The role of a gardener is less a profession and more an immersive lifestyle. There are no weekends off, and a gardener doesn’t punch a clock. If not planting, it’s weeding, pruning, dictating, and the continuous focus on new cultivations. Let’s say this then: Paul Bettany, an actor and man, is a gardener—always digging, planting, and watering his career and personal life. Where most actors in the space focus on a singular harvest, resultantly typecasting themselves, Bettany’s career is comparable with a lavish oasis, blooming with fields of experience, peppered with rarities, and yielding a dynamic and surprising return.
In the climactic scene of Avengers: Infinity War, when Thanos, the genocidal warlord from the planet Titan, rips the Mind Stone from superhero Vision’s forehead, the brutal act kills the beet-faced synthezoid—a charming, factual, and romantic Avenger played by Bettany. It is an epic death. Sure, other superheroes have returned from severe and sensational fates, but Vision’s death seemed so complete, so irreversible, it would have been impossible for Kevin Feige, the President of Marvel, to ever find a way for the character to return. Right? So Bettany tore off his skin-tight crimson Vision mask one last time and returned to tend the fields of his career.
With over 40 diverse acting credits to his name, Bettany’s options were plenty. With the superhero seeds reaching their full potential, he could refocus on drama, which saw success with the Oscar-nominated A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Or he could branch off with more romantic comedy roles like Wimbledon. This is why, when he was summoned into a meeting with the creative controllers of the Marvel Universe, he was sure what the agenda would be before the executives had time to speak. Meaning: he would resign gracefully, because Paul Bettany was sure he was getting fired. “I said ‘Look...I don’t want it to be any weird feelings, ‘cause I’ve loved this job and thank you so much,” he recounts from London via a Zoom interview, “It’s been a great run, and I’m okay that it’s over.” Then he pauses and continues, “They went, ‘We want to pitch you a TV show. And they pitched the show, which was bonkers. I said yes, and that was it.”
Years have passed since that meeting, and the ensuing show which Kevin Feige proposed, WandaVision, debuted in January, 2021 on Disney+ and was an instant hit. Bettany shares that after his work overseas in London (where he hails from) is wrapped, he will return to New York City, his beloved home base. For now, he is in a room decorated with cherry red roses in crystal glass vases, a shoulder length mirror, and a fireplace, all with a pristine white trim. His pressed plain white T-shirt and speckless leather bomber jacket, punctuated with aviator style glasses in the breast pocket, compliments the elegant background.
Bettany speaks with drawn-out sentences which keep the listener charmed and captivated by the affectivity of each carefully curated word. His demeanor switches seamlessly from making sardonic, self-aggrandizing jokes, to speaking with a penetrating insightfulness. All the while, Bettany refuses to lean into his ego. When I ask him if his children—he has three of them—at any point had the Vision action figure, he figuratively invites me to his house so I can personally attest to how unenthused they are by their dad being a superhero. On the topic of how he chooses a script for his next film, he devalues the much-lauded myth of the actor’s choice. “Sometimes you’re just doing what’s in front of you, because you gotta pay the mortgage,” he remarks, “Or sometimes you’re doing what’s in front of you, because you think, well, I gotta work.” His focus moves away from the camera as he speaks with a blatant seriousness, before returning back to center and cracking a smile. “And sometimes you’re doing things to stop the pixies talking in your head.”
Paul Bettany first gained notoriety on the big screen with his performance in the 2000 British crime drama Gangster No. 1. The fresh-faced Bettany displayed a wit, conviction, and general aura in the gangster flick, which left casting directors believing they had typecast the next mafioso for the scores of organized crime films sent into production every year. “I kept being offered sort of substandard gangster movies,” Bettany recalls. “I just decided I was going to look for something entirely different, and then I think I kept doing that. I was coming up as an actor at a time where people were way less interested in character actors and more interested in branding yourself. You know, a branding of the actor as this sort of actor who does this sort of stuff. It became a very good way to create a star. I’m not sure my striving to learn how to be versatile was the best idea, but I enjoyed it. And I think, as I get older, that I’ll stay striving for that.”
