Writer/Director Paul Bettany

The star of hit films like A Beautiful Mind and Avengers: Age of Ultron dishes on his directorial debut, Shelter.

It was Paul Bettany's supporting role in the film, A Beautiful Mind, which first caught the attention of the American press. Born into a theatrical family, the British actor left school at age 16 and spent the next two years as a street performer. He turned to drama school and, after graduation, performed on the British stage, in films and TV. Since his star-making turn in Master and Commander, Bettany has starred in Wimbledon, The Da Vinci Code, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. He makes his writing and directorial debut with the powerful new independent drama, Shelter.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Paul Bettany back to this program. The star of such hit films as “A Beautiful Mind” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” has now taken his turn behind the camera to bring to life the powerful new drama, “Shelter”. The film which Bettany has both written and directed tells the story of two homeless people from completely different backgrounds who fall in love on the streets of New York City.

The movie stars Paul’s real life wife, Jennifer Connelly, and his “Avengers” costar, Anthony Mackie who will join us later in tonight’s program. Before we start our conversation with Paul, though, first a look at a scene from “Shelter”.

[Clip]

Tavis: I said to Paul while that clip was running, when I saw this piece the other night, it’s hard to make Jennifer Connelly look unattractive [laugh] and you said…

Paul Bettany: I did my best [laugh].

Tavis: So, first of all, congratulations.

Bettany: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Tavis: It’s your maiden voyage as a writer and director.

Bettany: Certainly is.

Tavis: So before I get too deep into this, what do you make of the experience now in retrospect?

Bettany: I am betting it’s the best and worst of jobs. I love it. You know, it’s sort of terrifying and you feel like this huge weight of responsibility because there’s money involved, you know. Even on a small movie like this, you’re still talking a million dollars of somebody’s money and you’re trying to do the right thing by that. But I loved it. I mean, I really loved it.

Tavis: I can see–and you tell me where the truth lies–I can see that, for your first directorial project, the blessing and the curse of directing your wife.

Bettany: Sure.

Tavis: So how did that work out for you?

Bettany: On the whole?

Tavis: Yeah [laugh]. I like the setup. On the whole, yeah.

Bettany. On the whole, you know, of course, it was a plus. You know, if you’re trying to make a film about a homeless drug user and a homeless Nigerian Muslim illegal immigrant, what I really noticed is that people don’t want to give you much money. So it really helps if you have like an Oscar winner lying around the house [laugh], and I did. So it was great.

I mean, she is the most fastidious actor that I’ve ever worked with, you know. She was a card-carrying member of the New York City Needle Exchange Program. They thought she was a user. You know, she was working with a lot of like the Harm Reduction Center and a lot of outreach programs in New York. She was hugely prepared, you know.

Tavis: I don’t want to give too much of the story line away, but since you’ve already said this, why make her love interest a Nigerian Muslim immigrant?

Bettany: Okay. The film I wanted to make wasn’t about homelessness being bad or drug addiction being bad because every decent human being knows that it is so. I wanted to make a film that was about judgment and about specifically how we judge in this film these two homeless people and our reaction to meeting homeless people.

So I thought, you know, we’re in a world full of increasing gray area and yet we’re getting more and more entrenched in black and white positions. So I thought what if I take the worst thing that you can be in our culture, a drug-using woman who abandoned her children and a man who is an ex-terrorist and then make you love them by spending time with them?

Because, you know, fundamentally, we’re all worthy of forgiveness and we’re all worthy of a second chance and we’re all deserving of a home. So I just wanted to look at that. So that’s really where it came from, and two totally incongruous people.

She comes from an affluent–she’s fallen on hard times because of personal loss and tragedy, but she’s from an affluent background. So to have two people meet who should on paper literally have nothing in common, and maybe even be enemies when you get into the story, should be that they find something in each other that is human.

Tavis: I hear your point about humanity and I think you’re right. That’s what makes any project work is the extent to which the writer-director can usher us into appreciating and reveling in the humanity of the individual. I guess the question is how do you get to that humanity, navigating these tricky and thorny issues, without proselytizing in the film?

