Remember When 9/11 Inspired Paul Bettany to Propose to Jennifer Connelly?

In the aftermath of a national tragedy, love wins

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Sarah Nechamkin
Remember When

The 20th anniversary of September 11th is an opportunity to reflect not only on the lasting impact of a national tragedy, but on one particularly bonkers tale of love in the time of terror: that of British actor Paul Bettany and American actress Jennifer Connelly, who have been married since 2003.

In 2015, Bettany went on Larry King Now to promote his directorial debut, Shelter, which stars his now-wife in the role of a homeless woman holding one of those “We Are Happy to Serve You” cups. When King asks about his relationship with Connelly, he says it’s “absolutely true” that she was his childhood crush, having stared into her piercing blue eyes (my words, not his) in films like Labyrinth and Once Upon a Time in America. He finally met her in 2001, on the set of A Beautiful Mind, but it took more than a tearjerker about a Princeton mathematician with schizophrenia to convince Bettany that his on-set friendship with Connelly was brewing into something more.

“Was it instant?” King asks Betttany, with a snap of the finger as to indicate “feelings!” Bettany explains: “You know what happened, Larry? What happened, Larry, was September the 11th.”

After wrapping up A Beautiful Mind (Bettany played Russell Crowe’s college roommate, Connelly his wife), Bettany and Connelly headed their separate ways — her to New York, him to Tuscany. As the actor tells King of his 9/11 realization, “I was in Tuscany, shopping for groceries, and I saw this crowd outside a cafe, and I thought this must be a football match. I pushed myself to the front just in time to see the second plane hit the second tower, and like so many people’s lives in that moment, mine was changed forever. I spent two days trying to call this woman that I sort of barely knew. I remember very clearly thinking to myself, ‘What are you doing?’ I realized I was in love. So I finally got her on the phone and said 'I'm coming over, and let's get married'. And that's really what happened. We had never dated."

“It was very peculiar,” Bettany admits in a trademark English understatement. For one, he would have to fly from Italy to the U.S., where airport security would be decidedly less convenient than it was the week prior. Also inconvenient: his co-star, beautiful in both the mind and the face, had recently split with the photographer David Dugan, with whom she had a son (both Bettany and Connelly had been in other relationships while filming together). That, and it was 9/11.

But fortunately for Bettany, the gesture somehow worked; the couple, never lacking a flair for the dramatic, married in Scotland on New Year’s Day of 2003.

The story of the Bettanys is a necessary reminder that some people are chaotic enough to uproot their lives for the blissful promise of holy matrimony. The Bettany-Connelly 9/11 union shows that there simply is no such thing as an ideal method to starting a relationship; some meet on the internet, some spill orange juice on an attractive stranger, others stumble upon J.Lo while looking for their car in a parking lot. (Rest in Porsche, A-Rod.)

And then there are those who prove the axiom that tragedy brings us together. If the world is ending, why bother with years of small talk over martinis and postcoital so-what-are-we’s when you could go straight for a lifetime of subsidized tax breaks, joint red carpet appearances, and Le Creuset pots? Take Kate Winslet, who met her husband, Ned Rocknroll (née Edward Abel Smith, Richard Branson’s nephew) during a house fire at Branson’s luxury villa on his privately-owned 74-acre island. "I took a bra and passports and my children,” she told Entertainment Tonight. Rocknroll, in a move as hardcore as his chosen name, supplied a head torch. “So I married him!” she said. “I was like, 'I'll go for the guy with a head torch!'"

They indeed wed just a year later. They named their child Bear Blaze Rocknroll, which is maybe an allusion to the fire, and also an invitation for the kid to be taunted for the rest of his trust-funded life.

But back to the Bettanys. Twenty years after that fateful phone call, the beautiful couple is still married, living in a beautiful townhouse in beautiful Brooklyn Heights. And while it was the American tragedy of “September the 11th” that supposedly changed Paul’s life forever, it wasn’t until 2016, the day after Trump’s election, that he decided to become an American citizen and join our republic. His welcome gift? “We got him a Kuzi for his beer first thing,” Connelly said on television. God Bless America.

And so, to the Bettanys, we raise a Kuzi-clad PBR to a long marriage full of love, Marvel paychecks, and many, many more selfies. ‘Til the next disaster do them part.

“Remember When?” is a series in which we remember things long forgotten. Previously: Remember When Halsey Was a One Direction Stan Who Hated Taylor Swift?

Sarah Nechamkin is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work appears in New York Magazine, Interview, Air Mail, and other places.