Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany Test Their Real-Life Chemistry
The trailer for WandaVision, the highly-anticipated Marvel miniseries, showed a picture of marital bliss: Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), the two halves of the titular couple, smile in black and white, she with her coiffed curls and taffeta dress, he in suit, tie, and glistening android sheen. It’s soon clear that our central couple is not so typical, and neither is their universe. What seems to be a farcical 1950s domestic sitcom explodes into a genre-bending, decade-jumping, technicolor superhero mystery.
A continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, WandaVision is the first series from from the studio and is now streaming on Disney+. An homage to both classical television genres and Marvel’s own established cinematic language, the series invites viewers to jump headfirst into what Bettany calls a “beautiful little puzzle box,” at their own peril. Some months before the series’ January premiere and shortly after the U.S. presidential election, the onscreen couple caught up on the news and tested their offscreen chemistry with a revealing game of Newlyweds. After all, how well can you really know someone until you know how they cook their eggs? —SARAH NECHAMKIN
PAUL BETTANY: Lizzie, how are you doing?
ELIZABETH OLSEN: I’m good. Where are you? Are you in the city?
BETTANY: I’m in Brooklyn. I was thinking about you and wishing you had been in the U.S. for the [presidential election] results.
OLSEN: For the celebrations?
BETTANY: The screaming in the street. It was amazing. You knew [the result] immediately because the people were out banging pots. I’ve been watching television for about 23 hours a day, and my wife [the actor Jennifer Connelly] is furious at me. She’s like, “Could you just stop watching television for five minutes?” So I did. And she got on the treadmill and turned the TV on, and she went, “Oh, they just called it.”
OLSEN: Everyone checked their phone at the exact same time. People just were cheering and screaming. I remember that from Obama.
BETTANY: Yeah. I’ve got to say, I was here for Obama, and New York felt different. This felt like relief as well. There were people dancing on cars with Obama, but I’m talking every taxi driver in New York City honking a horn at the same time. It was really something. What was it like in England when you got the news?
OLSEN: Well, it’s bonfire week. There are fireworks going off every single night.
BETTANY: Yeah. That’s when we like to burn effigies of Catholics.
OLSEN: We were streaming CNN or MSNBC or something yesterday, and they were putting up images of international reactions, and for London it was a bunch of fireworks. And I was thinking, “Well, it was bonfire night.” Apparently there are fireworks until New Year’s.
BETTANY: Exactly. Fake news.
OLSEN: But it was interesting to see how British friends reacted. Do you remember Sarah Shepherd, the dialect coach? She was like you. She was like, “I can name every single county in North Carolina, in Georgia, in Pennsylvania. I can put all the states in order on a map.” I guess as a British person working with so many Americans, she just felt incredibly invested.
BETTANY: I think people really did feel invested. I think people understood what a danger this was. You just felt like, four more years of this would be the end of NATO, and the end of the Western alliance, and whatever you think of the Western alliance, it’s a working piece that we’ve had since the second World War, and I think if felt like there was a lot at stake. And so, the relief is just fantastic. Over here, the whole thing feels so much lighter. Everybody’s really chipper and nice to each other on the streets, which is really weird in New York City.
OLSEN: The thing I enjoyed is reading all the different international leaders’ statements, lots of not-so-subtle hints to Trump’s endeavors of creating lawsuits.
BETTANY: The mayor of Paris tweeting, “Welcome back, America,”which I thought was so naughty. I think it would be great to take the heat out of the rhetoric. That would be good.
OLSEN: Yeah. That’s what I’m excited about. I’m tired of reading something crazy that happened every day.
BETTANY: Yes. I feel optimistic because I think if anybody can take the cruelty out of the rhetoric, Biden can. I do think that it’s very difficult to look at family members in the eye when you think of kids kidnapped from their parents versus tax breaks. I think it got to such a pitch of awfulness, it’s really hard to understand how 70 million people seemed okay with that, or could hold their nose and vote that way. And I don’t hide my disdain for being okay with that.
OLSEN: But I would argue for people from other people’s points of view, they would say that was also happening during Obama’s administration.
BETTANY: The cages were built, but they weren’t separated from their parents. So the argument is a serious one, but for me it’s more a practical matter, which is, there are 70 million people that did choose to vote the way they chose, and they’re going to vote again in four years time, and if you don’t start a more civil dialogue with each other, it’s just going to be an arms race of who can register more voters.
