Paul Bettany: I’m atoning for my sins! No, it’s simply the way the cards have fallen out.
EI: How great a challenge was it getting your head around such a big science legend like Darwin?
PB: I’m not sure I managed it! But yes, it really was. I really wanted to, and then it became a reality, and suddenly you’re playing, arguably, somebody who had the greatest idea that any being has had.
EI: Why are you so obsessed with Darwin?
PB: Because I am a Darwinist. I like Darwin. I’m a fan of Darwin’s. I started getting into Darwin when I made Peter Weir’s movie, Master and Commander. I like the man and thought it was an interesting life. To me it’s peculiar that his ideas are not as broadly accepted as one would imagine…after a couple of hundred years!
EI: Do you have those creationists in the UK like we have here, dissing Darwin all the time?
PB: Oh yeah, they’re all over the world, and I think there’s quite a tendency for smugness there. They say that 40% of the country doesn’t believe in evolution. Well, then that’s a lot of people who do — 60% who are rational and reasonable out of a whole country, and I’ve never met one of those 40%, unless I went to actively seek them out. Like at the Creation Museum in Kentucky — I went there with a camera for a Vanity Fair article that just came out. I met some creationists there, but other than that, I’ve never met anybody who believes that tortoises are in different parts of the world because they got on rafts after the flood.
EI: Well, beware — especially if you go on The View. One of the hosts is a creationist.
PB: I’d love to discuss it. Because there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark as well, right? Well obviously they put them on as babies or else they would take up too much space. So that clears up that problem…
EI: And what about those tortoises?
PB: It says, in the Creation Museum, that tortoises existing all around the world is a problem for scientists to explain. Well no, it’s not a problem for scientists to explain. It’s a problem for creationists to explain. But they answer it brilliantly, actually, which is that after the great flood, fallen trees formed themselves into rafts, and while Noah was letting off the dinosaurs — because that’s a big job — the tortoises snuck on and got off at the Galapagos Islands. So you need look no further to explain that phenomenon. By the way, I didn’t make that up. That is what is written at the Creation Museum. You can tell that I find it shocking. But the thing that I find really shocking is the inability to sort of co-exist. The way they talk about Darwin is angry — really furious, and you think surely one of the main tenants of Christianity is forgiveness. So forgive the man! He was just doing his best. What I love about this movie is, on one level, it’s also about tolerance. He and his wife had wildly different beliefs, but they looked after and supported each other all their lives, and they found that they could deal with having wildly different beliefs, and that’s beautiful — the example of their relationship. Then one wonders why we all find it so hard to have differing ideas and not be friends. It’s crazy!
EI: But there seems to be no middle ground at both extremes, right?
PB: Oh, I think that’s true too. There are lots of Darwinists who believe in God. It doesn’t mean that you need to be a card-carrying atheist. And I think people’s definition of God differs.
EI: We’re familiar enough with the impact of Darwin on history, but what about the impact of Darwin’s historical moment on him and what made him who he was then?
PB: He was very influenced by the economic theories of Malthus. Should Darwin have been as surprised as he was? I don’t know. Ideas do seem to have a time when they’re investigated, but he could really put aside his own preconceptions and was in no way a snob. He was genuinely able to listen to the farmer in the same way he would listen to a professor. So it was all just knowledge that was there to be checked, and with no sort of value judgment on anyone’s position in life. So I think that was what was extraordinary about Darwin and made him the man of his time, but coupled with a fierce social conservatism. He didn’t publish for years, and that’s why I think it was really uncomfortable for him to have this revolutionary idea.
EI: Any concerns about having your own wife [Jennifer Connelly] as your leading lady in this movie?
PB: Well, you’re always looking for good people to work with, and she’s quite good at what she does. I’ve wanted to work with her for a long time, but we hadn’t found anything that we could do together. Any sort of fears, were overridden by the desires we had to work with each other.
EI: Was it very organic, how she got involved?
PB: Yeah, entirely. I said to her, “This seems to be a part that our actual relationship can inform and not hinder.”
EI: How about your scenes with that Orang Utan?
PB: That was one of the highlights of my career. The process of doing it was just amazing because you have all these plans and you talk to the trainer, and none of that stuff happens. He played the harmonica, and he took a pen and started drawing, so none of it was planned. I was writing notes, and he came up and took the pen and my pad out of my hand and started drawing. Then I started playing the harmonica to see if we could get him to dance, and he took the harmonica from me and started playing. That was amazing. I defy anybody to sit down with that orangutan, or any orangutan, and deny a connection between you. It is undeniable.
EI: Getting back to bonding of the human kind, what’s the big difference between acting opposite your wife in a movie as opposed to any other actress?
PB: I don’t know that there is. There is a difference in the level of comfort I have, and I think, for this film, it was a really good thing in that there’s a temptation to telegraph a relationship between a married couple when they’re not married. You sort of look at them like somehow you are in love with them, whereas in a real marriage, and a marriage of some years, there’s a lot of ignoring that goes on, and you hardly ever see that going on. I’m sure that when people talk about chemistry on screen, they’re actually talking about someone overacting and looking at each other too much, because people don’t do that. They don’t. Actually, that’s an interesting thing, because the whole chemistry thing is such a… I’ve seen some journalists write down that I had such chemistry in that scene with the actress, and the actress had actually gone home and I was talking to nothing but the camera. So it’s just nonsense. But I do think that, in marriages, people are easy with themselves physically, so they’re not looking at each other the whole time and they are ignoring, and they are dismissive, and they do take each other for granted. We were absolutely helped, in this movie, by our marriage.
EI: What do you want people to think when they walk out of Creation?
PB: I can’t stress enough my feelings about the film and its message of tolerance. It’s hard to find a bad thing written about Darwin as a person. His children adored him — he was there for them constantly. How many great men were also great parents? It’s hard to find one! And he was. If you feel angry about somebody who had an idea, it’s foolish. At least go watch the movie and see if you still feel angry at him.