SA EXCLUSIVE: Paul Bettany talks to us about Transcendence

2014-05-15 05:30
Cape Town - For his latest role in Transcendence Paul Bettany became a tweed wearing neurobiologist.

The film by first time director Wally Pfister is a sci-fi thriller about a scientist who is the foremost researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. His brain gets uploaded into a supercomputer with the aim of creating the world’s first machine that can think for itself.

It stars Johnny Depp as Dr Will Caster and Paul Bettany as Dr Max Waters, his best friend.

In this exclusive interview Bettany talk about how he prepared to play a neurobiologist, what it’s like to be behind the camera and whether or not he will ever move back to England.

Paul, in Transcendence you play Dr Max Waters, a neurobiologist. What kind of research did you undertake?    

I’m a fool about technology and I wanted to feel like a diligent actor so I talked to the head of neuroscience at Caltech, Christof Koch. He’s a brilliant man and was very sweet with me, just like how I am patient with my Alsatian. He spoke to me like a dog, and well he should. But when I asked him what is the truth of this and how far fetched is this story his reply was: “30 years”. He’s not a kook. He is one of the foremost neuroscientists in the world. I said, “Really? You are talking about uploading a human brain with all of it’s sophistication and all of its thoughts and all of its history and infinitesimal detail will happen in 30 years’ time?” and he said “Yes”. I said, “But, that is some sort of immortality” and he said, “Yes”. He was totally assured. We are at the elbow of the curve and computers are doubling in their power every year. Garry Kasparov laughed at the first computer he played at chess and a year later he was beaten by that computer. We are at the elbow, apparently, of the exponential journey. That was really extraordinary to hear. It wasn’t what I went to visit Dr Koch for. I wanted to ask, “Do you wear tweed jackets?” They do by the way. I wasn’t going to wear a tweed jacket, but everyone I met had tweed jackets and patches on the arms, corduroy pants.

When you spoke to Professor Koch and he told you humans will have the ability to upload the human brain in 30 years’ time, was he concerned about what that could mean?

No. It was just like it was a road that just happens to be there. I’m sure it will be like every other invention. You know, a 3D printer can make a prosthetic limb and it can also make a hand gun. Everybody who I spoke to felt very much that the next human stage of evolution would be enmeshed with machinery.
It must have been daunting playing someone who is an expert in something you know little about?    

The way I go about things is I look at the bit of the character I know nothing about and try and fill that gap and then I cling to the part of the character I understand. The thing I understand is doing something morally ambiguous for someone you love.
You directed a movie recently, Shelter. It is totally different to Transcendence.

It’s a drama and has Anthony Mackie and my wife in it. It was an extraordinary journey.

They play homeless people don’t they? How did you come up with the story?

There was a homeless couple outside my building. There was also a guy who had three shopping carts filled with books. They were real heady books like, Remembrance of Things Past. Every morning I’d walk by him with my kids on their way to school and he was taciturn in the extreme. Then the hurricane happened in New York and we were evacuated. In a mad rush I got my wife, three children a dog and a cat in the car and didn’t stop to think about them at all. I haven’t seen them since. After that I started to write a story.

Are you losing interest in acting and now looking to direct?

No. I adore acting even more from the experience of directing. There is a freedom with acting that is less so than with directing. Directing, 98% of the questions you get are like: “What shade of red do you want the shoes to be” and the other two percent are impossible to answer and that is an extraordinary exhilarating experience.

Do you think you’ll ever move back to England?
I fell in love with an American  woman and we have one of those complicated 21st Century relationships where we have a child from another relationship and he’s an American and we have  to facilitate them being able to see each other. But, we live in New York City. It’s a great city and I have loved my time in America.  There are extraordinary things about it.

Watch the trailer here:

(Photos: Lionsgate)

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