Paul Bettany is late. Paul Bettany hates being late.
We had a set 3:00 time for a conversation via Zoom, but the man getting ready to lead the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s foray into streaming television lost the message somewhere along the way. “I thought it was 3:3o!” he says, as soon as his video feed comes through, revealing a familiar face behind a pair of Aviator-framed eyeglasses atop a body clad in a slick white button-down. “I’m so sorry about that. Please forgive me.”
Forgiveness granted. But even after the engaging, thorough conversation that followed, it was clear that Bettany was still bothered that he missed our 3:00 call time by this much. “And again, I apologize for being late—I’m totally embarrassed,” he repeats, cracking a smile. “I hate being late—I’m English! I’m never late.”
A penchant for punctuality might be something one would assume he shares with his superhero alter ego, Vision, an android created in Avengers: Age of Ultron when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) crossed his artificial intelligence system, J.A.R.V.I.S. with a synthetic, superpowered body and an all-powerful infinity stone. Vision is initially a cold machine who learns to be more and more human over the course of his film appearances—in Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War—and now WandaVision, which comes following not one but two death scenes for Vision in Infinity War. Viewers are probably a bit eager to see how the powers that be at Marvel worked their way around that one.
But a rare flirtation with lateness is truly just a bump in the road for Mr. Bettany, whose foray into television with Disney+’s new limited series WandaVision will be monumental; not only will the series be Marvel Studios’ first, but due to COVID-19-related delays, it’ll be the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in more than 18 months—the longest layover since the MCU began with the release of Iron Man in 2008.
Bettany has kept busy throughout quarantine, mostly working on WandaVision. Marvel’s “tightly-run ship” had him working on the series throughout 2020, wrapping up just before Thanksgiving. Calling from his Brooklyn home, though, Bettany insists that 2020 kept him fully occupied; he’s always writing, he likes playing guitar, and most recently his oldest of three children with his wife, actress Jennifer Connelly, has been applying for colleges.
“I haven’t felt like I needed to struggle to keep busy—too busy,” he says.
And now, early in 2021, that’s all about to come to a head. WandaVision isn’t a straight-up action fest, but rather a genre-bending thriller that from episode-to-episode follows the formula and style of sitcoms you might’ve seen on Nick at Nite or primetime network television. In one episode, Vision and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves in a world similar to The Dick Van Dyke Show. Another episode is Family Ties. Another is Modern Family. And as they travel through the decades, the pair start to figure out that maybe something might not be quite right.
In addition to being a much-needed nearly-a-year-into-a-pandemic boost and a self-contained thrill ride, WandaVision also has the potential to set up years of MCU movies on the horizon. Bettany isn’t feeling the pressure.
“I think it’s going to make fans really look at the MCU in a different way,” he says.
I believe that you are currently the longest tenured Avenger.
Well, Mr. Downey and Ms. Paltrow are technically retired, and I know someone could say Jon Favreau or Samuel L. Jackson, but they aren’t in the sky fighting bad guys. Do you see yourself with that distinction?
That’s really interesting. I mean, I guess you’d have to take it from when I became an Avenger, which would’ve been Age of Ultron. I don’t know that you can think of J.A.R.V.I.S. in that way. But boy, I was in there from the jump! Wow, it’s been an amazing ride, and holy shit, I’ve loved every single minute of it. This show really feels like a cultivation of all of those times.
When you were first doing voice work on that original Iron Man, did you ever picture becoming A) the guy in the suit with the cape in the first place, or B) to be the lead in what might basically be your own movie?
I did not expect that at all. I didn’t expect anything. I know I made Kevin [Feige] and Jon [Favreau] and Joss Whedon laugh, and we all had a good time while I was having the voice work. I guess it’s a lesson in being well-mannered, because I guess when they had a job vacancy, they went “Hey, how about that Paul fellow?” And that was really it. And cut to doing this TV show—and it is a TV show.
I mean, I think you can make the argument that the whole MCU has been a sort of experiment in what we think of as television, in terms of it being episodic formula, with spin-offs, and then it all interweaves. It’s not something that’s usually done in film. So, it doesn’t feel that different, but it is definitely episodic. It, of course, has an overarching story, and it is very much embedded in the MCU. But I think it’s going to make fans really look at the MCU in a different way.
One of the reasons I’m most excited about WandaVision is the whole genre-bending aspect. What research did you do into old sitcoms or whatever shows are being lampooned?
The first episode is definitely an homage to The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I watched every single Dick Van Dyke Show, I think. I was so nervous, and so I watched every one of those things. They’re extraordinary. The talent that they had. Their ability—the song and dance man and girls. They can do jokes, and pratfalls. The amount of skill involved is really something. So, yeah there was a lot of that.
I knew a lot of those shows already—Bewitched, and so forth, and Brady Bunch, and Family Ties. It’s really, when we started getting into the ‘90s, and Malcolm in the Middle, and Modern Family stuff, I’m less familiar with.
