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Paul Bettany gets down and dirty on Wall Street

Actor Paul Bettany addresses a news conference to promote the movie 'Margin Call' at the 61st Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 11, 2011.

©/Tobias Schwarz / Reuters

A racing, dramatic account of the 2008 financial collapse, Margin Call is a low-budget ($3.5-million U.S.) movie that is suddenly receiving a great deal of Oscar attention, for both writer-director J.C. Chandor, whose father worked on Wall Street, and an A-list cast, including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany and Demi Moore.

The Globe spoke to Bettany, star of Master and Commander and Dogville, not to mention Jennifer Connelly's husband, earlier this week:

Your character, Will, provides a metaphor for Wall Street, stepping out on the ledge of a tall building into wild air for a dangerous, thrilling risk. Where was that scene shot?

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One Penn Plaza across from Madison Square Garden: We did it in two takes. I stepped off an edge not far from the ground, dangling my feet. And we did a tie-in – I still can't believe I did this – sitting way-way up on the edge of an observation deck with someone holding my foot.

What was your character up to?

Will has existential dilemmas.

Did you meet any traders?

I did. I must say that I went in with preconceived notions. I thought they'd be number-crunching automatons, dry and calculating; whereas they were incredibly smart, creative people. When you think about it, they had to be. They were imagining fortunes that didn't exist.

Will gets to speak for Wall Street. Someone asks if traders should care about clients.…

And he says, screw 'em.

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Will says he's had his thumb on the scale, cheating for them so they could buy houses they couldn't afford.…

Will is amoral. If it's a dog-eat-dog world, then I'm going to eat dog. But he can't stand public hypocrisy. Don't complain if you get bitten.

Do you have sympathy for his perspective?

I'm not as cynical, but I hear him. We were all too greedy. Still are. I try not to be. But you know, hey, I want the new iPod, too. Ooh, it's skinnier than the one I have, which is perfectly fine. We like our toys, even if we can't afford them.

What was it like on set?

It was amazing. We shot it in 17 days. First day, Kevin arrives and shoots his first big scene, long speech, first thing we did. Bam! Perfect! And J.C. said, "Great, want another take?" And Kevin smiled and said, "We don't have time." That was how we worked. Kevin set the bar high. He'd be shooting a scene with Jeremy in the boardroom and I'd be with Simon Baker in the washroom, rehearsing. We were next.

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Long days?

Incredible. It wasn't my turn to work. My wife was in Chicago, so I had the kids. I got an office where we were shooting, blew up two air mattresses for the kids. They were playing God knows how many video games, while their delinquent father raced back and forth.

When did you sense Margin Call might create a stir?

You should never say, "Oh, I'm making history; this film captures the zeitgeist of our times." But we all knew when we read the script this story had to be told. Kevin said the first page he read he went, "Oh I have to say these words." That's how we felt.

The film may not be as harsh on Wall Street as its critics hope.

J.C. didn't want to burn anyone at the stake. He grew up on Wall Street. He told us that one of his great memories as a kid was his father taking him out on the floor.

Margin Call is occupied with Wall Street, but takes place before occupiers arrive. What would your character think of the protesters?

Will would think they're whining hippies, I suppose. I think they're important. If you don't like the direction your country is going, don't like unleashed capitalism, then for God's sake take advantage of your right to free assembly and say something.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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