Bettany’s early refusal to be locked into a box led him to the US, where he was cast in his breakout role, the 2001 comedy A Knight’s Tale. Inspired by the works of Chaucer, this film about knights, lancers, and true love sees Bettany scene-stealing each time he makes an appearance as the Geoffrey Chaucer—a cozening, poetic bard who flashes his pale derriere the first time the audience sees him. Bettany followed up this performance that same year with the role of Charles, a side effect of John Nash’s schizophrenia in the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind—a role which also sprouted a new era in his personal life.
One thing you need to know about Paul Bettany is that an acting career isn’t the only garden he is tending to on a daily basis. Above all, he is a family man, who, along with his wife, actor Jennifer Connelly, has raised three children. No matter the topic, Bettany’s family remains close to his thoughts, as he often references them unprompted. As he has recounted in numerous interviews, he met Connelly on the set of A Beautiful Mind, and the two New Yorkers began dating shortly after he proposed to her. Yes, you read that sentence right. “I would say our marriage has worked because I’m such an extraordinary husband,” Bettany laughs. “I don’t know, I really love her. I think she’s quite fond of me most of the time, and I’m very glad of that. Jennifer and I met, coming at it as two people who wanted a stable union.”
I ask him what a typical Sunday in the Bettany / Connelly household looks like when everyone is together, and he paints a picture of family solidarity, a group which prefers their time spent together, no matter how busy they are, nor the levels of fame and success they have achieved, even if they are divided on whether they should spend the day outside or not. “Everybody wakes up on their own time,” he says. “My kids, of course, don’t walk the dog, so either Jennifer or I have to. Then it begins this battle between me and the kids wanting to play games inside and watch a movie or even a double feature, and Jennifer—who is very outdoorsy—her endless fight to get us out of the house, go on walks or bike rides.”
The two’s eighteen year marriage isn’t the only outlier which makes them a rare case in Hollywood—they have also maintained the anomaly of being working actors, even with both of them soon to be quinquagenarians. To whit: Connelly recently turned to television in 2020 with the series Snowpiercer, and is playing the role of Penny Benjamin in this year’s Tom Cruise-starring action rollercoaster film, Top Gun: Maverick. Bettany took a break from saving the world in order to film a project which deals less with superhero abilities and more with the human experience, seen through the eyes of a gay man born and raised in the South. Written, directed, and co-produced by Alan Ball, the creative mind behind Six Feet Under and True Blood, and co-starring Sophia Lillis, Uncle Frank premiered at Sundance Film Festival before releasing on Amazon Prime in November 2020.
“I was wondering whether I should do it, should it be me,” Bettany says of being cast in the titular role of a gay man. “Have I got the stuff that he needs for it? In the end, we had a really lovely conversation, and he [Alan Ball] was very open about his life, and I was very open about my life, and we sort of fell in love really, and I thought, I really wanted to make this film with him, and I want to help him realize his vision, which he seemed very clear about.”
Bettany arrived on set and transformed into his character by conceptualizing his late father. He tells me that his forebear came out of the closet at the age of 60 and entered into a relationship with a man whom he loved and cared for. “And then that man died,” Bettany recalls with a sobering tone, “and I guess, because of religious dogma, and my father was a Catholic, he went back into the closet as he approached death. It was really hard to watch.” He pauses, then continues, “I said to Alan, ‘Who is this film for?’ Because it’s going to affect the tone of what we do. Alan said, ‘This film is for anybody who has ever struggled to live their life authentically.’ And my father had, and there were lots of consequences for that one, which was that I never really got to know him. I felt like I knew him intimately until I was about 10, and as I became more sophisticated as a creature, I stopped being able to reflect the version of himself that he once reflected, because there were so many secrets, and there were only a few stories, which were curated.”
As Bettany notes, this struggle to live one’s life in a genuine manner creates a domino effect, which results in harm to others along the way. In the film, his character’s own struggle to live authentically in his youth proves disastrous and haunts him when he travels back to the South for a funeral. His demons manifest themselves in a reliance on alcohol and leaves Frank a fragmented and nearly broken character, apoplectic and pushing away those who care about him. “We (society) should endeavor to practice radical acts of sympathy and empathy and forgiveness,” Bettany says, when asked how we, the audience, should view the character of Uncle Frank. “I think you’re a very lucky person if you’ve lived to be 50 years old and never done a single thing that has caused hurt in somebody else.”
