When Paul Bettany started doing press for “WandaVision,” it was a very different experience than his previous Marvel Studios publicity tours. First off, he promoted a limited series that would release one episode a week for nine weeks. Like many television programs, as the series wore on, the cast was asked to do additional interviews to help pump up the viewership. That’s dramatically different from a big studio film where talent mostly promotes the project for a few weeks and then disappears after it opens (unless there’s an awards campaign down the road).
Over the course of weeks of interviews, Bettany found himself getting deluged with questions about what would happen in Marvel Studios’ first Disney+ series and got slightly carried away once. The actor, who plays a new version of the Vision opposite Elizabeth Olsen‘s Scarlet Witch, teased that there was a big cameo toward the end of the series, and he’d be working with an actor he’d always dreamed of working with before. Needless to say, that put Marvel fans in a tizzy.
As the weeks wore on, viewers believed everyone from Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Doctor Strange to characters from 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men” films was the big surprise cameo. In reality, Bettany was making a joke about acting opposite himself. Towards the end of the series, “White Vision,” a character created with the lifeless body of the original deceased Vision, appears in the series and was, obviously, played by Bettany. Some fans were disappointed, but in hindsight, it all worked out in the end, “WandaVision” was the water cooler show of the first quarter of 2021.
Last week, during a conversation centered on Emmy prospects for the series, the now 50-year-old actor reflected on how it all played out.
“I’ve had all sorts of feelings about it,” Bettany admits. “Initially, it was massive regret, which was people started going because I thought it was a really funny joke and was pleased with myself. And then people were like, ‘Is it going to be Patrick Stewart?’ And then I went, “Oh, my God, that’s a good idea. Oh, my God, people are going to be so disappointed when they realize it’s f**king me again.” [Laughs.] But in the end, I spoke to Kevin Feige about it. And he thought it was a really good joke, a really funny joke. And it didn’t backfire too much. For a second there, I was like, ‘Oh, no. What am have I done?’ But yeah. So I had all sorts of feelings regarding that.”
As for when White Vision will reappear in any one of Marvel’s many upcoming films and television series, Bettany insists he has no idea if and when that will happen at all.
“I don’t have a contract. I don’t know that. I don’t know that at all,” Bettany clarifies. “And all that I do know is, as far as this sort of traunch of press goes for an Emmy push, which is for a limited series. So it doesn’t look like that happening again. I mean, I guess it would be difficult to introduce White Vision and not deal with him in some way, but we have not discussed that.”
Bettany’s return is clearly in the hands of Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.
During the course of our interview, Bettany discussed how the project came his way, his nervousness overshooting the first episode in front of a live audience, his friendship with Feige, bringing the Vision to tears in the final episode, and his upcoming turn on the second season of the anthology series “A Very British Scandal.”
The Playlist: I know that you’ve said in interviews before that Marvel had told you they had an idea for a Wanda and Vision series, but when did you find out what the series was going to be, in terms of, “Oh, we’re doing this, and it’s not like anything anyone has even ever tried before in television?”
Paul Bettany: Oh, wow. Well, I figured that out twice. I figured that out when Kevin and Louis D’Esposito pitched a broad sort of visual idea of what it was going to be. I was blown away and thought, “Wow, that’s fucking crazy and sounds amazing. But how can we go from, hey, we’re going to skip through these decades of different styles of sort of an American sitcom into a coherent show?” Cut to about; I don’t know, a year, year-and-a-half later, I go and have a meeting with Jac Schaeffer, head writer, and she pitches me an episodic breakdown of the whole show. And it was revelatory. I couldn’t believe that they had corralled this sort of mad, lovely, wonderful idea into something that would really hold water and be this exquisite expression of grief if you were a witch and were able to bring people back from the dead. At that point, I thought, this is a pretty magnificent interpret, in terms of their creation before we had really any involvement.
When she pitched you this, was there one era in particular that got you most excited or made it made you want to start researching right away?
No, not really, not in that way. I mean, I saw the whole challenge of it rather than the sort of individual challenges that would later ensue. Initially, I just thought, “Holy Christ, you’ve made this hold water and feel while still some funny and spooky, but also meaningful really about something.” And the various challenges of style came up later for me.
What eras were the biggest challenge for you in that respect?
I guess, really, episodes one and two. Is that right? Yeah, maybe three, but mostly episodes one and two. I had been a big fan of Dick Van Dyke as a kid. In England, we used to get reruns of all those shows, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Bewitched,” “Brady Bunch,” all of them, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, after church and before sports. I had this idea that I knew them and loved them because they were my friends on the weekend. And then I started really digging into “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and was so intimidated by how skillful they were as performers. And I mean, like something quite apart from acting. As performers, it was so abundantly clear that they’d spent years doing vaudeville, and they could sing, and they could dance, and they could do this, and they knew how to do a pratfall. And we’re not really trained with any of those skills or that history. And so, I got really intimidated and really resistant to the idea of shooting it live.
Oh, really? How did they convince you?
It was kind of like, “Don’t worry. If it’s a total train wreck, we can just pick it up.” Because we shot it in two days, we shot episode one in two days. We shot it once, and then we came in, and we did specials on magic stuff. Or there’s a scene on the table where suddenly there is a fourth wall, which you know has never been in the cameras. So we came back, and we shot special bits, but we shot at once. It was crazy.
Knowing that it was something that outside of, “Hey, forget Marvel, no other showrunners or creators hadn’t tried before,” was there a moment when you realized you were all gonna pull it off?
