When I caught up with Paul Bettany on the set of Priest halfway through the film's shoot, the first thing he announced was, "This is the dustiest film ever shot," and it wasn't an exaggeration. Filming was taking place at Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita Valley, California, where Westerns ranging from The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke to Deadwood were shot, and the set was incredibly dusty. Plus, a large wind machine was put to use to greet the actors with blasts of dirt as they rode up on massive motorcycles.
After riding up on the motorcycles, Bettany, Cam Gigandet and Maggie Q delivered a few lines, all the while fighting off the dirt flying into their eyes. It was a cold day on the set with rain sporadically causing delays in filming, but director Scott Stewart finally got the shot he needed and moved on to the next scene set up on the set's main street. At the end of the road a large green screen was set up with three crosses from which dead priests are left to hang by vampires in the film. Gigandet's already kneeling before the crosses as the scene begins, while Bettany and Maggie Q approach and kneel down beside him. The wind machine kicks in again, dust flies, and a spattering of rain makes filming extremely difficult. Still, Bettany and the cast are in good spirits, with Bettany even playfully aiming a kick at Gigandet when he flubs a line.
Priest isn't a straight-up Western - it's a post-apocalyptic action thriller with Western elements, based on the graphic novel by Min-Woo Hyung - but the actors from Priest looked right at home in the Wild West setting. Sitting down inside a building that looked like a bank Jesse James would have held up, Paul Bettany talked about playing the title character in this action film which reunites him with Legion director Scott Stewart.
Paul Bettany Interview on the Set of Priest
Can you talk about your character? He doesn't even have a name, does he?
Paul Bettany: "That's right, yes. We know him as Priest and I'm sure Scott’s told you all about the Tokyo Pop [the publisher of the graphic novel] and the fact that they're going to bridge this world and that world. And I play Priest and his abilities were found by the clergy when he was a little older than usual. He left his life behind and went to fight the war, and he's come back since the war had been over into the real world. I guess the war has rendered him unfit for normal life. He's working a shady job and nobody wants to talk to him, he's too sort of frightening-looking and nobody wants to be reminded of that era anyway, and nobody wants to really think about that war. And so that's where the movie starts and Hicks - played by Cam - comes and tells me that my niece has been kidnapped by vampires. And so our adventure begins."
What special abilities do Priest and the other characters like Priest have in order to fight the vampires?
Paul Bettany: "Each of the Priests has a different skill and a favorite weapon. My favorite is a knife, but none of them use guns. None of them use firearms at all. And all the Priests have this ability to sort of slow down time. And so there's shooting with a phantom camera at times and objects could suddenly just slow... The means with which Scott is telling that story of just how fast the Priest can move when he wants to, we’re trying to make things look like nearly superhuman, you know, that it somehow remains believable in that world that he defies gravity a little bit."
Why did you decide to work with Scott Stewart again after Legion?
Paul Bettany: "You know, Scott was a first-time director when I worked with him and he had none of the potential pitfalls that you [see]. I love working with first-time directors; they're passionate and so ecstatic to be actually living out their dream. But Scott has a very long, thorough background in visual effects and has spent a lot of time on movie sets and he absolutely knows what lenses do and has very specific vision. He’s full of knowledge and I had a ball. We had a great time working together on Legion and Clint Culpepper who runs Screen Gems was clearly happy with what Scott did. It was a really exciting prospect to have sort of three times the budget to make a movie."
How’s the action compare in the two films?
Paul Bettany: "Well, you know, there's a lot more in this movie. A lot of Legion was confined to a diner and there's a lot of action surrounding that diner and a lot of fighting. This is a road movie. It takes the form of a road movie, so it opens up."
"When I saw the trailer for Legion I found it so extraordinary how expensive it looked because I knew how much Scott had to make it for. But now we can have trains, this huge train going through the desert and chase it on a motorcycle, and jump off the motorcycle onto the train and do all those crazy, great stunts. So there is more of it. There is more of it."
It’s interesting that you're taking on these kinds of heightened genre pieces lately, after people got to know you in smaller or dramatic kinds of roles. What's the appeal of this type of film or is it all the same?
Paul Bettany: "Oh no, it’s not the same. After doing Legion I went and made a film called Creation about Charles Darwin, which was almost exclusively set in a small house in Kent, and it felt very important for me to go and make that movie. But I would be denying that the other bit of me which as a kid got two guns and two holsters from my mum and went, 'This is awesome!,' and just jumped around and pretended to shoot things. It’s an enormous amount of fun doing it. I really love doing both things. I've always tried to balance it out and this has been really fun, this job."
Scott showed a clip of you leaping in the air and stabbing a vampire. Can you talk about some of the stunts and doing these extreme action sequences?
Paul Bettany: "Well, I love doing my work. It’s like when you're a kid – exactly what I was saying – you're a kid and you pretend you can fly or you can jump off things, and you actually can and you have a bunch of mates who will pull a rope and all that. You're on wires and you can do all this crazy Bruce Lee sh*t, which is kind of great. My little boy came out to the desert with me and he had to keep a journal for school - he's six years old. And I was reading his journal the other day and it had a picture of a train and a motorbike and then a fight going on on top of the train. And his journal said, 'Today daddy jumped from a motorbike onto a train and killed some vampires.'"
"It's fun. I really look at it with that sort of wide-eyed enjoyment, I really do. And when you're hanging off the side of this thing and you're on a wire... I do remember I was hanging off the side of the train going at 50 miles an hour along this lake bed just thinking, 'What am I f--king doing in this? This is nuts!' But it’s a lot of fun, and there's a great stunt team keeping me safe through all of it."
"I don't know, there's a lot of fights in Macbeth. You know what I mean? Fighting has always been in all theatre and it’s spectacle and yes, of course, it’s different, but I absolutely defend my right to do both things and have fun for as long as people will keep employing me, you know?"
How much of your own stunts do you do in this as opposed to stepping aside for the stunt doubles?
Paul Bettany: "As much as I'm allowed to do. In Legion I did everything except for two stunts, which were for insurance reasons. You know, I kind of had to jump through a window, and even though it’s a sugar window it can cut you and they didn’t want to have to stop filming. And on this, you know, I do as much as I can. It’s difficult when you're running two and three units. Sometimes they're in the desert so they're on the bike. The bike is incredibly dangerous and I spent a long time learning to ride it. And then the two stunt people that ride it had, one had a really bad accident and it was deemed... Originally I was going to be doing the sort of straightaway and stuff like that, but they said it’s just impossible which is a shame. But the thing is, the thing looks bitchin and yet is impossible to actually turn within 200 yards or something. But it looks cool."
So you only step aside for the stunt men when they make you?
Paul Bettany: "Yes, I do. And there's some stuff that I get. It’s sensible and there's times say where if they’ve got a guy on a wire and they're shooting on his back and the double looks a lot like me, I get it to sort of expedite the shooting process. But it's all right because then I've got to come down from being up there - I come down on the wire because I love doing the wire. I love doing the wire stuff. I do as much of it as insurance will allow. Because what's the point, really, if you're in an action movie and you're not trying to do the action?"
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Priest hits theaters on May 13, 2011.