Paul Bettany is the third lead in Transcendence and, if you've seen the trailer, it's no spoiler to reveal that he's basically the film's hero. Especially considering its plotline involves Johnny Depp's character (Will Caster) getting uploaded to a computer and kinda taking over the world. Bettany plays Depp's buddy Max, who realizes the dangerous implications of computer-Will and eventually works to bring him down. He does his usual terrific work — he's forceful and intense without ever feeling over-the-top, and surprisingly grounded in a film that has a lot of trouble with groundedness.
This should be no surprise, because for the last 15 years, Bettany has been one of the most consistently brilliant actors working, yet also one of the most ignored; plugging away either as the third lead of mediocre films, a voice actor in Hollywood's biggest franchise, or as the star of weird action B-movies. He's by no means an unhappy man — he earns a consistent living in Hollywood and by all accounts lives a very happy life in Brooklyn with wife Jennifer Connelly and their three kids. (One is hers from a previous relationship). But why did his career never go nova? Here's a look back at how Bettany ended up where he is.
Like many Brits, Bettany started young and on the stage, appearing in a lot of Royal Shakespeare Company productions and then graduating to BBC TV period dramas and tiny mid-'90s UK indie films, like Bent and The Land Girls. His breakout role in that world was the largely unseen and criminally underrated Paul McGuigan 2000 crime drama Gangster No. 1, where Bettany played the younger version of Malcolm McDowell's titular character. Made at the height of the British crime revival (which was sparked by Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), Gangster No. 1 is more artful and cleverly violent than the films it was jumbled in with, and Bettany did great work with the difficult task of imitating McDowell at his most demented.
Gangster No. 1 was enough to get Bettany cast in two crucial supporting roles that made his Hollywood bones. He's indisputably the shining jewel of the super-fun medieval comic romp A Knight's Tale, essaying the role of Geoffrey Chaucer as a kind of bombastic wrestling emcee (if you haven't seen this Heath Ledger vehicle, which puts a bizarre modern twist on… jousting, then rent the damn thing right away). A Knight's Tale came out in the summer of 2001 and was a cult hit from the second it was released, and nothing more, but Bettany followed that with A Beautiful Mind that December, playing the vital role of John Nash's (Russell Crowe) best friend Charles, who turns out to be a figment of his imagination.
Bettany provides a much needed-spark in his scenes to that largely ponderous movie, and although he didn't collect when awards season rolled around (the role is simply not meaty enough), he did meet Connelly on set and the Best Picture winner was a huge commercial success, pulling in $170 million domestically. Bettany's mold, unfortunately, gets formed here. He's so often a second fiddle or energetic supporting character, typecast perhaps because of his accent or slightly unconventional looks. (He's a handsome dude, but undeniably freckly and pale).
Chance at the A-List
Bettany's finest work onscreen remains his role as Stephen Maturin in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA and Critic's Choice Award and won the London Critics' Circle Award. He was probably sixth or seventh on the Oscar Best Supporting Actor list that year behind surprise nominee Djimon Housou for In America. Master and Commander is a 140-minute Napoleonic War epic set almost entirely on a boat with no female characters, and while it did okay at the box office ($93 million domestic) and the Oscars (10 nominations), it's been largely forgotten and pegged as the beginning of star Russell Crowe's downturn.
But Bettany brings such life to Maturin, the ship's doctor and resident naturalist who plays the cello, disdains his comrade's interest in warfare, walks around in a housecoat, and is obsessed with tracking the movements of South American birds. He's a weird pacifist/scientist on a ship full of soldiers, and the film has a lot of fun dissecting his odd status on the boat. Plus, there's a scene where he has to perform surgery on himself that has to count among the 10 best, most tense scenes of that decade.
Master and Commander earned Bettany raves, as did his supporting turn in Lars Von Trier's Dogville. (He's unheralded these days for that work, but he's the glue of that movie, and the key to its horrifying final twist). That was followed by the 2004 rom-com Wimbledon, which matched him with Kirsten Dunst (at the height of her fame) as tennis rivals and aimed squarely for a Richard Curtis vibe. It did well in Britain, but bombed in America with only $17 million in box office. After that, Bettany vanished from screens for a while.
In 2006, Bettany was back as two Hollywood villains: In the Harrison Ford thriller Firewall (Box Office Mojo said this movie made $48 million domestically, but I'm pretty sure not one person saw it) and as the self-flagellating monk assassin in The Da Vinci Code, which made a ton of dough, but no one ever thought twice about again. This cemented Bettany as a role player: the third lead in the underseen fantasy Inkheart; minor roles in The Secret Life of Bees and The Young Victoria; a basically unreleased Charles Darwin biopic called Creation.
Then followed an unusual and rarely remarked-upon pair of B-movies: 2010's Legion, where Bettany is an assault-rifle toting archangel who defends the unborn Messiah, and 2011's Priest, based on a Korean comic, about… future-world vampires, maybe? Both made their budgets back, but didn't make much of an cultural impact. Why Bettany was suddenly getting offered taking these symbol-heavy action-packed flicks is beyond me, but neither is a totally bad watch, and they came alongside his voice work in the Iron Man films and The Avengers as Tony Stark's computer-butler Jarvis.
After a long fallow period, Bettany is making more of an impression again. His work in 2011's Margin Call was a standout performance in an ensemble of standouts, and for all of Transcendence's faults, he's probably the only actor who injects real life into his character, whose narration bookends the film. The biggest news is that Bettany's role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to get a whole lot bigger—he's playing The Vision in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron. In the comics, Vision is an android who yearns for humanity. His cinematic equivalent may be some humanoid version of Jarvis designed by Tony Stark. Whatever the size of the role, Age of Ultron is guaranteed to make colossal amounts of money, and should help Bettany regain his foothold for more serious projects ahead. The question is just whether he can find a lead role worthy of his talents, or supporting roles that are more than glorified cameos. Bettany is definitely one of Hollywood's most talented actors, but the industry is still finding the right fits for him.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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