jousting around the bush (including the one living a few blocks away at the
White House), Paul Bettany is an easy going interview, nothing akin to the A
Knight's Tale's flamboyant "Geoff" Chaucer, a struggling medieval
writer with a growing sense of the dramatic and the theatrical flair akin to
WWF's Vince McMahon. A film actor for just over four years, he's rumpled yet
relaxed in his gray sports coat covering a wrinkled white pinstripe with
unbuttoned sleeves and a bottom flopping out over his dark blue jeans. His
complexion is pink, probably from all the years he's been lighting up Marlboros,
and his hair short, mussed, and perhaps somewhere between dull orange and light
brown. While not in his Sunday best, he is every ounce a gentleman, in town
pumping up the anachronistic romantic adventure. A
Knight's Tale is his first real exposure to American audiences, and he is
loving the scene-stealing attention and good reviews he's receiving. His present
director Ron Howard, for whom he is featured with Russell Crowe and Ed Harris in
the forthcoming A Beautiful Mind, has
released him on temporary leave for press duties related to Brian Helgeland's
road-warrior tale of fourteenth-century impetuousness, romance, and adventure.
Paul is a good chatter, occasionally running his hands through his hair,
stopping to consider how to best answer a question. You have to scour the
remainder bins at Blockbuster, or log on to eBay for any chance of locating
video copies of his earlier films of the London born and raised actor, be it
starring roles in Dead Babies or Gangster
No. 1, or featured roles in Kiss Kiss
(Bang Bang), The Suicide Club, and
Bent, the latter a 1997 film which
kicked off his film career. I readily admit that it's been impossible for me to
catch up on his career other than a small part as a proper upper-class naval
officer in 1998's The Land Girls. In
the moments before we officially sit down in the semi-posh hotel room, Paul is
showing me and the p.r. reps holding his hand this bright mid-May afternoon
something that reminds me of a miniaturized Fizzie, one of those ages-old,
sugar-filled effervescent tablets that you plop in water and create a wildly
bubbly drink. I think the conversation suggested this was a prototype
convenience item, something you put on your finger and brush on your teeth. It's
toothpaste for the active, on-the-go set. It reminds me a cross between a sponge
and a snowflake. Such amusement soon turns to talk of cockroaches, pasta-filled
lances, and the ever-humble Russell Crowe over our twenty-five minutes together.
For details, read on…
Everyone smokes in England, don't they? (Paul is looking for a place to
put a cigarette butt. He puts the
object and himself down on a chair. He's relaxed and comfortable now. He opts
for a cigarette and asks his host to scour him a pack or two. She obliges,
heading out the door.)
Yes. Am I allowed to smoke on the Internet?
Of course, unless you're afraid of third-party smoke. (Moving on to more
appropriate matters) Nice film! I caught it (A
Knight's Tale) last night.
(a subtle acceptance), it's a different kind of movie.
It does rock you. I expected more juxtaposing along the likes of the opening
number, where the entire cast joins in singing modern day rock tunes. The
audience really liked the way the film started. Although a tad on the long side,
it was an enjoyable romp.
not pretending to be anything else other than what it is (or what you see).
You've gone from serial killer
in Dead Babies to serial writer in A
Knight's Tale. How do you prepare yourself for such diverse roles? You've
played gangsters and vile, violent creatures. Now you have a light, comic piece.
haven't done comedy before. Ever. I was really touched that Brian (Helgeland,
the writer-director of A Knight's Tale)
wrote the part for me. He just rang me up and asked me if I wanted to play
What had he seen you in that
made him select you?
PB: We had tried to make a movie together a few years back. The Sin Eater. It never got made because (the producers) wouldn't make it with me. It was scripted and in pre-production for Fox. The studio said (whom) they wanted to make it with, while Brian said "I want to make it with Paul." Fox replied "That isn't going to happen.
Would this film have been his
he had already done Payback.
Thankfully, you still ended up
It sounds really sentimental, but we're really great friends. I love him dearly.
When he gets old and senile and foolish, I'll still be making his movies.
I wasn't a fan of Payback,
but L.A. Confidential (which Helgeland co-wrote) was a knockout script.
two versions of Payback. There's his
version, which doesn't have explosions and the character played by Mel Gibson
dies at the end of the movie. Then there's the movie the studio made. His
version, which I've seen, is fantastic. And much darker.
We're never going to see that
unless it comes out on DVD, I suppose, as an alternate, director's cut. So how
did you prepare for a comic role different than your have for dramatic and
melodramatic ones? Did Brian just tell you to "lighten up?"
I've played stoics that don't speak much. It was a shock—it's a shock
anyway—when paragraphs hover into view when you're making films. Usually you
don't even deal in sentences. Being
a heavy. Being quite frank. Actually it was the easiest thing in the world
because Brian writes very well and the words just fall out of your mouth. It's
very easy to say. He's funny and a really bright man. It was just a joy.
