Paul Bettany talks Charles Darwin

I recently caught up with a fellow North West Londoner – Paul Bettany while he was promoting his film Creation to talk on Charles Darwin. Creation is based on the life of Charles Darwin and the book, Annie’s Box, by Randal Keynes about the life of his great, great grandfather. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Did you know much about Darwin before you started on this project?

Paul Bettany: I felt like I knew quite a bit about him actually but then when you are going to play a role like this it gives you the perfect opportunity to be entirely specific about one person in history.

There must be a lot of material out there…

Paul Bettany: Absolutely – there is so much. He himself was so prolific with like a book a year. I now can’t separate to what I knew and what I learnt. I will say that it was an exercise in complete frustration because the amount that he wrote and the amount that has subsequently been written about him, you were always looking at a pillar of unread books.

But what did you take from the research that you could actually use in the performance?

Paul Bettany: You are always looking for the thing that conflicts inside the person and there’s a lot of things that like – the conflict in his marriage, the loss of a child, his wife’s religious beliefs and the fact that he is in the process of killing God.

What conclusions did you draw about him?

Paul Bettany: I think he was a social conservative with a revolutionary idea and that’s painful. He moved at glacial speed anyway and we know that he wasn’t the greatest student but what he could do was look at something fresh and I don’t think he had a snobbery about where the information came from – so whether he was talking to a farmer or whether he was talking to a professor, it didn’t matter it was all about the information. He was rigorous and he moved slowly and I think these ideas came to him. He read a book on economics and he sort of took the formula and saw it in nature everywhere and suddenly couldn’t stop seeing it. And what he discovered, with meticulous research, meant that he couldn’t deny the fact that gradual changes over time happen if you want to survive in your environment.

Survival of the fittest…

Paul Bettany: Survival of the fittest has actually become a bit of a problem whereas it’s more the survival of the most apt and survival of the most keen to adapt, really. And he just couldn’t stop seeing it and I think that made him ill. So that’s even before you get into the whole thing about his wife’s religion and knowing that his discoveries were going to be like a bomb going off. He knew of course that his wife took great solace in her religion after the death of their children. In the film we focus on the loss of one child but in fact they lost three.

You clearly built up quite a picture of the man. Did you like him?

Paul Bettany: Yes. I haven’t found a bad word said about him apart from on the Internet now.  People that knew him say he was a decent man and a great father. I once heard it levelled that he sort of would study his children like experiments, but when you think that science was such a huge love in his life then it becomes an act of the utmost love to do that.

How important is it that the film is based on Randal Keynes’ book?

Paul Bettany: Very important. I got the script and I thought it was beautiful – its one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. It’s John Collee who wrote Master and Commander and he’s the bollocks. And Randal Keynes is all things Darwin – he is his great, great grandson, which was important because you have that seal of approval right from the beginning and that’s crucial because you are dealing with that biographical stuff. But moreover it worked as a script and as a story even if you took out the fact that it’s Darwin. This is a story about a marriage in crisis and the loss of a child. It’s compelling enough even if it wasn’t about Darwin.

The film shows that Darwin took a long time to publish The Origin of the Species. Why do you think that was?

Paul Bettany: There were a lot of contributing factors – his wife, his fear of social disorder, of being ostracised by this world that really embraced him. It embraced him prior to this just because of his writings on the Beagle (his findings from a five year voyage on HMS Beagle established his reputation). He came back and he was a bit of a star in that scientific community immediately. So I think there were a lot of factors that stopped him. He writes about it himself. He quite clinically thought ‘why did I come up with this idea? How did this come to me?’ And he put it down to the fact that he was incredibly observant – he has this over developed muscle for observation without putting any pre-determined ideas on it. He would talk to a guy who was a pigeon fancier in the pub exactly the same way he would talk to a professor at Oxford University and everything he heard had the same weight, whether the syntax was right or not, it was all information for him. Also, he was clearly incredibly thorough and that’s also part of why it took 20 years.

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