When Paul Bettany met me on the Disney lot in Los Angeles, he was holding a lit cigarette, but protested: "I don't smoke." He clarified: "I mean, I genuinely don't smoke unless I'm in Los Angeles, because here, it's an act of defiance." That cigarette is a good example of the complicated, subversive way that Bettany lives his life after 43 years on the planet, but he had to drop every bit of that front for Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he plays the powerful (and purple) robot Vision as an enlightened, erudite newborn. Vision comes into the action as the Avengers battle the malevolent Ultron (James Spader), who seeks to wipe out all of humanity and replace the planet with synthetic underlings, but fans who are familiar with these movies will also recognize Bettany as the voice of Iron Man's computerized butler J.A.R.V.I.S.; how that character transforms into Vision provides one of the movie's biggest twists. Cigarette stubbed out, Bettany told me how he conceptualized the Vision, and endured all that freakin' makeup.
I hope you'll take this in the manner with which it's intended, Paul, but I was surprised to find myself sexually attracted to the Vision.
Yes! [Laughs.] I am so pleased to hear that.
Like, Thor, who?
This is great to hear. People who are really into purple are gonna dig me.
And I don't usually go for purple guys, which I promise isn't a racist thing.
No, it's okay. I'm surprised by how well I wore aubergine.
Were there some near-misses? I would imagine they tried every shade and color on you before they got it right.
Actually, it was about a six-month process of flying back and forth, doing makeup tests. It's some very complicated makeup and a complicated suit, and while they did an extraordinary job, it doesn't stop being wildly uncomfortable to be in. To have all of that glued to your face is unpleasant … but only as unpleasant as being paid a lot of money to sit there being uncomfortable.
It must be sort of a balancing act, because Vision is meant to look exotic compared to the other Avengers …
… which is hard, when they're such exotic people!
… and yet, were there versions of Vision's look that pushed things too far?
There were versions of the makeup where the whole thing was prosthetic, and it stuck to my entire body and my entire face. It was decided that we didn't get enough of my expression on camera that way, so we ended up having the prosthetics stop here, at my cheeks, so you could see the muscles move. But then there were also tracking dots, so they could carry on the circuitry of the prosthetic into my face.
As the floaty Vision, you may have more scenes in this movie where you're flying or hovering than you do simply standing.
Yes, which is strange. The whole process of making the film is this weird mixture of crazy technical stuff on wires, and then moments where you're literally standing on the balls of your feet pretending to float. [Laughs.] Which is the most basic in-camera trick imaginable! I'm literally standing on my tiptoes as they're filming, and hoping it will look awesome.
In the comics, Vision ends up romantically involved with Scarlet Witch, Elizabeth Olsen's character. I figured that might come into play in some future movie, but I was surprised to find that in Age of Ultron ...
There's a little nod to it!
There is a little nod to it! She seems very intrigued by him at first.
Well, what girl wouldn't be? He can change his density! I haven't talked about it with [Elizabeth] yet, but it's certainly out there in the ether. Although I genuinely don't know which way the Marvel guys are gonna take it.
Do they give you a good sense ahead of time of when they'll need you for more movies?
Oh, yeah. Yes, you know dates, to a certain extent, but you don't know what your contribution will be or what's going to happen in the story until much later on in the process.
I'm excited for Vision to keep popping up in future movies because I'm so curious what he does now that he exists all of a sudden. Does he move to Brooklyn? Does he go work at the co-op?
I know! What I really liked about playing the character is that I'll never, ever again get to play somebody being born onscreen. He's this omnipotent, super-powerful creature, and yet he's incredibly naïve, learning everything as it happens in real time, with no preconceptions about what a normal moral compass should look like. Ultron goes one way, and he goes a very different way, but there's a danger to that as well. His allegiance is not to a team, but to life, and he will always do what he thinks is the right thing to do. That's gonna be interesting.
The eventual conversation he has with his maker, Ultron, is something I found almost touching.
Oh, I loved that scene I had with James, who's a fantastic actor. You know, we're both on set looking pretty odd. I'm purple. He's wearing a fractal suit and a hat rig with cameras that come off of it like an insect, built with headlights that film his face for expression. And then Joss says, "Action," and all of that falls away. You're just left with somebody's eyes, and the fact that James is a really honest, truthful actor. It was a fun scene to play.
Did they wrap you in shrouds on your way to set, so no one could snap a picture?
Yes, they did. There were paparazzi everywhere. I basically had a bag over my head when I wasn't shooting.
Was it flattering to feel like Marvel's most secretive asset for so long?
No, it was hot. [Laughs.]