I’m not sure I’ve ever had that feeling in my career. [Laughs.] So no. I did think, “Boy, are we swimming big at this. And that’s great.” And maybe we’ve always come in second. We’re going to be the show that came second. So I thought, “Oh, we’ll be the kooky cousin. We’ll be the niche for all the weirdo kids like me when I was at school. It’s the show that I would’ve liked. You know what I mean? We’ll be that show, and that’s cool, and that’s great. I had no idea that it was going to be embraced so lovingly. I had no idea, nor did Lizzie. I mean, we didn’t, no. I knew it was special. I think I felt instinctively that a like-minded elk would get a kick out of it, but I had no idea it was going to be as loved as it became. And it was so lovely that it was.
Did you go online and see what the reactions were after each episode? The conspiracy theories, etc.?
No. I have a strict no-Googling policy about myself, but that doesn’t mean that people didn’t send me stuff and that they’re secretly looked at. So yes, I did see stuff, mostly from Jac Schaeffer, who was like, “It’s Christmas Day again!” And she would send me stuff, and it was lovely to see people’s sort of theories and stuff. But I have a rule not to generate that stuff myself.
I have to ask this, and I’m not trying to embarrass you, but you did do an interview, where you said, “Hey, there’s going to be this big cameo.” And you were having fun with it, and it just went off like no one could have ever imagined. Do you regret that?
I’ve had all sorts of feelings about it. Initially, it was massive regret, which was people started going because I thought it was a really funny joke and was pleased with myself. And then people were like, “Is it going to be Patrick Stewart?” And then I went, “Oh, my God, that’s a good idea. Oh, my God, people are going to be so disappointed when they realize it’s f**king me again.” [Laughs.] But in the end, I spoke to Kevin Feige about it. And he thought it was a really good joke, a really funny joke. And it didn’t backfire too much. For a second there, I was like, “Oh, no. What am have I done?” But yeah. So I had all sorts of feelings regarding that.
In the long run, it was a positive because it just showed how passionate people were and how excited they got from the first couple of episodes. I mean, you had to be very cagey. You couldn’t really say, “Oh, by the way, I also play this other character that’s going to survive the series.” That being said, when did Kevin or the Marvel execs give you a heads up that this might be more than a one-project return to the MCU?
I can’t answer that, honestly. Kevin and I are about the same age. How old is Kevin? A bit younger than me?
I think he’s the same. Maybe he’s a year younger.
Maybe he’s a year younger. So I have many friends around this age, for whom White Vision was like a big deal for them in the ’70s. So Kevin and I had been talking about that for years. But I can’t remember the moment. I suspected something when we talked about draining my character of color in “Avengers: Infinity War.”
O.K., but when you were doing the show, you realized, “Oh, hey, this isn’t the last time I’m potentially ever working with Elizabeth on this series again.” You knew that there that by the end, there would be more opportunities down the road?
No. I mean, I’m honest with you. I still don’t know that.
Oh no, no. I don’t have a contract. I don’t know that. I don’t know that at all. And all that I do know is, as far as this sort of traunch of press goes, it’s for an Emmy push, which is for a limited series. So it doesn’t look like that happening again. I mean, I guess it would be difficult to introduce White Vision and not deal with him in some way, but we have not discussed that.
Was there one scene or moment from any of the nine episodes you’re most proud of?
Oh, shit, there’s loads of stuff like that; that was really fun. I was really anxious about the magic show. We came to the magic show during COVID. So we had to shoot it in a different way post lockdown. So we had to come at it a different way. It was a lot of fun to do in the end. Like a company spirit, there are general things that I think we really felt on that show, with me and Lizzie and Kathryn [Hahn] and Teyonah [Parris]. I mean, just a real company of actors and make-up artists, prop masters, a cameraman I’ve [now] worked with four times. The DP [Director of Photography], Jess Hall, is a genius and [director] Matt Shakman and Jac Schaeffer. And we were all together, and we felt like a real community, and that was really nice. So there’s that. And then there are also little individual moments like, “What is grief, if not love persevering?” Which took an incredibly long time to get to, as a moment, and involved a lot of people, a lot of back and forth, and a lot of people with no ego, whatever, trying to figure out this one moment, that I felt it was really, really important. And then there’s right at the end, Jac Schaeffer and I, and Kevin Feige and Matt were all discussing, “How do we make the demise of Red Vision in this also feel triumphant? And is there something wrong with the scene that we have written?”
Bettany continues: And I was really strongly of the opinion that there wasn’t, and Kevin felt like it lacked something. Jac was asking me what I thought. And I woke up one morning, and Pinocchio is what I realized. I’m a real boy now. And there’s a famous panel, famous for Marvel fans, of Vision crying. And he says is, “Even a robot can cry.” There’s this day, and he realizes he’s crying. And I’m like, “What if we put that in? And we have this moment of Pinocchio becoming a real boy? Which is going to feel like a triumph.” And that’s the thing about Marvel and all of those people, is the best idea wins. Through all of these years, I love that Lizzie and I have only ever respected each other and have fun working with each other. I mean, it was a great job, man.
I finished that one. I think that they have another week left. I got home last week, and they have another week left. It’s directed by this Norwegian director called Anne Sewitsky. I really loved working with Claire [Foy]. She’s a brilliant actress, great scene partner. And I feel too close to it right now, but it was a very intense experience. And Anne is a director to watch. She was unbelievable on set. So thoughtful and sometimes confounding, how she saw the scene differently from you, and then she would explain herself, and I go, “Oh, yeah. That’s brilliant.”
“WandaVision” is available on Disney+ worldwide.