What was your favorite sitcom world to jump into for an episode?
That’s really hard because there are things that I really loved about all of it. I loved all the Modern Family camerawork that we had access to work with. And I loved the ‘70s, just because the sets and the costumes were just amazing. And wigs.
But really, I think the first one—doing the first one in front of a live studio audience was just crazy, and gave us such a shot in the arm, because it was finished in two days. Because it’s like, well, there’s one [episode] done. You felt this real energy moving forward.
“I grew up with Star Wars. And I have learned to love Marvel.”
You’ve been this character so many times before—three movies as Vision and then several others as J.A.R.V.I.S. before that—but did it feel funny to be in the same make-up and costume, but doing a show in the style of a ‘60s sitcom?
Yes. You are, of course, aware where it’s going. How the show is going to evolve into a full MCU action show. So, yes, if it were only sitcoms, I would’ve been like, oh my god. What are we doing? But you know that it’s moving toward this other thing, and like I say—once you’ve done one of those shows live and in front of an audience, you feel kind of fearless for a little while after that.
Did you do any sort of special fitness preparation to play Vision this time around?
I had my trainer with me, which was great. Even during COVID, when we went back to shoot, I had my trainer with me, and we were doing garage workouts.
The thing I found really tough was…there’s a whole suit you have to wear, but the game’s up if you… [laughs] There’s nothing on your stomach, right? So the game’s up if they can see that there’s a portly cheese and beer belly. And I don’t know about you, but when we all went into lockdown, all I wanted to do was eat cheese and drink beer. And yet I was always thinking I was about to go back to work. Because we were all told “Well, this is going to be a month, a month and a half, maybe two months,” and then it was three months. And the whole time, having to maintain the level of fitness and preparedness. It did happen, that when they called us back to work, we had less than two weeks notice. So that would’ve been a bummer if I’d put on 20 pounds.
Keeping yourself motivated during all of that was tough, but I was lucky enough to have a trainer who, during the quarantine, we could Zoom and I could go out on the deck and he could take me through a workout.
There was not only one but two Vision death scenes in Infinity War. When you were done with those, did you think there would be any chance of returning?
At that time, no. I think there’s always..he is an android, after all. There’s always ways to revive an android. But at that time, no.
I mean, the beginning of this was I got a phone call from Kevin Feige, who said “Come down to the office. Me and Louis D’Esposito want to talk to you.” And I was like “OK. They’re going to do the decent thing, and let me down gently, but it’s done.” I walked in there trying to make it easy on them, and I was like, “Guys, It’s been such a great run, thank you so much for everything.” And they were like “What are you doing? No—we want to pitch you a TV show.” And I was like What! And, yeah. It was amazing.
You’re one of the few actors who has a big role in both Star Wars and Marvel movies. What does it mean for you to be part of both of these worlds?
When Ron [Howard] and I had spoken about me being in Solo, I called up Kevin and I said “Is this OK? I want to just know that you feel OK with it before I chase this.” And he was like “Are you kidding? I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I’ll do anything to make it work. What can I do?” And he was amazing.
I grew up with Star Wars. And I have learned to love Marvel. But when I was 7 years old, living in a gray London, and I walked into the cinema and saw Star Wars for the first time, and this little boy from nowhere becomes the most important thing in that movie? I was just…it was so transformative for me.
So, I remember landing, and getting straight into make-up and going on stage for a camera test, and I walked onto the stage, and there was an R2 unit with a tray of champagne flutes on its head. The chills…I just had chills. So that was a very special moment.
I feel really privileged to have been a part of both of those franchises.
Marvel movies can fit great actors in anywhere. But having Kathryn Hahn—I’m just a huge fan of hers, and from what I’ve seen of the show, it seems like she’s in a perfect role for her talents.
She’s amazing. I knew that we were going to be buddies the moment she came to rehearsals. She just is funny in her bones, that woman. And she made me howl with laughter. You would love her. And shooting that first episode, where we’re all running around backstage, bumping into each other at the prop table, picking up our props or whatever. It was so much fun.
I know you don’t believe in chemistry between actors, but it’s clear that you and Elizabeth Olsen get along really well. Do you keep in touch with any of the other MCU guys? Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, so on.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Lots of them, actually. You know, you’ve been through this big thing together for a long time. I mean, people have gotten married, and people have gotten divorced. And people have gotten married, and then divorced. You know what I mean? Movies take a long time, so consequently you spend a lot of time together. They become your friends.
Obviously you’ve played J.A.R.V.I.S., and you’ve played Vision. If you, as Paul, could play any other character in the Marvel universe, who would you choose?
Wow. That’s a really great question. Wow, that’s a really great question. I mean, I love— [takes a long time to think] I love Vision. I would also, love—just because he’s so delicious—to be Loki. I think that would be amazing.
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