Of all the actors in Avengers: Age of Ultron, James Spader and Paul Bettany probably had the most challenging characters to play. As Ultron, Spader was tasked with bringing to life not only a character rendered entirely by computers, but a strong, menacing villain who also had a sense of humor. As Vision, Bettany had to add a physical dimension to his previous voice-only character of Jarvis, while also making him distinct from Jarvis, not to mention having to be mostly purple.
On my press trip to L.A. last month, my fellow bloggers and I got the chance to talk with Spader and Bettany about their experiences in making the film, and how they got the parts in the first place. Here are some of the highlights from the interview (I should note that Spader tended to be a bit… verbose in his answers):
First, Spader was asked about how Ultron was created from his performance – how much of it was him, and how much was the computer.
- Most of the dialog that you hear in the movie and most of what you’re looking at, we shot on the set just in a fairly conventional fashion. It didn’t feel conventional at the time, considering everything I was in, but… the dialog was all from what we shot on the set doing scenes with the other actors as you would in any film or in any setting. And I was so pleased [be]cause I haven’t seen the final film but I was very pleased that I saw a lot of footage during post production.
So I saw big sections of the entire film. And even in its sort of formative stages, it was remarkable to see. I haven’t seen [Ultron’s] face really yet fine-tuned [be]cause that’s the most sort of precise and infinitesimal thing that they do in terms of trying to take advantage of my expressions and translate them into a metal guy.
But I was amazed that I saw this magnificent body, made out of vibranium and all the rest of it, this sort of technological wonder. To actually see my 55-year-old sort of very comfy physique, and to see all of my gesture[s] and posture and movements and expression, and all of it was there. And then my son did see the film a couple of days ago. … So it was worth it, I guess, to go through all of the arduous process of motion capture. Which is fascinating, actually.
… [T]he very first day that I walked onto the studio lot, before I ever hit a set or anything, within a half hour, I walked into a room and the room was a big empty room and there were cameras set up around and there was a bunch of guys with a whole bunch of laptops, and women and so on, all sitting around.
And they put me in a fractal suit, which looks like you’re gonna go for a run, but has shapes and colors and things all over it. And then they dotted up my face and they put a big rig on my back and a big headgear rig that had two sort of antenna that come down that are cameras that are right [in front of my face] with headlights right [t]here, so I’m lit right [t]here.
And they had me go through a range of motions: fingers, head turns, and all the rest of it. And then they put it into some program on the computer. …[A]nd in fifteen minutes I could walk in my outfit into the center of the room and turn my head, move my fingers, and I could look at a monitor and see a sort of formative stage of Ultron doing everything I was doing.
So right from the very first moment I arrived there, I could start getting a sense of what sort of physicality would be appropriate for that eight-foot robot. And there was a guy there, quite small, who would’ve been proportionate to my height. I’m five-ten; he was very small. He [had a] sort of proportionate height to what – not Chris Hemsworth but maybe an average-height Avenger might be in proportion to me if I was eight feet tall. And he was wearing a fractal suit and all the gear as well, and they made him do the range of motion and everything else and within fifteen minutes he and I would go move around the room, and he was as [a] different character, and so I was able to see right away me as an eight-foot Ultron with another actor who’s a proportionate height to what an average size person would be.
It was really amazing. So right from the very first moment, I was already getting a sense of how to perform for this character.
Following that, Bettany got a chance to talk.
- I have a question for Paul. We always knew you as Jarvis. What was your reaction when you found out that you would be The Vision?
- Well, it was sort of vindication, really, because I had just come out of a meeting with a producer who told me my career was over. This is a true story. And I sat on the curb in Hollywood with my feet in the gutter, and my phone went and I looked at it and went, “Hello?” I didn’t recognize the number, and it was Joss Whedon. He said, “Do you want to play The Vision?” And I went – it’s so quick these days – “Yeah, I kinda do.” True story. So it was lovely.
Bettany was then asked how filming Age of Ultron was different from playing Jarvis in previous MCU films.
- I was brought in at the last moment to solve any clarity issues the film had, which was my superhero power as Jarvis. What was the difference? The difference was I had to go to the gym, had to stop eating carbs. I finally got to be on set with a bunch of really lovely, creative, talented people.
- I did not have to cut back on carbs. Somehow, amazingly enough, those animators were able to slim me right down.
Spader was then asked how he got the part of Ultron.
- I have three sons, and I have never in my entire career ever chosen a film to work on for the sake of my children. And most of the films that I’ve done, they really shouldn’t watch. … And [my second son], he loved comics and loved superhero movies and fantasy and all that stuff. He just loved it. And then by circumstance I also at the time had a three-year-old son, again, and he was already sort of raiding his brother’s little figures and little things like that and was excited about it. And I just thought, I just want to make a film for them, you know? So I went in and I sat down with Kevin Feige and Jeremy Latcham and they had reached out to my agent and said, “You know, we’d love to sit down with James.”
… [A]nd there’d be things that came along along the way over the next two years or so and, and he would be like, “I just don’t know if it’s the… I know what James is looking for. He wants a really great bad guy.” And so, all of a sudden, about two or three years after that meeting Joss Whedon walked into their offices and said, “You know, I don’t really have anyone else for this role except for James Spader.” And they said, “Well, funny you should mention that ’cause we’ve been trying to find the right thing. And so the next thing was a phone call from Joss… I said, “What the hell can I bring to an eight foot robot? That’s not my skill set.”
And he told me sort of what he was looking for in terms of the character. But he said, “You know, let me send you something to look at ’cause the script is in revisions right now, but let me send you something so you can get a sense of what this character really is.” And he said, “In the comic books, the guy’s just sort of this raging robot. ‘I am going to destroy you,’ you know?” He said “I really want to extrapolate on that.” So he sent me these scenes that were threatening, intimidating, crazy, funny, quoting Emily Dickinson. It was just such a weird, complex amalgamation of things. And as it turns out, Kevin Feige told me a couple of days later, “You know those aren’t even scenes from the movie. Joss wrote those scenes just to send you, so that you’d have a sense of the character.” I thought, what a lovely thing to do, that he just wrote these scenes as this is what this character’s going to be like, an example of who he is.
And they were really tailored for that. And he was absolutely right: It was all of that. Just a weird mix of crazy, scary, funny, poetic; you know, just a weird guy.
(I told you Spader talked a lot.)
If you haven’t yet, please read my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, my list of 7 Things Parents Should Know about the film, and the various other interviews I’ve published on GeekDad regarding the movie.
My press trip to L.A. was paid for by Marvel/Disney. All opinions expressed here are my own.