British actor Bettany sat down with movies.ie to discuss new movie Margin Call, which was shot in just 17 days on a budget of $3m.
Hailed as the best movie yet about the 2008 economic crash, Margin Call has wracked up some of the strongest reviews of the past 12 months.
Set in the offices of one fictional New York investment bank over the course of one night on the eve of the financial calamity, Margin Call boasts a whopper of an ensemble cast including Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto (also serving as producer), Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, and Paul Bettany.
Q: How did you become involved in the movie?
A: My agent sent me the script, and I thought it was great. I went to meet the director, JC Chandor, who was incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable about this world. Plus it already had Zach Quinto producing it as well as Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci, and it was going to be two-and-a-half weeks out of my time. I thought that was a good punt.
Q: How much research did you do for the part in Margin Call? A: All I knew about the banking world beforehand is that I had a bank account and a PIN number. So I went on a trading floor and shadowed a guy who did my character’s job, listened in on his calls, and asked him questions. It was really enlightening. It’s surprising because I guess you have certain preconceptions about the person you’re going to meet. Then you’re actually sat opposite a human being and it’s quite confounding because they have a wife and kids and a mortgage, and they felt like they tried to tell their boss what was about to happen and their boss didn’t listen. They’re human.
Q: There’s a lot of information to get your head around, isn’t there? The industry is really jargon-heavy. I was wondering why it was all “meltdown”, “derivatives”, “toxic asset” and “margin call”. You can actually trace back what a “toxic asset” is. It’s someone defaulting on their mortgage and losing their house. Then you realise that the terminology is there to distance these people from the human consequences of what they’re doing.
Q: It must be a challenge for an actor to agree to play a character that nobody will have any natural sympathy for these days: a banker? A: There’s no doubt that more people should have gone to prison, but it would be pointless to make a film where you play to the audience desire to see these people hanged. It didn’t happen. To me, it seems churlish to ask the head of an investment bank not to be greedy. It’s their job to corral as much wealth as they can for their company. It’s a systemic problem in that capitalism is voracious, and you need to leash it. The onus is on governments to regulate.
Q: Writer-director J.C. Chandor has come out of nowhere with this movie. What’s his background? A: He grew up in that world. His dad was a trader at Merrill Lynch for 30 years, so he was interested in the criminality of what went on but also the human aspect. By his own admission, his father did good things and bad things, and he was the perfect person to tell that story and be able to make it even-handed.
Q: He assembled a great cast for his first movie, for which you all had to take pay cuts. How did he do it? A: I have no idea. He talks a really good fight. But also there’s a dearth of well-written scripts, so when one turns up, actors like good writing. Nobody was in there for any financial gain. There’s also some magic and luck involved. It gets to the right person, and you get a lynchpin like Kevin Spacey, who really wanted to do it. So others trust that person’s taste, and a project catches fire.
Q: Do you feel a bit cheated when you become part of a cast like this but then only get to spend 17 days together? A: I had such a great time on it that I remember more from this than from some films I was on for five months. It was a really fulfilling time. I got really close to Kevin. He’s a lovely man and a real company leader. He led from the top and created a really great working environment.
Q: It’s risky making such a “torn from the headlines” movie like this, isn’t it? Did you ever fear that audiences would be too weary of reading and hearing about the financial crisis to want to see it depicted in fiction too? A: No, never, but the degree of success that the movie has had is a shock to everybody. It was out for two days and suddenly got a Video On Demand deal in the US. Who knew that a week before its American release that the Occupy Wall St movement would start? Our film was suddenly part of that dialogue.
Q: There’s talk that Margin Call is an outside bet for an Oscar nomination. What, realistically, do you think are its chances? A: I don’t know if they have money to even send screeners to voters. I would say no, but then I’m so surprised by everything that’s happened for this film. It’s weird: people decide that something is cool, and sometimes it feels completely arbitrary.
Q: You’ve done a few blockbusters that haven’t caught the public imagination as hoped/expected. Is that the flipside of a small, low-budget movie growing legs and finding an audience? A: Good movies are not really released; they escape. Sometimes you pour your heart and soul into something, and you see it and you think it’s good, but then it just doesn’t catch. I find the whole thing confounding.
Words – Declan Cashin Margin Call is now showing in Irish Cinemas