He’s Jackson Pollock and you’re mixing colors for him,” says Dogville star Paul Bettany of Lars von Trier’s notoriously eccentric—some might say sadistic—approach to directing actors. “He won’t let you talk to him or to the other actors about the scene or about your character. There’s no rehearsal. You learn your lines, you come in, and he starts filming. It’s a very odd process—for the actor, there’s nothing cerebral about it.”
Nicole Kidman takes on the customary von Trier role of the transfigured female victim (the dog who, for a change, turns out to have a ferocious bite), but Bettany’s precisely drawn Tom Edison Jr., a soft-spoken would-be writer responsible for the narrative’s most craven and tortuously self-justified betrayal, may be Dogville‘s most revealing character—not least if considered as an authorial alter ego. “On some level, Lars is obsessed with being a coward and a fraud,” says Bettany. “He thinks it’s brave.” Most recently seen as an unchaste priest turned traveling player in the medieval drama The Reckoning (currently in theaters) and as Master and Commander‘s sensitive medic-cellist-naturalist, Bettany says the Dogville shoot was a trial from the outset.
Blithely unconcerned that the British actor was attempting an American accent in a lead role for the first time, von Trier refused to hire a voice coach. “We had a huge fight,” says Bettany, “but Lars didn’t care and wouldn’t pay for it.” (Bettany resorted to borrowing Kidman’s: “My accent gets better through the movie.”) What’s more, director and actors didn’t always see eye to eye on the material: “[Dogville co-star] Stellan Skarsgard, who’s merciless with Lars, would tell him, ‘You think all your films are comedies, and nobody ever fucking laughs.’ ” And there was also von Trier’s arbitrary, often hostile direction to get used to. “He’d just go: ‘Shout it! Now do nothing—nothing! Oh Paul, you’re a terrible actor, down 200 percent. You’re ruining my film!’ ”
With a bare, wall-less soundstage standing in for a Rocky Mountain village, most of Dogville‘s motley ensemble—which also includes Ben Gazzara, Lauren Bacall, Chloë Sevigny, and Patricia Clarkson—were on set almost continuously throughout production. “Can you imagine the pressure of doing a scene with Nicole while Lauren Bacall is in the background sweeping up?” Von Trier also enforced commune-like conditions off-set: “Lars made everybody live in the same hotel. We were in this awful fucking town, Trollhattan, which means ‘troll hat,’ where this troll once threw his hat off and it broke down these cliffs and the water rushed in and they were able to build a Saab factory. There’s nothing to do—we drank together in the hotel bar at night, and went to work together in the morning. And Lars’s presence was constant. He’s such a control freak. If he could, he would’ve bugged every room in the hotel just to hear what you were saying about him.” Certainly, some of the director’s mind games were more peculiar than others. “Once there was a knock on my door at three in the morning,” recalls Bettany. “I open it and it’s Lars, naked in the hallway. I say, ‘Lars, what d’you fuckin’ want?’ and he goes, ‘I want a pair of underpants.’ ”
But Bettany says that when the cameras were rolling, von Trier’s experimental prodding did eventually yield results. “You shoot one scene a day for 10 hours, and you’ve done it every which way—with the script, making up your own words, with your jacket on, your jacket off, because Lars doesn’t care about continuity. It’s hard to stay self-conscious that long. You get bored being self-conscious. You have to completely yield to him—I wish I’d yielded earlier. The only thing he wants you to receive from it is the childlike fun of getting lost in another person.”
Despite his emerging Hollywood reputation (he’s married to his Oscar-winning Beautiful Mind co-star Jennifer Connelly), Bettany is candid about his distaste for most aspects of the industry. Ask what he’s worked on since wrapping Wimbledon, the upcoming tennis romance with Kirsten Dunst, and he retorts, “I’ve worked on running around the world making money for Rupert Murdoch”—referring to his junket tour of duty for Fox’s Master and Commander. He says he dislikes most of the scripts he reads (one he’s keen on is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral; the trades have reported that Bettany and Connelly are attached to star, with Phillip Noyce directing), and that he hates it when actors discuss their “craft”: “Acting is a lot like sex—it’s quite fun to do and really embarrassing to talk about afterwards.”
Still, he concedes that at the core of his Dogville experience was a perverse but valuable lesson on acting: “At the end of The Score, there’s a scene where Marlon Brando’s smiling. But Brando had refused to smile—it was a stand-off, so they shot it and CGI’d a smile in. And that’s fucking Marlon Brando. The illusion that you have any control as an actor, that you’re crafting a performance, is exactly that—it’s illusory. All Lars really does is rob you of that illusion, and that’s quite comforting.”