OLSEN: Right. And to start with understanding other people’s needs, and their whys, and to start having a true dialogue. For us, talking about it is a double-edged sword. You have this platform where you have certain moral standards, and you want to vocalize it because it’s important, and at the same time, you also don’t want to ridicule others for having different types of policy beliefs, or certain religious beliefs that would make them have reasons to have different points of view. So it’s a strange position having a conversation like this for Interview magazine, and I think it’s something that social media has made even louder. Maybe we did push the dial in a certain way this time, but it certainly didn’t work for Hillary, and it had the same kind of power behind it from a media standpoint.
BETTANY: That’s the other thing that’s extraordinary about this year in American politics, is the amount of engagement. The percentage of eligible electorate that actually voted is really extraordinary. So I think a conversation has started, and hopefully it can become more civil. But it would be impossible to ignore it.
OLSEN: I think what’s incredible to come out of it is this awareness of the functioning aspects of government. When you look at how everything functions, you’re like, how the hell have we been doing this for so long? There are so many flaws in the system. And no checks and balances, actually. It’s what you’re taught in school. It’s how the whole thing works, but it’s not, really.
BETTANY: And right now, the thing that feels really different is that you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. You can’t imagine how 70 million people have come to a totally different conclusion than you have. Part of that is because we have two different sets of facts. I think a really interesting thing in the next four years will be how we take on big tech and social media in the world, so that maybe we can get back to one set of facts that we can all agree on.
OLSEN: You go to school learning about propaganda during World War I or World War II, and meanwhile we just live in a perpetual cyber land of propaganda. It’s no longer something you study in school. It’s what our country has actually become. It just depends on whatever your algorithm is, to see what kind of propaganda you want.
BETTANY: And the algorithm is desperate to make you think more, and more, and more like yourself, so that it can quantify you and sell you things.
OLSEN: But the real question, Paul, is how do we get all the algorithms to get people to watch WandaVision?
BETTANY: Probably not by talking politics for 40 minutes.
OLSEN: Yeah. I don’t think that’s helping.
BETTANY: I think we can forgive ourselves for pontificating about politics for too long. So, you’re in London. I know you were desperate to get there, because you love it. Is it living up to it?
OLSEN: It is. It really is. The lockdown, I feel like, has been how I live my life anyway, when we were finishing our show. So that doesn’t bother me at all. It wasn’t like I was really enjoying my life going to restaurants beforehand. So I feel exactly the same, except for the weekends. We’re right by the river, and no one wears masks. There are crowds and crowds of people gathering, and not social distancing, and ordering their takeout food. Real true crowds of people! I saw three masks the other day, and I walked for three hours.
OLSEN: Robbie [Arnett, Olsen’s fiancée] and I were masked up, and people just stared at us. We definitely felt like tourists. The only people wearing masks were German or French.
BETTANY: I had no idea.
OLSEN: Yeah. I’m analyzing how quickly we’ve all gotten used to something that felt so foreign, so fast, and we all just became comfortable with it, and it became the norm. But here it really isn’t, at least outside. If you’re going into a store, sure, but not if you’re just outside, even in a queue. I’ve got some weird pandemic anxiety, but I’m happy to be here. I’m happy for the rain, I’m happy for the cool. And there’s no pollution here.
BETTANY: No forest fires, nothing.
OLSEN: Yeah, no forest fires here. But every time I smell burning wood, which is everywhere here, part of me thinks something’s on fire. My first response is assuming there’s a fire nearby, because it smells exactly like what L.A. smells like. How are you? Have you had time to decompress, or are you just so excited to talk to me all the time, every week?
BETTANY: Super excited to talk to you all the time, and deal with all of the technical issues that have happened literally every time we try to talk to each other. But I have a question for you: Do you think WandaVision is a step forward in female-driven storytelling? And what do you hope it adds to the cultural conversation?
OLSEN: Yes, I think it is. I think anything that is a female-driven story that is true and authentic to anything else’s experience is a step forward. I also think there is something really interesting that, thematically, is in our show about parenting, and the desire to control and create a bubble that I think was burst out of [director] Jac Schaeffer, and is this larger metaphor and experience of what it means to be a parent. Like, how much you would want to actually expose your child to, and when, and what age, and how quickly they grow up. I think there is something very maternal about it, as well, which is what I love. Even her birthing this creation from Greece. I don’t really know how much to talk about this show, to be honest, without spoilers. Sorry. What do you think?