Basically what happened is Brian rang me up and asked if I wanted to play
Geoffrey Chaucer. I said, "Yes." And he said, "Great." And I
said, "Fantastic." Then he sent me a picture of an enormously fat,
bald, bearded dwarf. And I went (with punctuated hesitation in his voice)
"…right." I did what any self-respecting, young actor would do,
which was throw any pretension of doing any research or work out the window. And
just hope for the best.
You didn't bone up on Chaucer?
really, I read Canterbury Tales and
there's just one fart gag after another after another after another. We had a
two-week rehearsal process in Prague, in the Czech Republic, which is where we
filmed. The rehearsals took the form of an intense period of enforced
The entire cast?
entire cast. For two weeks. Brian lied to somebody at Columbia (Pictures, which
produced and released the film), saying "I need them out for
rehearsal." We didn't look at the script. We really did drink a truly
mesmerizing amount of alcohol.
Any personal preferences?
a big beer and spirits man.
They have some great beers in
have some GREAT beers in Czechoslovakia. The thing is we all bonded rather
quickly, as you tend to do (under the circumstances).
That bonding, that camaraderie
certainly shows in the film.
really got in with each other. (facetiously) It was difficult one to talk about.
Because there was no scandal. All the fun was on the set (and on the screen) and
in repartee. It was a real joy for four and a half months.
four-and-a-half months. And two units working simultaneously.
Did you watch a lot of WWF
to get into character?
didn't watch one. They made me up a tape of the introductions Vince McMahon
would do. But I didn't watch it at all. Brian Helgeland is a very quiet-spoken
man. I found it much more entertaining to make him do impressions of Vince,
because he was crippled with embarrassment when doing it. That would just make
me laugh a lot. That's how I learned it.
Did Brian pop up in the film in
a cameo of any kind?
he would never do something like that. (giggles)
Well some directors, like
Hitchcock, like to do that.
smiling broadly) No I can't see Brian in front of the camera.
Gangster No. 1 earned you several acting award nominations in
England yet the film was never released here in the States, In a review of the
film one critic called "a young Gary Oldham, only cooler."
Really?? How lovely! He's a great actor! Truly great, great actor. That's a
As "Young Gangster" you strip down in that film. In you new film, you
have that same natural affinity. What's going on here?
his legs, then his arms) Well, you know being naked is a hobby. No, it's endless
humiliating. What you see in Knight's Tale
is bad. If Heath Ledger is a six-pack and I'm a nine- or ten-pack, well, I can't
even spell the word gym. I once went to a gym induction and I hyperventilated.
I've never been back since. I'm a very committed smoker.
How did that start? Peer pressure?
started, I think, because of James Dean. At fourteen. At thirteen I made my dad
give up smoking. At fourteen I saw Rebel Without a Cause. Jimmy Dean smoked a cigarette well.
Is he one of your heroes?
Humphrey Bogart, really. I love Humphrey Bogart. And a French actor called
Vincent Cassel (who won acclaim as Vinz in the 1995 film La
Haine [Hate] but more recently is heard as the voice of Monsieur Hood in Shrek).
Peter O'Toole (with whom he starred in the 1998 telefilm Coming Home). Robert DeNiro. Al Pacino.
That's the gangster in you.
Walken. But (getting back to where this all started) Oldham has real touch.
As Chaucer you are given some of the film's best lines. I noticed that the
film's leads Heath Ledger and Rufus Sewell portray good/white–bad/black
characters that offset each other. You're the educated buffoon falling between
Count Adhemar's smarmy darkness and the young innocent fearlessness of William
Thatcher. As such your role becomes the tentpole that attracts the crowds. At
six foot three you're probably the tallest person in the film. So people are
looking up to you. When you're in a scene, you do become a magnet for attention.
Not necessarily stealing the film, but you do make a very good impression,
especially when you are center stage. You're the troop leader.
if it was High Noon, he (Chaucer) is
Doc Holliday. (I think my host my be confusing this title with Gunfight
at the O.K. Corral.) Which part would you prefer to play? Gary Cooper's
(i.e., Burt Lancaster's) or Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas). Doc Holliday is a great
part. So in actual fact, Brian did me an enormous favor. When I first read the
script and saw the nudity, I said "You bastard." Then I thought it's
quite clever, because if you can do it, turn up naked on the screen in the first
scene. With no clothes on. Covered in mud and bruises. And keep a smile on your
face, Then the audience is going to remember you.
Well had Brian seen you in Gangster No. 1
to know you had stripped down in that film? Was this some amusing inside joke?
I don't think so. He just knew I would not have too many problems with it.
You mentioned the relaxed nature of the set. Anything interesting occur during
filming? In the course of those four-and-a-half months, how many days a week did
you spend shooting?
had six-day weeks. On the seventh day you were just dead. If you're an English
actor in a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) film you have the sort of same work rules
as an eighteenth-century pit horse. Which is they film you until you're dead.
