Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly are partners in life and love, and after working together on their recent film, Shelter, they’ve added a new dimension to their collaboration. Although the couple met while on the set of 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, their prolific careers have existed in parallel more than they’ve intersected. But on this project, Bettany served as writer and director, and Connelly carried the production as the film’s protagonist. The movie is a powerful product of their dynamic chemistry, a cinematic experience as thoughtful as it is thought-provoking. That is, Shelter is worth seeing, not just because of the important issues it raises, but because it’s a fascinating product of synergy between a husband and wife. Betanny and Connelly sat down with NeueJournal, revealing what it was like to blur the lines between work and life, and shared all that made the experience of filming this project so unique.
NeueJournal: This script was inspired by a real-life homeless couple who vanished after Sandy. Can you talk about how they inspired you?
Paul Bettany: I wanted to make a film that was about judgement, and I didn’t know what form that would take. But there was a homeless couple who lived outside our apartment, neighbors, and we would pass them every day as we took our children to school, and initially I would try to talk to them, but slowly they became part of the landscape of the city that I lived in and I’m ashamed to say, I just stopped seeing them. Then Hurricane Sandy happened, and in the mayhem of trying to get out, I didn’t stop to think about what they would do. When we all came back to live in our house, they weren’t there anymore. After the storm, I never saw them again and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I thought, perhaps, they would make a very good template to talk about judgement and how in a world of increasingly grey areas, we are becoming more and more entrenched in black and white positions: “He’s a junkie; she’s a hooker; etc.” If you haven’t said it, you’ve thought it.
NJ: What was the dynamic like between you both as director and actor?
PB: Very directorial. I decided to sleep with the leading actress the first moment I could — it’s a Time Warner tradition. I have enormous respect for Jennifer as an actress and part of the experiment of this was wanting to give actors their jobs back. I think we live in a time when scripts are overdeveloped, leaving little room for actors to paint in emotions. That’s not to say that there aren’t great performances, but the ‘70s, which is the era that inspired me, were awash with great performances — Five Easy Pieces wouldn’t work without Jack Nicholson showing up and being extraordinary. I wanted to give Anthony and Jennifer the space to work in a very old fashioned way, with rehearsals and lineups. Lineups are a thing where you come down at the beginning of the day with your coffee and your hangover and you work with the director and you figure out how you’re gonna stage the scenes. Then the actors go to the makeup trailer and the director, the DP and the crew work out how they are going to cover what the actor just did. It sounds crazy, but that hardly ever happens anymore! Now, you walk out, there are marks ready and someone has figured it out for you.
Jennifer Connelly: It’s an extraordinary experience to have had together. For me, as an actor, there was an unprecedented feeling of trust and safety on the set working with a person with whom I’m most intimate. I guess creativity comes out for people in different environments, and for me feeling that sense of safety was really special.
NJ: What was the most challenging scene to act/direct?
JC: Sometimes things on paper that seem like they might present the most challenges, ultimately end up being the most exciting things to work on, and the most fulfilling because you have to try and find a way to solve it yourself. I’ve come to enjoy that process more and more, and in a deeper way.
NJ: You worked with the Coalition of the Homeless for this film? How important were they in your research and ultimately are you hopeful your film helps change perceptions about those on the street?
PB: The moment I decided I wanted the film to be about homelessness, I looked into who I should be speaking to and I went to see them. They are angels, real life angels on the streets, bringing food to people, creating camps for children. There are 24,000 homeless children seeking shelter in New York City every night, and they have created summer camps and education programs for these kids. They got me out on the streets meeting people. I was able to talk to people in a really open and unguarded way, and they also vetted the script, so I was able to go to them and say, “What bureaucracy might be in place to stop someone in need getting what they need.” And in regards to the second portion of the question, absolutely — I hope to change perception’s about the homeless. I am proud to say that a number of people, after having seen the movie, tell me that they will never look at homeless people in the same way again and that is really moving to me, and I am proud of that.
NJ: How has your perception of people suffering from substance abuse and the homeless changed since making the film?
PB: The whole film was about imploring people to withhold their judgement and listen to people. I’m also in the entertainment business and if I were to be judgmental about people with substance addiction, that would never work.
JC: We all live our lives and we find ourselves in situations for a variety of reasons. I think we are a very judgmental culture, and we are often very quick to categorize and label people, which I think is very reductive and dismissive and ultimately dangerous.
NJ: What quality do you most admire in each other?
PB: Jennifer is the most fastidious human being I have met. I really admire her ability to keep looking at something that has become common place and boring, and keep seeing new things in it. It’s what really sets her apart. She is able to read and re-read and have fresh thoughts and that is really extraordinary. The other thing I admire is the level of control she has, that I really don’t. It’s a really impressive quality. If I’m drinking, I’m drinking a lot. If I’m not drinking then I’m just not drinking. Jennifer has touch. Except for a few very rare occasions when I’ve had to carry her through a hotel corridor.
JC: That was really eloquent and I’m not nearly as eloquent. I guess I admire his eloquence? Also his sense of humor, which is really healthy. His ability to find joy and happiness in things is admirable. And also he is the most extraordinary friend that I have ever come across, not only to me but everyone in his life.
NJ: What natural talent that you don’t possess, would you most like to have?
JC: I would really love to be able to sing. Just have that sort of Jeff Buckley voice, who seems like he doesn’t even have to think about the notes at all because it just pours out of him. I’m at an entry level when I can just about sing in tune. I can only imagine what it must feel like to be able to sing like that.
PB: I can sing but not like I would like to. I would love to be able to paint or draw. I see images well, and I can see what is a beautiful image and I can look at actors working and think about how I might want to frame it. My storyboards are just fucking shocking and I wish I could express myself through figurative art.
NJ: Jennifer what would you say is Paul’s guilty pleasure?
JC: Zombies. Zombie movies and zombie TV shows: The Walking Dead, Fear of The Walking Dead, etc.
PB: I am a huge Walking Dead and Fear of the Walking Dead fan. I watched 4 episodes of Fear of the Walking Dead last night.
NJ: What would you say is Jennifer’s guilty pleasure?
PB: Evel Knievel. It’s a big secret that is now out of the bag. As a child she had line ups of all the toys of Evel Knievel. It is definitely her secret passion.
Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal