Legion - Paul Bettany and Adrianne Palicki
Paul Bettany and Adrianne Palicki © Screen Gems

Audiences discovered Paul Bettany, in all his nakedness, in the comical role of Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale opposite Heath Ledger, and he has gone on to play a diverse array of roles in A Beautiful Mind, Wimbledon, The Secret Life of Bees, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, Creation and The Young Victoria.

In Scott Stewart’s Legion he plays the Archangel Michael who has come to earth, with a stolen arsenal of weapons, to save a young pregnant woman, whose unborn baby is the only salvation for the world. Situated in a diner in the middle of nowhere, Michael and a group of terrified employees and customers must fight an army of warrior angels, intent on destroying human kind, led by Michael’s brother, the Archangel Gabriel (Kevin Durand).

I spoke with the endlessly amusing Paul Bettany yesterday about his new movie, which has been called a supernatural horror western.

There definitely seems to be something otherworldly about Michael, is that something you were trying to achieve?

Legion - Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Paul Bettany and Charles Dutton
Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Paul Bettany and Charles Dutton © Screen Gems

Well, I’m an angel! I can’t actually interview an angel, so I went to museums and I looked at paintings of angels and statues of angels, and they’re kind of ripped, and often have swords and spears. Literally I went, ‘Physically what I have to do is get in shape.’ I got on with just trying to play a warrior, safe in the knowledge that at some point somebody really clever would have to put eight foot wings on my shoulders, and that people would go, ‘Oh, he’s an angel.’

I think it’s important, because otherwise you end up trying to play something abstract, something otherworldly, and for me I don’t know how to do it, because I am a human and it’s all I have to really deal with.

Did you have whiplash going from playing Charles Darwin in Creation to this?

No, because I’m incredibly shallow! I went from this to Charles Darwin, and I gained 40 pounds and it’s actually the way I like to do things; it’s fun. It can be edifying to put yourself in somebody else’s situation, and it is just fun to play wildly different people in wildly different genres.

I was thinking when I went from this to Darwin that perhaps Charles Darwin’s ideas would have been more broadly accepted had he had an AK47 assault rifle!

This is the most action you’ve ever done in a movie, how did you prepare for it?

Legion - Paul Bettany
Paul Bettany © Screen Gems

You hear you’re going to get a job, and you’re going to have to get fit for it, and they make it very easy for you, they pay your trainer. Going to a gym for two hours a day and then getting paid a lot of money, anybody can do it. I’m quick on my feet, I used do judo as a kid. I thought if I am going to make an action movie, I want to do the action, because if I’m not doing the action what exactly am I doing? I had a great stunt double called Adam Hart, who wanted me to do as much as I could.

There are certain things they just wouldn’t let me, insurance-wise, not for my safety you understand, just because they might not be able to shoot me the next day, fiscally they are concerned about you.

I loved doing it, it’s a really pleasant experience flying around in the air and landing. Actually the real skill involved is when you land trying not to look too surprised that you made it. I really adored doing it, but my testicles didn’t like doing the flying.

Did you enjoy working with the guns?

Legion - Paul Bettany
Paul Bettany © Screen Gems

Yeah, film guns are fun, and I like film fighting as well, film-fu is great. I don’t like real guns obviously, but I do like pretend guns, because when I was a child, which I was, and I was playing around in the playground I was never ever once playing the grandfather of evolution. I was running around shooting stuff, and it was enormously fun.

That’s your first impulse when your mother or father buys you a set of holsters and cowboy guns, and it would be dishonest of me to pretend otherwise.

And apart from the pain in my testicles, having people who can put you on wires and make you actually flip around in the air, and make you look cool is just an absolute ball.

What was it like working with Scott Stewart?

Scott’s background is in visual effects, so it was lovely getting to work with a first time director with all of that ambition and fervor, but with real practical knowledge of film, and time on film sets. He had a huge overwhelming desire to make an analogue movie and, as much as he could, get it in-camera. For instance, the old woman running up the wall was a stunt woman on a wire, but it was clearly augmented in post-production.

Between this and your upcoming movie with Scott, Priest (about vampires), are you turning into a religious horror action star?

Legion - poster artwork
Legion - poster artwork © Screen Gems

I don’t want to court controversy, I swear. I’m so naïve I just didn’t think about it. Sometimes it’s the way the cards fall.  Ron Howard rings you up and says, ‘Do you want to play Silas in The Da Vinci Code?’ Of course you say yes. And then I wanted to play Charles Darwin, because I have a fascination for Charles Darwin. Then I get the opportunity to be the hero is an action movie, Legion.

I’m usually the baddie, I guess it’s the War of Independence; you’re all still pissed off at me. You’re usually the baddie when you’re an English actor, and then you make that movie and then I get a ring from Scott saying, ‘I want to make this vampire movie, and I want to make it with you.’ You go, ‘That sounds awesome.’ And you stitch them all together and it looks like you’ve got a problem with God. And then suddenly you’re doing sixty-eight interviews a day being asked, ‘So what’s the deal with you and God?’ There just isn’t one!

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.