch this one and it is peculiar coming back to it. My mind isn’t as clear as it would be had we done the press earlier, it isn’t as fresh in my mind.
And you’ve had so many different projects in between too.
Well yeah, and just life. I have a new child! So much stuff between then and now, it’s hard to be fresh and interesting for you, I apologise.
Do you think it’s generally just tougher though for a British indie film to get out there?
All independent films are tough to get out there, unless you have an independent producer who is Harvey Weinstein, who is clearly a force of nature. Or Scott Rudin, you know. I think that good films in general don’t get released, they escape! Really, that’s how it seems to me. The work involved even to make a bad film is incredible. The effort, the man hours, nobody would be foolish enough to think ‘I’m going to make this movie about two lovers in North London and I’m gonna make a bunch of dough!’ There’s a real love to it.
Broken Lines is interesting because the people with the most star power are the supporting actors rather than top billing leads.
I have always and I think always will distance myself from all of those conversations! Just never get into them. I’m rung up by agents panicked about the billing, saying ‘what do you feel?’ I say ‘I simply… don’t… care what the billing is.’ If I see a movie with Daniel Day-Lewis I’d be hard pressed to tell you where his name was on the cast list cos I’m too fucking busy going [makes a gawping awe face]. Who remembers? So it holds no interest for me.
Who is Broken Lines made for? Who is the audience?
That’s’ a good question and… I’ve got the blandest of answers unfortunately. I think it’s for adults really, for sensitive adults. Studios are hardly making films for adults anymore. TV is making TV for adults, HBO is extraordinary. But the movie business seems to have been shrunk and shrunk and they’ll spend four hundred million dollars to make six hundred million dollars, so they’re not making those smaller projects. They maybe making those vanity pieces for awards consideration each year but when The Godfather came out it was a summer blockbuster. That was then!
I think about it, even a few years ago I was involved with a film directed by Ron Howard about a mathematician with schizophrenia. I just find it hard to imagine that we could make that movie now for that amount of money and that it would make a hundred million or whatever it made. I think something happened with the world of making films, it shrunk and I can’t picture being able to do that. I can’t imagine getting a phone call saying Peter Weir wants to talk to you because he’s making a film about two guys on a boat who play the violin and the cello at a hundred million dollars. I just can’t see it happening again right now, I mean I fucking hope it does.
It’s like the grown up stuff only slips through on a very low-budget.
Yes, I think that and television, which is at an all time high. These series are just extraordinary, the stuff that they’re able to talk about is really amazing.
So what’s the main thing you’ve learnt that you take away either from the making of this film or from playing Chester?
There are some movies that can actually be edifying for me, whether it’s edifying for an audience... Acting at it’s worst is just vain and awful and at its best can make you a less judgmental human being. It’s not that I will ever actually succeed in putting myself in a position of somebody who’s gone through surviving a stroke, but it has to be good for me to concentrate really hard and try to imaginatively put myself in that position. Not that I succeed, you can’t, but I find that’s the good bit for me.
The other thing is that this movie coupled with another movie that I made recently called Margin Call, which has Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, Penn Badgley… we shot in 17 days and it was an amazing experience. That film and this film really woke me up and reminded me of all the reasons that I initially wanted to be an actor and I owe those films a huge debt of gratitude. They reminded me that there’s something other than a financial reward to be gained from acting. He said, rather prophetically…
Broken Lines is in cinemas from September 30 courtesy of Axiom Films.