The passion and pain of Jennifer Connelly
Jennifer Connelly talks about the long road to recognition, how to do sex scenes – and playing Darwin's wife alongside her real-life husband, Paul Bettany, in Creation
Jennifer Connelly's tears are reputedly the finest in all cinema. They flowed at the Toronto film festival last week when she choked out an explanation for cutting short her appearance at the gala screening of her new film, Creation – a departure that caused one corporate sponsor to publicly rip up a photo of her. “I had to leave early because yesterday was the first anniversary of my father's death and I'm very sorry,” she said. “I would love to have stayed longer but I was not able to.”
An hour later, when we meet, I ask why she felt the need to apologise. She's not keen to elaborate. “I just felt a need to clarify the situation,” she says crisply.
Just as quickly, she relaxes – her eyes switching from implacability to warmth. Those green eyes have been her career's most prominent weapon, and they get a good workout in Creation, in which she plays Charles Darwin's wife. Her husband Paul Bettany was already cast as Darwin when Creation's makers asked Connelly if she'd be interested in playing the devout Emma. “I did think that it was the sort of film that we could do together, and we had wanted to work together on something for some time,” she says.
It seems needlessly stressful, working with your real-life partner. There was a brief vogue for it in the 1990s, before Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's grim efforts to force-feed audiences their mutual adoration made the practice an industry taboo. Connelly admits there had been resistance to earlier, aborted attempts to find a project they could star in together (including a brief flirtation with Brideshead Revisited).
'We feel safe with one another'
“We had heard a lot of opinions about it,” she says. “Why do I want to? Because he's a very good actor and I thought it would be a privilege to work with him. There are certain scenarios people don't want to see, like a married couple having sex in a film. But I don't want to see a sexy movie about Charles Darwin, and the film-makers didn't want to make that film, so it seemed like there was nothing about our personal pairing that could take away from the film. Perhaps we could have a headstart in that we clearly feel safe with one another.”
Creation depicts a conflicted, anxious Darwin wrestling with the conflict between his faith and his findings, with his wife's piety causing him to question whether he should even write On the Origin of Species, for fear it “will kill God”. Darwin's work also takes a toll on his marriage, his internal conflict being mirrored in battles with Emma.
Connelly gets to grips with the accent (mostly), keeps a stiff upper lip, and has an almost absent-minded closeness with Bettany that boosts Creation's potency. Yes, sex scenes are absent, but there is a bedroom sequence in which the couple's affection is tenderly aired. No need to fake it, or manufacture intimacy with an actor you're not actually in love with. Which, Connelly admits, she finds hard. “Sex scenes are incredibly awkward, they're always uncomfortable.” Would she rather not do them? “I think they're overused and people get very flustered by them. People don't know how to discuss them and there's a lot of embarrassment. It's not my favourite thing to do, but there are circumstances in which they make sense. I just wish people wouldn't dance around them.”
Connelly herself wasn't raised “in a formal religion”, but communicating an unquestioning variety of faith isn't a huge challenge for an actor so adept at emotional messiness. Connelly has always projected intelligence on screen, but also reservoirs of passion and pain that can be disturbing to watch. She won the best supporting actress Oscar in 2002 for playing the wife of another tormented genius in A Beautiful Mind. It's also the film during which she met Bettany (though they didn't share any scenes together, Bettany's character being a figment of Crowe's imagination). They hung out on set but romance didn't blossom until months after the film had wrapped.
“We were both in other relationships at the time,” says Connelly. “Clearly we noticed each other and clearly we liked each other. But I have very strong feelings about things that are right and things that aren't and that was all very clear …” She claps her hands together for emphasis. “We didn't get involved, we went back to our separate lives.”
Six months later, they bumped into each other, by which time both were single again, and married in 2003. Does Connelly see any perils in a film-star marriage? Clearly, they operate on different planes of stardom: despite being Creation's headline act, he got short shrift on the Toronto red carpet beside Connelly; and he didn't get the torn-photo treatment for that alleged snub. The only “curious” thing Connelly can come up with is putting make-up on together in the mornings during the filming of Creation. “I have nothing juicy to share with you,” she says. “It all just feels very natural.”
The shadow of Hulk
She was already shooting Ang Lee's Hulk when she won the Oscar. In hindsight, I wonder whether she still feels that was a good choice for her, in light of the film's crushing reception and the fact that its own studio clearly took such a dim view of it that they remade it five years later. “It doesn't diminish the experience for me. But I can't say that I feel entirely neutral about it. Who wouldn't want people to respond favourably to something that they make? I want that, too. But I started working when I was so young and I wasn't making my choices then. And the thing that I am really happy about is that, for better or worse, I make my own choices now. I feel like I've claimed my own career and I take responsibility for it and I had very clear reasons for becoming involved in that film – Ang Lee is a really talented film-maker and he had some good ideas for that film.” Did any part of her feel insulted when the same studio made the second Hulk? “No. Should I be? I haven't seen the new film but I take no offence – I'm friends with Liv [Tyler, who stars in the second Hulk] and it never even crossed my mind to feel uncomfortable about it.”
Connelly was 11 years old when she made her first film – Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America – and her next two saw her work with Dario Argento in Creepers and David Bowie in Labyrinth. It's astonishing she stayed in the business, after a start like that. In 1992, The Rocketeer was meant to make her a star but didn't, and Connelly needed her bombshell beauty to sustain her livelihood. She worked tirelessly to claw her way towards respectability, finally leaving eye-candy and bad-girl parts behind when Darren Aronofsky cast her as one of his degraded heroin addicts in Requiem for a Dream. (Her climactic humiliation is one of the grimmest movie sequences of the last 30 years.)
The film that changed everything
Requiem was without doubt the turning point, but she singles out Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead – a little-seen drama from the same year in which she plays a spectral emissary from the afterlife – as more important to her. “It was a film that I really campaigned for and, my God, I read the whole fucking script for him auditioning for it – twice. That was the first film I did after becoming a mother and I knew that everything was changing for me at that time.” Connelly still campaigns but not as hard as she once did. And she insists the Oscar isn't the door jamb entry into directorial sanctums that most of us imagine. “Lots of other people have won Oscars, too, and there are a lot of talented women my age working who could play the roles I go after just as well.”
These days, Connelly prefers having long gaps between jobs. She hasn't stepped in front of a film camera since Creation wrapped, but is about to start shooting What's Wrong With Virginia, the directorial debut of Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. It's a trip back into the low-budget realm where she seems happiest, after a year of not working. She and Bettany both took a year-long hiatus, and both return to work this autumn. She's not shedding tears over it. Instead, Connelly's eyes sparkle. “I got to spend the whole year with my kids and my husband. And that's wonderful. My job really suits me.”