Interview: Legion’s Archangel Paul Bettany

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Starring in the upcoming apocalyptic thriller

In an slightly unassuming but nonetheless well-appointed trailer sitting square in the middle of the desolate Albuquerque desert under a bleak black sky, ShockTillYouDrop.com and a small group of our colleagues had an audience with an archangel – a wingless, heavily tattooed archangel in the form of actor Paul Bettany, who threw on a comfy robe to discuss his role as the God-defying, human-defending Michael in the upcoming apocalyptic thriller Legion over a spot of tea. And Bettany proved to be one seraphim with a devilish way with words.

ShockTillYouDrop: You’re covered in some very cool tattoos.

Paul Bettany: I’m wearing a coat today in the scene and so you only see them from here, but they actually go all over my body, including my – I don’t want to talk about it. The application of those tattoos is a private matter! They developed the sort of typeset. In actual fact [the language] was developed by a man called John Dee, and you’ll have to check this but he was a Necromancer and he was apparently in touch with angels and they gave him their language. This actually all says stuff, but you’ll have to forgive me because I have about 60 tattoos or more, I think. So I don’t know what each of them say, but they say stuff. This one I know says “If you’re freeze-framing this film, you’re really weird.”

Shock: How do you find the in on a character that’s an angel as an actor?

Bettany: You can’t, is the real answer. Other people would lie to you. I’m not going to. You really can’t because clearly it’s not something that you can experience, but what you can do is approximate a sort of mixture of things. The thing that really appealed to me about Michael that I found on my endless delving into the Worldwide Waste of Time was that he was the first angel in all heaven to bow down before humans. He was Adam and Eve’s protector. That really appealed to me, that during the whole fall and all of that stuff that he really believes in human beings, as I – Paul – do. I believe in human beings. We can see that we all clearly exist. Let’s all fucking believe in them. I really liked that. I liked the idea of a protector who had a sort of single-minded objective. Also my objective with this is to save the human race. That’s also impossible to play, so you have to come up with substitutes. I have two children and a wife who I’m quite fond of and I simply wouldn’t want anything awful to happen to them. So I mix my sort of fascination with a kind of mythology of angels and then my real-life objective to keep my children safe and to keep them as happy as possible – all of those things. I do that with something that’s more accessible, which is the attitude of a warrior. One can only deal with one’s own fantasies about what an angel is, and I began to sort of try and create something that felt a little more concrete than the Archangel Michael. Listen, everyone is going to see me fucking fall from heaven and cut a wing out of my back and they’re going to know you’re an angel. So that bit is sort of dealt with. The rest of it, I think, is weirdly about humanizing the character, if that makes any fucking sense at all. Of course I’m an angel that swears.

Shock: Is there anyone or thing that you can compare Michael to?

Bettany: Well, yes. He’s clearly an archetype in that he’s a hero with a really clear objective and there are lots of those. So you can broadly relate him to a lot of heroes in movies. But he’s a fucking angel. He’s an angel who has decided to take a stand against God, which is quite an impossible feat. I personally have no frame of reference. I’ve had a few angry directors.

Shock: You were the first of the cast to sign onto this film. So you must’ve seen something early on that really appealed to you.

Bettany: Well, I read the script and it really appealed to me. I’ve always had a fascination with zombie movies. I love zombie movies and it felt like a sort of zombie-Western-angel movie and that sounded cool to me. I’ve never done anything like this, which also felt cool. Then I met [director] Scott [Stewart], who had an incredibly clear vision of what he wanted to do and so everything sort of fit. I always wanted to make a genre movie. I really do. I’ve said that a lot. I want to do as many different things as I can and be involved in as many different genres of movies as possible and Scott, yes, he was incredibly clear about what he wanted to do with it. Also you’re getting to work with a first-time director who has vast firsthand knowledge of working in movies, which doesn’t often happen. You get all of that enthusiasm along with somebody who has actually worked in that field because people’s fantasies about directing clearly vary from actually directing. Hence I’m not working until three in the morning or whatever it is.

Shock: Have you studied other kinds of cinematic angels, like in Dogma or Here Comes Mr. Jordan or It’s A Wonderful Life?

Bettany: Yeah. [laughs] It’s a Wonderful Life was very useful for this. I haven’t really. I’ve seen Prophecy, but there are more sort of intellectual angels than in this world that Scott has created. Me going to see a Wim Wenders movie about this is probably a bit inappropriate, but I’m much more warrior, weirdly. They’re going to deal with the wings, special FX. We’ve got great special FX who do all of this stuff and they’re going to sort of deal with that end of it and I’m going to deal with – I want to say “the kid” because I can’t deal with saving “humanity.” I’m quite arrogant, but not that much.

Shock: This film has a lot of action in it. Do you have a lot of action yourself or does Michael have supernatural powers?

Bettany: I forgo all of my supernatural powers when get rid of my wings. I think they’re referred to as the Dogs of Heaven and he also has, I guess, a collar around his neck that comes off as well. So all of that I forgo, and I’m just really, really, really good at fighting – which is just awesome. It’s awesome and it’s hard not to practice something that you’re really good at, I guess. Michael, despite having lost his wings, gotten rid of his wings, he’s really, really good at fighting.

Shock: What’s the favorite action sequence that you’ve filmed so far?

Bettany: Well, we haven’t filmed it yet. We’ve rehearsed it a lot, though! We’ve got a really amazing fight sequence with Gabriel, who is played by Kevin Durand, and I’m having a great time with the fantastic stunt team here who just did The Spirit. I don’t know how insurance-wise they’re doing this, but they’re letting me do all the wire gags. I do all the flips and shit and that’s what I spend my weekend doing and I’m as happy as a pig in shit, which is awesome.

Shock: What challenges did you see in the project that got you excited?

Bettany: It was a chance for me to do action and be all butch and workout a lot and try and sort of bring to it maybe something that perhaps wouldn’t have come from someone who spend all their life in a gymnasium. This is actually really the only thing that I’ve ever sought out in a sort of way where you go, ‘Oh, I’d really like to do that.’ Usually I wait to read something that appeals, but I really wanted to do a zombie movie – and not that this is that, but I guess it’s more like a Western in that sense, strictly speaking. But it has those sort of elements in there and I love those movies. They’re guilty pleasures for me and I adore them.

Shock: What’s your favorite?

Bettany: Night of the Living Dead, because it’s the one that I saw as a kid. It’s a huge thing. I’ve been at the Royal Shakespeare Company, but secretly, if I’m honest, I’ve always been waiting to be in a zombie movie.

Legion opens in theaters on January 22, 2010. To read our set visit report, click here.

Source: Scott Huver