Think of an Englishman living in the United States and romantic images of 5am football kick-offs, ale-drenched theme bars and smuggled bottles of HP sauce spring to mind. However, adoptive New Yorker Paul Bettany — he’s lived there with wife Jennifer Connelly for nearly 10 years — can’t imagine anything worse.
“I crave England but I f*cking hate English pubs in America,” spits the 40-year-old actor, in typically sweary form. “They’re the most depressing places on Earth. It’s like going to India and building a stately home so you can pretend you’re back in Blighty.”
But perhaps such unpredictability should be expected of a man who’s played Chaucer (A Knight’s Tale), Charles Darwin (Creation) and a muscle-bound avenging angel (Legion). His latest surprise is his appearance as a cynical trader in classy investment bank drama Margin Call. It’s a role he’s credited with a recent career rejuvenation, and as such, nothing’s going to ruin his good mood. Apart from the economy. Oh, and Occupy detractors. And, maybe the paparazzi…
Margin Call has wowed critics in the US. When did you first realise it was special?
Well, everybody from the film showed up at Sundance to sell it. I’ve never seen that before, so obviously people felt strongly about it. We turned up, people sat down to watch it and I looked across the row of actors — Kevin Spacey, Zach Quinto, Stanley Tucci and everyone. And I’ve never seen more shocked faces [laughs]. Because nobody could quite believe it had come together so well. I thought it was bright and well-written, which is rare, and it was 17 days of filming so I thought, “This is a good punt.” It’s just proof that you never know. People are always trying to work out the formula for making a movie that is well-regarded, but it’s like looking at f*cking tea leaves.
What was it like working with such a great cast?
Lovely. Kevin [Spacey, who plays the bank’s powerful head of sales] turned up on his first day and did his big speech, which I’m certain is why he agreed to do the film. He went through it once, the director said, “That was great. Do you want to do it again?” And Kevin went, “I don’t think we’ve got time. Should we move on?” And that set the bar high. Plus, there was a great sense of camaraderie on set. But this movie changed me in that it reminded me of all the reasons why I first became an actor. I can’t make movies that I don’t care about any more.
The film deals with the 2008 financial crash. Do you understand the intricacies of economics?
I didn’t understand it, but I spent a lot of time with people who did that job. So I’ve become interested. Ever since I’ve started earning, what money I have has always been in property, and after doing this film my decision was to keep my money in property [laughs]. Ignorance is bliss, frankly. I think the film has humanised these people, and that’s always a good thing. What’s really needed is more regulation, and it’s a systemic problem. To ask individual traders not to be greedy is churlish because that’s their f*cking job. It’s the industry that needs to be regulated.
Do you have any personal extravagances?
I’m all right for coke and hookers now — I’m done with all that [laughs]. My main addiction is guitars. I like antique guitars, and I can’t even begin to tell you how much I’ve spent on them. Though I think my wife bought me my most expensive one, actually.
What do you make of the Occupy movement?
It’s amazing. The criticism that’s levelled at them [in the US] is that they haven’t got a defined set of demands, but it’s so f*cking ludicrous. They don’t have to — they’re protesters. They don’t need a manifesto. You don’t need a PhD in economics to know you’re being f*cked in the arse. You just need to know that it chafes a little bit and that you’re f*cking angry about it. They don’t need to be coherent, they need to be furious, which is exactly what they are.
You’ve worked with Russell Crowe a couple of times. What’s he like away from the fiery reputation?
Sometimes you’ll work with huge stars, and by the end of the morning you realise you’re helping them learn the scene because they haven’t actually read it the night before. However, Russell is the most prepared human being that you’ll ever meet. He’s incredibly fastidious and prepared for work, and I really appreciate that. And also, I’ve been with him when it’s been reported that he was having a fight in a pub.
And that’s not because you were in the pub with him…
[Laughs] Maybe I was just really drunk and can’t remember the brawl he had with me.
Have you consciously avoided the world of fame?
You can make certain choices that make your life easier in that regard. If I’m at a premiere it’s because I’m in the film or my wife’s in it. I’ve never had any interest in that bit of it and I don’t feel like I signed some Faustian pact with the Devil where I have to give up my anonymity because of what I’ve chosen to do. I accept certain things about my job — if someone comes up and says, “I really liked you in so and so,” that’s nice, that’s fine. But seeing paparazzi outside my kids’ school makes me want to kill people. In a life that has lots of good things, that’s the one annoyance.
Are there any films that you wish you hadn’t done?
Oh sh*t, there are loads. But I won’t mention them because these are other people’s dreams. The effort involved in making a film that isn’t any good is still gargantuan. Somebody wrote it and felt strongly about it. Life isn’t just about your work, and if it is, you’re f*cked. Life is also about your family and making choices for those people and choices for yourself about being with them. But then you could also think, “F*ck it, I’d really love to be able to afford to buy my family a house in the country.” So you make a choice and it’s difficult to call them bad choices because they did something good in your life.
Finally, you’ve changed your body shape a couple of times for recent roles. Is that the ultimate badge of honour for actors now?
The only reason I put on weight to play Darwin was because I had been in really good shape before filming. It would have been a different type of film — [adopts husky trailer voice] “In a world where it’s the survival of the fittest…” [laughs] Maybe his theories would have been more readily accepted by creationists if he had an AK-47. So that was the reason for that, but the reason for getting fit was that if somebody is paying you a lot of money to be an action hero, you’ve got to be willing to do a few push-ups. It ain’t the f*cking dialogue you’re getting paid for [laughs].
Margin Call is at cinemas from 13 January