There's a colossal amount of words to learn. And there are two Chaucer speeches
not in the final cut. There were a lot of words.
And you probably spoke more of them than the other characters.
was just at home being boring learning lines.
You didn't have any training that you had to go through, like Heath did I
assume? Like learning to ride a horse.
Heath already knew how to ride, brilliantly. He did that in The
But had he jousted before?
he didn't. I don't think there's a movie producer in the world that would let
Heath actually joust.
It's all stunt jousting.
wouldn't be able to get insurance for Heath to really joust. Imagine someone
riding toward Heath Ledger with $50 million on his shoulder.
Were the spears made of balsa wood?
no. They were entirely made of spaghetti.
Any special type? Linguini, perhaps? Penne?
bow ties. No, of course not. It was spaghetti spaghetti. Obviously not cooked.
You're making here in the States now. A
it's still filming.
Why are they letting you off the set? Do you have some time off?
time off, and people are pretty good about letting me go and support a film
you've made, because they want you to support their film when they get around to
You've made about ten features now. And some television. A Beautiful Mind is your first U.S.-made film. Is it any different
making a film over here than somewhere else?
much all film sets are exactly the same. To be honest. Some are better than
others, but they all have the same feel. There's a sort of paranormal sense of
fear on American film sets because of the money involved.
How's it working with Russell Crowe and Ron Howard?
is adorable. So charming. A really nice man who makes good films. Great
director. Easy to work for. Russell is just enormously humble.
Really? He's gotten some bad press lately from the set, involving finger
gestures to people in the neighborhood where you were filming.
he was working a twelve-hour day. I was with him for the first eleven hours and
fifty-five minutes of it. I left five minutes before wrap to go home. This
happened right at the end, after eleven hours and fifty-five minutes of working,
shaking people's hands, ruffling kids' hair, signing autographs. Then, just at
the end of the day it got to be too much. I'm sure this was done in good will,
as a laugh. I don't know.
Well it generates publicity for the film at least. Moving on…. Personal
in London. 1971. May.
Almost thirty. Any observations on hitting that milestone?
can't wait to get the twenties out of the way!
Any brothers? Sisters?
older sister. Not in the profession.
How did you catch the acting bug?
of poverty. I was a busker, who is someone who plays guitar in the Metro and on
the streets for spare change. At the time I was living with the two smallest
lesbians in the world. And about fifty million cockroaches. The lesbians moved
out. The cockroaches didn't. I felt that something really has to change. I have
a phobia of cockroaches (at which point I mention he should probably rent Joe's
Apartment for a lighter view of the bugs). I went to a radio station the
other day and someone had a cockroach in front of me that was the size of my
palm. And I went, "Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God…."
confirmation) I have them.
How supportive of your career are they?
parents live very different lives. One lives in Hartfordshire; the other lives
way up in Scotland.
Did that happen when you were a kid?
nods) I'm still in touch with both of them.
Any relation to Thane Bettany (who starred in the 1960's British television
series The Talisman)?
my dad. (Nodding approval of the thespian blood in his veins.)
Has your mom acted, too?
my mom was a secretary in a travel firm. Dad's seventy-three and still acting,
doing a lot of theatre up in Scotland.
Let's touch on your theatre background. You were with the Drama Centre of
London, where you made your stage debut in the West End production of An Inspector Calls. You also appeared at the Longwharf Theatre in
it was great. We brought over Love and Understanding, which was well received in London. That was
my first break. It was really interesting seeing the different reaction from an
American audience. That was (thinking to himself) four years ago. The great
little Bush Theatre (where the show played first, in London) is everything the
Royal Court claims to be. It's a haven for new writers. A brilliant writer named
Joe Penhall, who's won just about every award there is for his play Blue
Orange wrote one called Love and
Understanding. Although I had done theatre before that, Love
is what most people liked me in.
Are you doing mostly film now? Are you getting back to the stage at all?
haven't been back to the stage for about three years and I'd really love to
You've done maybe ten films, but also a handful of telefilms. Do you prepare for
television work any differently than you would for big screen work?
I really don't prepare for anything any differently that anything else
You've worked with director Paul McGuigan twice in the films Gangster No. 1 and the yet to be released Morality Play (in which Paul appears opposite Willem Dafoe). How did
you lock up with him?
hired me to do Gangster No. 1, which
was his first big feature. He had the balls and tenacity put me in the film. I
will love him forever for that opportunity. It was an amazing experience. I got
to work with some marvelous people. Malcolm McDowell, David Thewlis. Although I
never got to act in the same scene with Malcolm because we both played the same
character. (Paul was the younger version, obviously.)
A firm handshake bids the interviewer a good day as the brief session ends. Paul, framed by two table lamps behind the couch he has occupied the last twenty-plus minutes, has extinguished his last cigarette and relaxes with an arm stretched across the back of the upholstery. There's a pleasant symmetry to the relaxed picture and the glimmer of stardom around the corner. He is quite the gentleman, indeed.