We earn a commission for products purchased through some links in this article.
In the BBC’s A Very British Scandal, the star of WandaVision finds a charismatic villain to pick apart. He talks to Esquire about the twists and turns of his 30-plus-year career, spilling spoilers to his kids, and the moment he thought Marvel was firing him
I hear him before I see him, Paul Bettany’s disembodied voice filling the room before his face appears on my screen. It feels like an appropriate entrance, given that this is the voice — commanding and yet supremely relaxed — familiar to millions as J.A.R.V.I.S., Iron Man’s A.I. butler in the Marvel films.“Sometimes people recognise my voice before they recognise me,” he says, describing how strangers will only turn around to realise who he is after he opens his mouth. “Whereas I’ve been standing there for half an hour and nobody’s given a shit.”
Sporting his signature oversized glasses, Bettany is speaking to me from the office of his Brooklyn home, having just returned from Vermont with his wife, the actress Jennifer Connelly, and their three children, where they spent Thanksgiving sledging in the snow. If that heart-warming slice of Americana makes it sound like Bettany, who grew up in Willesden, northwest London, has fully acclimatised to life as an American, fear not: the reassuring regularity with which he swears suggests otherwise. Excellent romantic comedies, for example, are “fucking great”, and the upper echelons of British society, which he infiltrates in his new BBC series, will “fucking cleave you from the herd” if you reveal what goes on behind closed doors.
The actor, who turned 50 this year, made his name in big-budget Hollywood movies in the early aughts, with memorable roles in A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander, both opposite Russell Crowe, before being inducted to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Seven years into his time with them, Bettany’s character J.A.R.V.I.S. was gifted a synthetic body (as you do) and became Vision. Most recently, in the critically acclaimed Disney+ series WandaVision, the purple and green robot took centre stage in a surreal homage to classic sitcoms.
It was a great to play a malignant narcissistic as a palette cleanser, and like all malignant narcissists he could be really charming
But Bettany got his start on British stage and TV, and on Boxing Day he returns to his roots in the highly anticipated A Very British Scandal, the follow-up to 2020’s excellent A Very English Scandal, which starred Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw as disgraced liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe and his lover Norman Scott respectively, in a too-good-not-to-be-true drama based on the juiciest political scandal of the 1970s. The sequel again tells a story of British class dynamics, social politics and sexual humiliation. The scandal this time is the 1963 divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, an acrimonious clash which dominated the press when the trial went to court. The scandal chiefly concerned a photograph which Campbell discovered of his wife performing oral sex on a mysterious figure. The image of ‘the headless man’ – who, years later, it in fact transpired were two men, one a cabinet minister no less – saw Margaret dubbed the ‘Dirty Duchess’ and her life ruined, while the men escaped unscathed.
Bettany, who plays the 11th Duke of Argyll, Ian Campbell, initially signed on to the series as he was keen to work with Claire Foy – the actress best known for her role as the young Queen Elizabeth in The Crown, and who here plays his wife Margaret, the Duchess of Argyll – but was then drawn into Campbell’s dark psyche.
“I think he felt like a loser,” Bettany says of his character. “He was dreadful to his own children, and I’m sure his parents were dreadful to him. He had an array of women that he just bled dry of cash and threw away.” Bettany plays Campbell as two different men, oscillating unpredictably between moments of charm and episodes of violence, resisting turning him into “moustache-twirling” villain by also showing why Margaret fell for him. “I used to play bad guys with some sort of regularity but I haven’t for a long while,” Bettany says. “It was a great to play a malignant narcissistic as a palette cleanser, and like all malignant narcissists he could be really charming.”
Even when playing the truly repugnant, Bettany leaves room for the audience to see something else in his characters.. See, for example, his transfixing performance as the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in the Netflix series Manhunt; mercurial Star Wars criminal Dryden Vos in Solo: A Star Wars Story; or his endearingly supercilious Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, his first Hollywood experience, with Heath Ledger, in 2001. This proclivity for playing dark figures was challenged when he tried his hand at a romantic comedy, playing a smooth-talking tennis pro opposite Kirsten Dunst in Wimbledon. There was something exhausting about having to have be “unfailingly charming and attractive for 90 minutes”. It was an art, he realised, that Hugh Grant had made look too easy. “You’ve got to be some version of sexy and desirable and that seems like such hard work. I’m just a bit embarrassed,” he laughs. “Not a lot of people know what it’s like to be a surgeon on a ship [his character’s profession in Master and Commander]. So you got a bit of camouflage, but everybody knows what it’s like to fall in love.”
Falling in love changed the course of Bettany’s own life dramatically. After meeting Connelly on the set of A Beautiful Mind, they later married in 2003 and he moved to New York to be with her. “I was an insta-father because my wife already had a kid,” he says. “I just showed up and was suddenly some version of a dad, and then we really quickly had another child. The first thing I did was take two years off acting [in 2006]. I just assumed it would all be there for me when I wanted to go back, and it wasn’t. Then the bottom fell out the financial world and I had a fucking mortgage and two kids. I made a spate of movies that were about putting money in the bank, and [it was] this moment where everything felt so unsafe.”