BETTANY: I do. I think it’s also so nice that this has been born out of films in a genre that is quite testosterone-driven, and has a smattering of estrogen. And now we have a show made of estrogen with a smattering of testosterone in it, and it felt really good. This is a terrible pun that wasn’t intended, but I do marvel at what Jac managed to create, and it feels like a beautiful little puzzle box. I’ve rewatched the trailer, and I was imagining, for other people looking at it, it looks insane. But for us, we realize that all of these, each layer and episode, is going to be revealed, and each layer stripped away. There’s a beautiful, elegantly drawn puzzle box that is being revealed. And I’m so excited to see it.
OLSEN: I am too, because I also think that it’s so bonkers, and it was filmed over 115 or something work days, and over a year of doing it, and I’ve never really done more than one project besides when Infinity War and Endgame did that. But those were for two features, and this is one show, and it feels disjointed in my memory, and I really can’t wait to see it all pieced together. I’m having this in-between anxiety of, am I giving myself enough decompression time, or do I even do that? Do I just keep moving forward? And at what point do we let our minds wander? Because I truly believe that having that quarantine time of nothingness—with the exception of everything happening politically, and the country burning in many ways—I felt like my brain was able to read books, and then be shocked by certain books and how they would create ideas. That time for rest was the most nourishing time. Do you know what I mean?
BETTANY: I think I know exactly what you mean, and I have wondered what it must be like. It’s one thing to go on to something different. But for you, it’s a continuation of the story that we were just telling. And [the pandemic] did feel like a particularly brutal way for that to happen to you. But there it is.
OLSEN: I think what I feel most grateful about for our show, was us getting the opportunity to just really be able to answer every single possible question that could be asked of these characters. I feel like I understand both of them so much more, and I feel way more capable of being shuffled around the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the experience. Which is what’s so beautiful about Marvel—they allow you to bring your experiences with you. And that hasn’t stopped. So what’s next for you, Paul Bettany?
BETTANY: God, I really don’t know. Gainfully unemployed. Right now it’s just lovely hanging out with the kids, but at some point I’m going to actually have to think about paying the mortgage. I’m going to have to find a job at some point. Or I’ll just send Jennifer out. I’ll just toss around at home.
OLSEN: Are you writing? I was looking at these newlywed questions here—what do you think the other person would do for vocation if they weren’t an actor? And I was thinking writer or journalist. Am I completely off by that?
BETTANY: No, I think that’s a really good answer. I think it’s the only other thing I could have done. I was also looking at these questions, and I was thinking about, if you could have a superpower in your personal life, what would it be? And I was thinking, god, we get asked that all the time, and I always answer a really dull way, which is flying. And of course I’d like to fly, but I would also really like to be able to make any surface really slippery, because—
OLSEN: That’s what you came up with instead of flying?
BETTANY: Yes. So here I am, and I’m standing, and somebody is about to attack me, or whatever, and I’d just make the ground really slippery. Or if there’s somebody who’s an asshole on set, or a politician that you didn’t like, you could just point your finger and make the ground really slippery and they’d slip over. I think it’s a really good, minor superpower. When we were doing the first episode, we shot it in front of a live studio audience over two days, and it’s a very farcical 1950s sitcom, so there’s a lot of running through doors and into kitchens. I slipped over behind the counter, and the audience thought it was part of the thing, and I didn’t get up. So maybe you’ve already got that one.
OLSEN: Do you remember what I always say in interviews when they ask that question?
BETTANY: I feel like it’s flying, too. Or is it invisibility?
OLSEN: No, it was always the power to heal. It was so sincere. Some kind of physical manifestation of compassion.
BETTANY: That’s a lot of power. What if there’s somebody that you really shouldn’t heal? Dun, dun, dun.
OLSEN: I think everyone deserves to be healed, even if they are not grateful afterwards, because isn’t that the act of generosity? To give, even if the receiver is not a deserved recipient? You don’t agree with that.
BETTANY: That’s terrible. I feel really resistant.