Bettany: Absolutely. I don’t know. It’s a really good question. Aim one, I’ve got no interest in taking anybody to a dark depressing place and leaving them there. The film is uplifting. It’s a hard one ending, a happy ending, in my opinion. It’s the saddest happiest ending I could write, okay?

I think it’s largely to do with having great actors. Anthony Mackie is a great actor. He can make anything sound real, and Jennifer also. Again, it’s about judgment and not having too many conclusions. It’s about becoming part of a conversation is really what I wanted to do, about how we treat homelessness in this country, which is urgent to talk about right now.

Tavis: I suspect that, if you’re going to do something for the first time, this is going to be your maiden voyage, it should be something that you write and direct that’s close to your heart. How did this become the story that you wrote?

Bettany: Okay, right. So like I said, I wanted to make a film about judgment. I didn’t know what that would be. We moved into Tribeca. We live in Tribeca right on the river, and there was a homeless couple, my neighbors, so to speak, a black guy and a blonde woman actually, not brunette like Jennifer.

When we moved in there, I would pass them every day on the school run. They lived on a little triangle of park on the edge of Canal Street and the West Side Highway. I would try and talk to them, very recalcitrant. And I’m ashamed to say that, as the weeks and months went by, I stopped seeing them. They became part of the landscape of the city that I live in.

And then Hurricane Sandy happened and, in the madness of trying to get my family into a car and head for higher ground–there was a mandatory evacuation of our area–I didn’t stop to think about where they, my neighbors, might weather the storm. And when we finally came back, there was a lot of damage to the property, I never saw them again and I just couldn’t stop thinking about them.

I thought, well, maybe they would actually make a very good template with which to discuss judgment because, you know, it’s not that they become invisible. There’s also almost a sort of aggressive reaction. Oh, you must have done something to bring yourself to this place, you know. I’m not a religious man.

My late father was and he always used to say when we passed a homeless person on the street, “There but for the Grace of God go I.” I wonder where that sentiment went because it’s beautiful. It’s an admission of how close we all are to that situation, how so easily one wrong turn it could be us. That’s really where the film came from.

I was really touched. I’ve watched homelessness. I’ve lived in New York City now for 15 years and I’ve watched homelessness spiral out of control. There’s been a 32% reduction in public housing in New York City and there are 60,000 homeless people in shelters every night.

24,000 of them tonight will be children, all that taking place in a city that is home to more billionaires than any other city on earth. For me, that’s shocking and it’s not just about the children. Like I said, we are all innocents. We are all worthy of forgiveness and all deserving of a home. So that’s where that movie came from.

Tavis: When I saw the project, though, it at least struck me this way. I’m curious as to how it struck the writer and director of the film and whether or not I was on to something here or completely off in left field. But that word “shelter” as the title is a double entendre. It means a number of different things.

It’s the shelter, the physical shelter that you talked about that more homeless people need access to, but it’s also I think about the shelter that we find in each other. Does that make sense to you?

Bettany: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. And the shelter that they find in each other from what can be a quite dangerous life, you know, it’s worth also remembering that of those 60,000 people, the overwhelming majority are there for financial reasons, not because of addiction reasons or mental illness reasons.

It’s to do with, you know, rents increasing and wages not. It’s interesting. We also, I think, need to establish a right to council in housing costs, for instance, because there isn’t. And if you have legal council with you, you’re 80% more likely to keep your house.

Right now, paying for legal council will cost the city $12.5 thousand dollars. The average stay for a homeless family in the shelter system is $45,000. So it’s simple. It’s not only morally the right thing to do. It’s simply financially for the city the right thing to do.

Tavis: I’m going to close where I began because I want to make room to talk to that great actor that you referenced a moment ago in this project, Anthony Mackie, who’ll be on set here in just a second. Before I let you go, though, I want to close where I began, as I said. I get the sense talking to you tonight that the bug really has bitten you and this is the first time, but not the last.

Bettany: It absolutely has, yeah. I hope, if somebody will give me money again [laugh], I hope to fill my directing shoes as soon as possible.

Tavis: Those are nice shoes, by the way.

Bettany: Thank you very much. I know you literally love them.

Tavis: Yeah. Those are nice director shoes. I got to find those. I like those. Good to have you here. Congratulations, Paul.

Bettany: Thank you very much.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: November 11, 2015 at 2:11 pm