THE CHARISMA OF SUPPORTING ACTORS: PAUL BETTANY (AND THE ‘THAT GUYS’)

My doctoral student Josie Swarbrick contributed a paper on the film Transcedence (2014) to our recent yearly post-graduate seminar. The film is just average but Jack Paglen’s screenplay is one of the very few attuned to the treatment of the posthuman in current sf. The role of Will Caster, the man who transcends his humanity, is here played by Johnny Depp. I started a discussion about whether Will’s loss of control over his life parallels the current decadence of Depp as a star (see how Hadley Freeman bemoans her loss of an idol: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/11/how-i-loved-you-johnny-depp-purple-tinted-truth). Josie mentioned instead Paul Bettany, who plays Depp’s rival in love, as an example of an actor with quite a steady career. To my surprise, this unleashed a flow of comments from the women students in the room, each mentioning a favourite role played by Bettany…

Bettany has appeared so far in 43 films; chances are you’ve come across him. IMDB and Wikipedia help me here to offer a quick overview of his career. Bettany (b. 1971) is an English theatre and film actor. His debut was on the stage (An Inspector Calls) and he even appeared on a BBC Oliver Twist (as Sikes), before getting a small role in Bent (1997). British film audiences discovered Bettany thanks to Gangster No. 1 (2000). His career became international when director Brian Helgeland insisted that he was cast as Chaucer in his silly medieval adventure film A Knight’s Tale (2001). Bettany next secured a breakthrough supporting role in the Oscar-award winner A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard), with Russell Crowe. Bettany and Crowe soon played best friends Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in Peter Weir’s acclaimed Master and Commander (2003). Bettany has occasionally played leading roles in, among others, the romantic comedy Wimbledon (2004) and the medieval mystery The Reckoning (2002–or was he co-protagonist with Willem Dafoe?). You may have also spotted him in Dogville (2003) and The Da Vinci Code (2006). Curiously, after voicing Tony Stark’s artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. in four films in which Iron Man appears, Bettany has been cast as the literally red-skinned Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Incidentally, he’s been married since 2003 to actress Jennifer Connelly (they met when shooting A Beautiful Mind).

A 2004 interview with Sam Ingleby offers interesting clues about Bettany (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/paul-bettany-lets-get-physical-547410.html) Asked why he chose to make Wimbledom after the vastly different Dogville, Bettany “immediately drops into self-deprecating mode” and explains that “My plan–well, it isn’t much of a plan, but it’s mine and I like it–is to try to do lots of different things”. He cites two of his heroes, Peter Weir and Ang Lee, as examples of versatile film directors that work in many genres. He adds that “I just get bored if I don’t do different things”. No wonder, then, that Ingleby sees Bettany’s “malleability on screen” as a product of his “ability to change genre and to avoid being typecast”.

Here’s some irony, however, that Ingleby fails to explore: Bettany is slim, blond, blue-eyed, very tall and quite good-looking (perhaps not 100% handsome in a manly way). Yet, despite having “the lineaments of a film star” he is not one. He’s an actor, not a star. Russell Crowe, to name someone connected with Bettany, is a star. Because Bettany is very pale, he has often been cast as a cold-blooded character, none paler and colder than the monk Silas in The Da Vinci Code. Physical appeal, then, is not as easy to pin down in an actor as we assume.

Usually, the value of a film star is measured by the fees s/he commands. Currently these are the ten male names with the highest influence and appeal on planet Earth: Dwayne Johnson, Jackie Chan, Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Ben Affleck, Vin Diesel, Shah Rukh Khan, Robert Downey jr., Akshay Khumar and Brad Pitt. By the way, the best paid female actor in 2016 was Jennifer Lawrence; she made 46$ million; Dwayne Johnson, in contrast, earned 64.5$ million. Earnings, thus, turn out to be only indirectly related to box-office appeal; sexism also plays a part.

An obvious, yet important, point to make is that whereas spectators pay good money to see these stars on the screen, hence their earnings, generally speaking we do not go to the cinema to enjoy the work of particular secondary actors. Character or supporting actors certainly add value to films and may be a strong selling point, predominantly those in villain roles (like Javier Bardem in No Land for Old Men). I have no idea on what basis is their salary established but, surely, there must be a ranking which value in money what they add to films. My Google search for ‘highest-paid supporting actor’, however, throws nothing.

Supporting, or character, actors, appear to be of two kinds: the ones that eventually slip into stardom, and those who never do. All actors have volatile careers but supporting actors appear to fare better, since they can avoid the stressful demands of stardom. Nothing worse than pouring high expectations and hype on an actor who might have reached success by chance rather than merit–arguably, this might explain why so many Oscar-award winners for leading roles suddenly see their careers sink. Fickle fashions also play a role: an actor like Meryl Streep is not in danger of incurring in what is now called ‘brand exhaustion’ or ‘brand fatigue’. Scarlett Johansson, who seems to be six persons instead of just one, certainly is.

Returning to the supporting actors, Paul Bettany might be perhaps representative of a third category. Some actors hover forever on the brink of stardom; they are the kind whose fans are always asking themselves ‘how come s/he is not better known?’. Tom Hardy used to be in this category, but now he’s on the way to stardom aided by us, his fans from the early stages of his career. Other character actors, however, reach fame even without an enthusiastic fan base–simply because they’re very good: think of Paul Giamatti or the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Then we have what an IMDB user calls ‘that guy actors’: actors “you see in every movie and say to yourself ‘Hey its that guy!’ but you never know their names”. This person offers a great list of 100 male names here: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls050426470/. No, Paul Bettany is not included, but, then, no list is ever exhaustive. See also, for instance, http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2014/the-30-greatest-character-actors-in-hollywood-history/.

Although not all male stars are handsome–some are not even close–clearly physical attractive pays a major role in the lists of best-paid actors. Character actors, in contrast, bring physical variety to the screen. Their presence is what reassures us that the world is not peopled only with beautiful individuals. Charisma, of course, marks the difference between the more and the less popular actors in all categories. This is the x factor that whets the spectator’s curiosity and that helps us to recall specific names. And then return for more, in yet another film with the same actor.

This seemingly suggests that supporting actors on the brink of stardom, like Bettany, have an odd measure of charisma: enough to seduce loyal fans but not enough to seduce many fans and reach stardom. Bettany is very good at stealing scenes from the protagonists but not attractive enough (in a general sense) to bear the burden of a whole film on his shoulders. Perhaps he just needs a breakthrough leading role that tips the scales of charisma in his favour. Sometimes it takes a very long time, which is why I’m not writing Bettany off the list of 21st century stars. Sometimes it never happens. The good news is that characters actors like Bettany tend to enjoy longer careers than most stars as, ostensibly, spectators are more generous with their ageing process. The whole planet is monitoring each wrinkle in Brad Pitt’s face but, surely, this will not happen to Bettany.

My message today is that we need to reconsider success and failure. Paul Bettany’s career suggests that long-lasting careers in secondary positions may be much more satisfying than downright success/stardom. Also, that each charismatic individual seems to have a different measure of this elusive quality. Brad Pitt seems gifted with an endless supply, but here we are, Paul Bettany’s loyal fans, announcing to the world that we appreciate whatever amount he does have. This is a call, then, to look beyond the star and appreciate all the ‘that guys’ (and ‘that girls’) that make cinema such a wonderful experience.

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