Playing the Unabomber, Paul Bettany’s goal was empathy, not sympathy
To prepare for his role as Ted Kaczynski in the miniseries “Manhunt: Unabomber,” Paul Bettany spent some time alone in a remote forest home, unplugged from technology, reading books.
But please don’t take that the wrong way.
“This story has begun to take on a life of its own, which is me, like Daniel Day-Lewis, in the woods,” says the rangy actor over lunch at a Greek restaurant near his home in Tribeca.
Bettany wasn’t exactly roughing it: “It was a lovely, chic little cabin,” he clarifies.
Nevertheless, the experiment left an impression on the 46-year-old Brit. Without the constant distraction of technology, “There’s lots of time in the day when you’re not endlessly in contact, not endlessly checking what Trump said now,” he says. “It was great.”
The eight-episode series, which premieres Tuesday on Discovery, focuses on the unorthodox investigation that finally led to Kaczynski’s capture. FBI profiler Jim Fitzgerald, played by Sam Worthington, believed the Unabomber’s distinctive writing style could help track him down and pushed to have his 35,000 word anti-technology manifesto published in the Washington Post, which in the process helped pioneer the field of forensic linguistics.
“Manhunt: Unabomber” also complicates the popular perception of Kaczynski as a crazed, disheveled hermit scribbling away at an unhinged manifesto. It presents a more complete understanding of what led the Harvard-educated math prodigy to become one of the country’s most notorious domestic terrorists.
Particularly illuminating were the books Bettany read — the same titles found in the 10-by-12-foot shack in western Montana, where Kaczynski, whose homemade mail bombs killed three people and injured 23 others, lived for two decades until his arrest in 1996.
His reading list was “really, really, totally cliched, like if I was writing ‘Crazy Man Living In the Woods,’” says Bettany. “It was like Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent,’ Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment,’ ‘Darkness at Noon’ by Arthur Koestler.”
Bettany also turned to an unpublished autobiography by Kaczynski for more insight.
He just felt furious and alienated and there was no place for him in the world. He didn’t fit into it and it made him angry.”
— Paul Bettany
“What I came away with, more than anything, is he just felt furious and alienated and there was no place for him in the world. He didn’t fit into it and it made him angry. And he saw other people move through the world and navigate all that with elegance, and he just couldn’t. And it made him just really, really hurt, and really, really angry.”
The series gives particular weight to Kaczynski’s experiences at Harvard, where he enrolled at the age of 16 and was recruited as a research subject in humiliating psychological experiments conducted by his professor, Henry A. Murray.
“It allows you to go back in time and see this man who did monstrous things but who monstrous things also happened to,” Bettany explains, noting the poignant detail that Kaczynski’s codename in the program was “Lawful,” because he was so obedient.
Bettany makes a distinction between sympathizing with Kaczynski and having empathy for the child he once was. He marvels at Kaczynski’s brilliance — “He was making the epoxy out of the hooves of animals!” — and sees in his choice to target relatively obscure individuals a desire to inflict personal pain.
“Look he’s got an IQ of 168. He could go and sabotage the system, blow up the Hoover Dam, whatever the … he wants to do. He’s that bright. But he doesn’t. Why? It’s peculiar. And I can’t square that circle without thinking that part of him got really, really hurt.”
Aside from Bettany’s tinted glasses — a touch reminiscent of the pair depicted in the famous Unabomber composite sketch — the man who plays the Vision in “The Avengers” appears to have little in common with the reclusive Kaczynski. He is warm and open, heartily recommending his favorite meatballs and a bottle of stout, and chatting with the staff of the restaurant, where he’s a regular. There’s nothing misanthropic about him -- though he does have a charming irreverent streak.
Like when he’s talking about plans to vacation with his family, which includes wife Jennifer Connelly and three children ranging in age from 6 to 20, far from the reach of paparazzi.
“Once you know they’re there you start sucking it in. You’re trying to shout at your kids like any other parent and the cameras are there,” he says. “Terrible — especially the not being able to shout at your kids part.”
Bettany says the only downside to having kids so far apart in age is that he’s been going to tedious potlucks with other parents for 15 years. “The only thing you really have in common is you … in the same year,” he says.
Bettany has also found a much more positive way to channel his frustration with the direction of the country. In January — the day after Trump’s inauguration, to be exact — he vowed to get his citizenship after living in the U.S. for a decade and a half. “The republic is at stake,” he says. “I just felt a little helpless and wanted to be able to vote.”
Right now, Bettany is brushing up on civics in order to pass the citizenship test, which, he says, consists of “a hundred questions that I’m convinced most Americans couldn’t answer.”
Which may be why he views the story of the Unabomber with a political allegory.
“The contract that you make with the state is that you’re going to leave your sword at the city gates and the state’s going to keep the monsters outside the wall,” he says. “And this is a story about a child turned into a monster within the walls.”
See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »
Where: Discovery Channel
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Follow me @MeredithBlake
Review: ‘Manhunt: Unabomber’ thrills with Paul Bettany as the twisted genius running from the FB
Actor Paul Bettany takes on bleakness of homelessness in his directorial debut, ‘Shelter’
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.