Then came a lifeline, when his friend, the actor and filmmaker Jon Favreau, called to ask if he might be interested in doing some voicework for Marvel. For a while the gig was turning up for a couple of hours once a year to record the voice for J.A.R.V.I.S., then going home “with a bunch of money, and that was great!” Then, after the release of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, Bettany received an ominous summons to the office of Marvel Studios president, Kevin Feige.
I was so certain I was getting fired that I went in and was very British about it
“I called up Jennifer and I went, ‘It’s over I’m getting the can’. I was so certain I was getting fired that I went in and was very British about it and said, ‘I don’t want anyone to feel bad, I had a lovely run’. They said, ‘Are you quitting?’, and I said, ‘No… are you not firing me?’”
In fact, Marvel wanted to pitch him WandaVision, a sitcom about Vision and his partner, the Scarlet Witch Wanda (played by the always excellent Elizabeth Olsen), concealing their identities while living in suburban bliss, until the truth starts to invade their lives. Bettany’s take on the mild-mannered robot was nominated for an Emmy award. The humanity he was able to imbue the maroon-faced android with was especially impressive given how little of his face he was able to work with, such were the prosthetics Vision required. Still, it wasn’t so much getting the make-up on that proved difficult, he says, but rather scraping the calcified paint off his face once filming had finished. Marvel obligingly built him a tiny sauna, which he sat in for 20 minutes at the end of every day, sweating Vision out with a glass of wine in hand.
Transforming into a prominent figure in the MCU has meant rabid fans and journalists trying to extract spoilers from him, something Bettany deals with by repeatedly issuing the warning “snitches end up in ditches with stitches” while in interviews, or teasing that the finale of WandaVision featured an actor he had always wanted to work with. Fans were a touch disappointed when it turned out Bettany had been referring to himself. In truth, he doesn’t find keeping spoilers to himself especially difficult, partly because of a piece of advice his father, the actor and drama teacher Thane Bettany, once gave to him. “My dad would say, ‘Never let the audience see you in your costume outside of the theatre’”, he says. “I don’t really want to show anybody how we put the rabbit in the hat.”
The only people he trusts the secrets of the MCU with are his children, though given that his 10-year-old daughter Agnes has made it abundantly clear to him that she prefers Star Wars, he is confident she can be trusted to keep quiet. “She likes to torture me with preferring other characters,” Bettany says of his youngest child. “She comes to set and give notes: ‘I think [you] looked a little uncomfortable with take three and take four you’ve relaxed a lot’. She seems to be very focused on keeping my feet on the ground.”
For Christ’s sake I cuddled a Wookie. It reignited my love for this silly job
His appearance in 2018 spin-off Solo: A Star Wars Story, he says, is naturally his daughter’s least favourite of the franchise, but for Bettany, a lifelong fan, the experience of making it was transcendent. It reminded him of how he felt walking onto the first set he had ever been on, back in the early Nineties for the TV series Wycliffe, where helicopters were flying overhead to get the shots which drones now capture. “It took me out of grey depressing London and showed me this other world full of colour where a boy from nowhere could have a purpose. Cut to 40 years later and [I’m] walking onto a set and there’s an R2 unit! For Christ’s sake I cuddled a Wookie. It reignited my love for this silly job.”
Bettany’s children perhaps won’t be tuning in for A Very British Scandal, the tone of which reflects the darkness of the Argyll’s marriage: a cat-and-mouse game in which she eventually gives up the chase and leaves him broken and alone. “She’s a pugilist with him and I think he wants it,” Bettany says. “The power that she has is opting out of it and going ‘I’m done. You win. Now what will fill you?’ It looked like the answer to that was booze and amphetamines, and he didn’t last much longer.”
In a few months Bettany will play a considerably more famous figure in Andy Warhol. In The Collaboration, which begins at London’s Young Vic in February, Bettany will attempt to “get out from underneath the wig, glasses and voice” to breathe new life into a figure so often impersonated. The play, written byDarkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody screen-writer Anthony McCarten, is set in the lead up to a joint 1985 exhibition between artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and Warhol, the former cajoling the latter to return to the discipline of painting, after a hiatus in which he made silkscreen prints and films.
The subject matter is especially portentous for Bettany, who when the play begins will not have been on stage himself for 25 years. “The last time was with Matthew Rhys at the Royal Court in One More Wasted Year,” he recalls. “I remember we were coming down the stairs to go to the pub after the first night, and we heard this audience member outside go, ‘One More Wasted Year? One more wasted hour more like.’”
‘A Very British Scandal’ begins 26 December on BBC One and BBC iPlayer