Less than two months after Uncle Frank’s release, the first two episodes of WandaVision streamed on Disney+. Being the first Marvel project since 2019, the show set off a new phase of Marvel productions, one marketed toward high-budget episodic series. Along with WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki were set to debut. “We weren’t supposed to go first. It was supposed to be Falcon and the Winter Soldier, so we definitely felt like a kookie cousin,” Bettany recalls. “But we were incredibly united on what it was about, and Kevin [Feige] is always interested in what your ideas are, and where you think your character should go.”
The early trailers of WandaVision hinted at a show less concerned with action and more intrigued by mystery and a general sense of foreboding—and, as the aforementioned Vision was dead at this point in the timeline—the lead up to the first episode sent Marvel’s dedicated fanbase into intense speculation over how the show’s nine episodes would play out. The first two episodes only added fuel to the fire, as they sidestepped familiar Marvel territory and instead were a meta homage to television’s enduring and transformative history. Each week, the internet was flooded with think pieces, essays, and forum discussion filled with theories about how the show would eventually unravel. “I thought it was incredibly fun to watch people do their own investigative work into what it should be,” Bettany says with satisfaction. “The interesting thing is seeing people having a guess of what’s going to happen, and if it doesn’t happen, getting super frustrated that it didn’t happen the way that they wanted it to happen, or if it does happen, going ‘I called it, that’s boring.’”
What knocked audiences off their feet the most was that after 2020, a year where the health of the world was truly in jeopardy, where heroes emerged in the form of healthcare workers, teachers, and those who took preventative measures from spreading Covid-19, Marvel’s return after a year-and-a-half absence featured a superhero show which diverted expectations by not placing the superheroes on a pedestal. WandaVision is not a show about those with extraterrestrial powers saving the world for those who lack those abilities—it’s about grief, trauma, and how to cope after suffering a string of tremendous losses, feelings which have become universal.
The end credits roll for WandaVision and the show gives no real answer as to where Vision goes next. The veil was removed for nine episodes before being promptly replaced. Much like the end of Avengers: Infinity War, we are left wondering if Paul Bettany’s run as Vision has come full circle. “As far as where he goes,” Bettany smirks. “I don’t know yet. I think it would be hard to not see him again. Honestly and truly, the Marvel Studios subReddit page has as much information as I do. I would advise fans to check in there, because I honestly don’t know yet.”
Bettany’s Vision declares as the series nears its end, “Who knows what might be next?” The line of dialogue’s transcendent nature speaks as profoundly to the character of Vision as it does to the actor playing him. Bettany has proven that his roles know no boundaries, whether it be a priest, a great author, a surgeon, a serial killer, or a superhero. And as a man, one born onto this Earth, he is prepared for a new journey in his life: marriage after raising children. While one child is already out in the world, another is set to enroll in college, with the third being a decade away from leaving the nest. “I’m beginning to think, do we stay where we are or do we move?” he poses. “Is there a new chapter for Jennifer and I where we move and do something different? I don’t know. But I’m beginning to have those thoughts. I mean, it’s a decade away, but I’m beginning to think, ‘Wow, I wonder what that’ll be like.’”
Here is Paul Bettany tending to his plants. He is proud, observing the fruits of his labor, but he knows his work is far from finished. An oncoming Planting Moon, which shines bright and full in the month of May, means it’s time to put aside the winter haul and focus on harvesting seeds for the spring. Arugula, sugar snap peas, radish, calendulas, and larkspur all thrive during the upcoming months—it’s the gardener’s choice on what he or she plants. As for the man himself, he also has many choices to make at the dawn of a new season, and who knows what’s next for Paul Bettany? Whatever or whomever it is, I am certain it will bud, flower, and ripen into something which might see him take a step back to admire his creation—but only momentarily—because he will already be sinking his hands back into the soil to plant another seed.
Photographer: Charlie Gray
Stylist: Jay Hines
Styling Assistant: Elena Garcia
Tailor: Joel Ryan
Groomer: Petra Sellge at The Wall Group
Flaunt Film Directed by: Charlie Gray
Director of Photography: Mars Washington
Editor: Jack Satchell