BURBANK, Calif. — Paul Bettany couldn’t hear anything.
When the 43-year-old actor initially donned a noggin-encasing headpiece to portray the mysterious Vision in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” in theaters Friday, Bettany could barely make out what anyone was saying around him. That isolation ended up fueling his imposing performance in the follow-up to the 2012 smash that brought together Marvel’s mightiest heroes.
“I would go to a place of real Zen, where I meditated on the line of thousands and thousands of actors that would love to be in my position in an uncomfortable suit,” said Bettany in a recent interview at Disney Studios. “However, I would be lying to say it didn’t take a great deal of (expletive) effort not to rip it off. They ended up drilling holes in it because I literally couldn’t hear anything.”
After five years of voicing Tony Stark’s soothing operating system sidekick J.A.R.V.I.S. in the previous “Avengers” and “Iron Man” films, Bettany’s role as the purple-skinned Vision marks the first time in front of the cameras in a Marvel film for the lanky British actor best known for starring in such films as “Wimbledon,” “The Da Vinci Code” and “Priest.”
“The first day I walked on set, Robert (Downey Jr.) made a lovely speech welcoming me,” said Bettany. “Everybody was completely convivial and pleasant. They were making jokes — or at least I think they were making jokes because I couldn’t hear a (expletive) thing. It’s actually a really nice atmosphere on those sets. Often, it’s not like that.”
Bettany is portraying perhaps the best-kept secret of the second “Avengers” outing. In the comics, the commanding Vision is a type of android dubbed a “synthzoid” by Ultron, the nefarious robot that created him. The cinematic rendition is similarly fashioned by Ultron (played by James Spader as an evil artificial intelligence program).
However, this Vision might not be what he seems.
“He’s an android, technically, but I would say he’s what’s next,” said writer-director Joss Whedon. “He’s more evolved than the rest of us, which may prove to be a good thing or not. To me, this Vision feels like what it meant to me to read him as a kid. He has that calm distance but is also strangely emotional. Paul is just soooo phenomenal as him.”
The critics apparently agree. Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter wrote in his review of “Age of Ultron” that “Vision is given a striking profile and overall presence by Paul Bettany, and it can be hoped, if not assumed, that this most intriguing character will play an even more important role in the final two ‘Avengers ‘installments.”
It’s a new chapter that’s been years in the making for Bettany.
“I knew that I was going to be the Vision for three years because there was a bit of business to do,” said Bettany. “The contract for voiceover work wasn’t the same, so I knew that for a long time and had to keep it secret, which I did really well. I had to travel everywhere on set in a (expletive) bag because there were so many cameras everywhere.”
Transforming into Vision was a three-and-a-half-hour-long process each day for Bettany that involved a skintight suit, lots of makeup, a bit of computer-generated flair and that metallic headpiece. Bettany noted “the solution is often in the problem itself,” and that the oppressive costume provided a sense of calm to his interpretation of the Vision.
“I never thought I was going to play someone being born, obviously, because I’m 43 years old,” said Bettany. “It’s actually a really interesting opportunity and peculiarly edifying to imagine yourself as a total innocent without any moral compass experiencing the world as it hits you, and at the same time be omnipotent and extraordinarily powerful. “
The character, who is romantically involved with Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) in the comics, is expected to play a part in the upcoming “Avengers” sequels: “Infinity War — Part I” in 2018 and “Infinity War — Part II” in 2019. Bettany acknowledged he doesn’t totally know Marvel’s grand vision for Vision — and he doesn’t want to hear it just yet, either.