How Paul Bettany Rediscovered His Love of Comedy With 'WandaVision' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Getty Images / Disney+
Paul Bettany never could have predicted the spell WandaVision would cast. Even now, he tells ET, "We always thought that we were going to be the sort of kooky cousin that was kind of niche." The Falcon and the Winter Soldierwas supposed to be Marvel Studios' entrée into streaming and set the precedent for what the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be on the small screen, and then WandaVision, starring Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda and Bettany as Vision, would follow suit and break that mold. "When it all flipped, I was a little apprehensive," Bettany admits. "But I was so heartened to see it embraced in the way that it was."
The show marked Bettany's fourth time donning purple body paint to play the sage synthezoid (following as many outings voicing Tony Stark's faithful A.I., J.A.R.V.I.S.), yet WandaVision has come to mark another, even less anticipated milestone: His first major awards nomination, with the 50-year-old up for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series at the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards.
"It came as a huge surprise and a very welcome one. I was pretending not to care about it, but it turns out I did," Bettany says. "Marvel is the job that just keeps on giving. It's been such a great ride. It's been so lovely to actually have something really substantial for both Lizzie and I to do, and it was such a lovely explosion of creativity from everybody involved."
Bettany is the first to admit he never imagined that his regular Marvel gig would be what led to possibly winning a statuette, though it's sinking in more and more amid the hustling and bustling of the awards circuit. (He's taking time out from a family vacation in Greece for this very call. "The water is 88 degrees today," he happily reports.) Still, Bettany says, "When I started looking at a script, I thought that was a real opportunity there for me."
Unlike past outings portraying Vision, because of the very structure of the series -- which sees Wanda and Vision navigating life in the suburbs through the prism of classic sitcoms -- Bettany was tasked with playing Vision by way of Dick Van Dyke from The Dick Van Dyke Show, Michael Gross from Family Ties and Bryan Cranston from Malcolm in the Middle. That meant he had to rediscover the essence of the android.
"I did question, ‘How am I going to make him remain Vision?’" Bettany says. "But I realized that Vision's always been in the process of becoming. He's born of Ultron and J.A.R.V.I.S. and Tony Stark -- his kind of father -- and by the second movie, he's less of an ingénue, and certainly by Infinity War, he's really self-possessed. So, I realized the crux of Vision is decency and he lives for Wanda and a sort of desire to understand humanity, and then I realized, well, if you throw a bit of Dick Van Dyke in there, it can survive it. And that was it."
In the process, he also made rediscoveries about himself as an actor. "I had not done comedy in years, since the days of Wimbledon," he points out. (Funnily enough, that 2004 rom-com is how Bettany met Jon Favreau, who eventually cast him as J.A.R.V.I.S. in 2008's Iron Man.) "I made Wimbledon and a film called A Knight's Tale, and I realized how much I loved [comedy]. And I haven't done it for a long time, and then to do it in front of a live studio audience " -- as in WandaVision's premiere episode, an homage to sitcoms of the 1950s -- "it was a real challenge for me. I think it made me feel bolder."
Bettany's proudest moment of the series comes in the second episode ("Don't Touch That Dial"), after Vision inadvertently swallows a wad of gum that gunks up his organs -- or whatever -- and he performs in the town's charity talent show inebriated. "I really loved the drunk magic scene, which was, as you can probably imagine, terrifying," he says. The sequence is Vision at his most Dick Van Dyke-like. "I went back and watched the shows, and I was like, 'Oh, f**k. This guy is a master at pratfalls and physical comedy.' And so [I was] really letting go and trying to shake off the calcification of 20 years acting in this business, or however long it's been, and just going for it."
That is the one time he'll brag about himself, and only when pressed to do so. He is, of course, proud of the "What is grief, if not love persevering?" scene -- but because of how he, series creator Jac Schaeffer, writer Laura Donney and Schaeffer's assistant collaborated to crack that line, which may have single-handedly earned the episode ("Previously On") one of WandaVision’s three Emmy nominations for writing. He's also proud of his scene partners, Olsen and Kathryn Hahn, who have been recognized in Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories, respectively, with their trio becoming the first Marvel actors nominated for performances in a Marvel project.
"I think that you're right that they're often overlooked in that regard," Bettany says of past performances within the MCU that weren't able to break through the superhero glass ceiling. "But the truth is anybody who's made even a single movie will look at those movies and know how devilishly hard they are to make."
In the end, Marvel's would-be kooky cousin -- a series that begins as a send-up of The Dick Van Dyke Show and ends with a witchy, city-leveling MCU super-battle -- earned 23 total nominations, making it one of the most Emmy-nominated shows of the year. WandaVision's nicheness was resonant, something Bettany is still working to wrap his mind around.
"There's something about that show that I think is so devilishly clever that Jac Schaeffer did, of talking about a woman's grief and that woman happens to be a witch. She is facing an unsolvable problem, which is grief and the loss of loved ones, and so she solves it by bringing them back but bringing them back in a sitcom world where the bedrock of sitcoms is all seemingly insoluble problems are eminently soluble if you cling together with your loved one. I mean, that's what all of Dick Van Dyke Shows are. It was so clever to have a show that unwrapped in that way, and that's why I think it resonated for people," he muses, then laughs. "It also happens to be a bunch of people living in a bubble, you know what I mean? Which I think we were all going through."
Because WandaVision completed filming under COVID-19 safety precautions and then dropped on Disney+ amid the ongoing pandemic and the Emmy nominations were announced as cases surge yet again, they've not yet had the chance to properly celebrate their accomplishments. "There was no wrap party. There was none of that." Like the rest of us, the stars of WandaVision have had to make the best of things virtually. "There were just Zoom calls from people going, 'Yay!' It's unfortunate," Bettany says, "but we'll tie one on Emmy night." A magical night for a magical show? Wanda herself couldn't have conjured up a more fitting finale.