OLSEN: Oh, you know what that was, it’s a Marilyn Robinson quote. It was in the New Yorker. Marilyn Robinson is being interviewed for a profile on her and her book, and she’s talking about the act of generosity being the impulse for art, for art actually being the act of generosity. It makes me think of Dave Chappelle. Did you watch SNL on Saturday?
BETTANY: I didn’t watch it, no.
OLSEN: So he finished it, basically, by saying, “Do kind things to others, regardless of if they deserve it or not.” And he was specifically talking about Black people. He’s always been such a moving and brilliant storyteller, and has so much heart, and he always is able to give a joke within it, but he doesn’t need to. He’s one of the best truth-tellers in the States.
BETTANY: It’s quite a gift. He is extraordinary. I think we can really deal with these questions. Like, who’s the neatest? Definitely you.
OLSEN: Yes, I’m pretty neat, but I wouldn’t consider you messy, either.
BETTANY: I am not messy because it’s been drummed into me by my wife. I think, if left to my own devices, I trend pretty untidy. And just through a massive need to please my wife all of the time, I have learned to be tidy, but I don’t think it’s in my nature.
OLSEN: Isn’t that awful that we’re better people, instead of just for ourselves, for having responsibility to our partners?
BETTANY: Yes. And also because I have no personal resources of my own, and need somebody else to focus. Who’s the best cook? It’s you. I love to cook, but nobody loves to cook more than you.
OLSEN: Yeah, but I haven’t had your cooking, so I couldn’t answer this question honestly.
BETTANY: Who’s the most likely to deal with a spider? I think both of us would be fine with spiders.
OLSEN: You are. I hate spiders. That’s on you.
BETTANY: What is your worst habit?
OLSEN: I’m going to let you answer that. There’s plenty.
BETTANY: I have two. Occasionally smoking small cigars, which are disgusting, and interrupting when I get excited. Even if I don’t know enough about the subject, I still interrupt.
OLSEN: I would say your worst habit is your Diet Coke drinking.
BETTANY: Oh, my god. My Diet Coke drinking is out of control, but it’s mostly out of control when I’m on a show.
OLSEN: I’m sure. But I will say that when I walked into a trailer that was filled with Diet Coke, I knew you were in that trailer before me.
BETTANY: At least it wasn’t vodka. What would be your last meal? I’m going to guess that you would have a very big glass of red wine with a spaghetti bolognese.
OLSEN: That could be a possibility. Part of me also would like to have a very specific meal catered by il Buco. il Buco has always been my last meal destination my whole life, which is very close to what you were imagining, because it’s Italian. Your last meal, I think, would be a big gin and tonic to start.
OLSEN: You know what? I’m not sure what you would eat. I just know that it would be carbohydrates.
BETTANY: But you knew the booze absolutely perfectly. This is speaking volumes.
OLSEN: I also think we’d both really love some caviar during our last meal, because, why not go out with some of that?
BETTANY: What would be the other persons dream job? I think that you would be a great designer. Maybe like, high architecture.
OLSEN: I would love to go back to school for architecture or design. Well done, Paul. But I’d have agricultural hobbies in the meantime. I could get into horticulture. I can’t quite answer that question until people stop hiring me as an actor. How do you feel about being an actor forever?
BETTANY: I don’t know. At some point I think I’m going to be ready to hang up my acting tights and do something else. I think I could putter. Putter around antique shops, and then pour myself a gin and tonic, and then mess around in the garden a bit. But I do think that in quarantine, we all thought we were bakers for a while, and then I was really glad that ended, because I’d put on 20 pounds, and I was really glad that we got into growing arugula. How do you like your eggs cooked?
OLSEN: I think it depends on location and mood.
BETTANY: Yes. But I think you’re over-easy. I don’t think you’re going to like a rubbery egg, or rubbery scrambled eggs, but I can also see you with a soft poached egg, given the right morning.
OLSEN: I like eggs every which way possible. I love eggs. And so I don’t really know how to answer the question, honestly, for myself, because it depends on if I’m just having eggs, or if there’s smoked salmon involved, because I could eat smoked salmon underneath my fried egg.
BETTANY: What celebrity would you like to be stuck on an island with?
OLSEN: I can’t think of a single celebrity I would ever want to be stuck on a desert island with.
BETTANY: It wouldn’t work. Two celebrities just talking about themselves endlessly. I need somebody who’s going to listen to me intently. It would be a lot like this interview.