A beautiful life: Paul Bettany a successful acting export

He used to be a busker, but now Paul Bettany is one of our most successful acting exports. Just don't mention the bald patch, he tells James Mottram

Wrapped up for a cold winter's day, Paul Bettany enters the room wearing a flat cap and scarf. Being the well-bred young man he is, he removes his cap to reveal a shaven patch where his strawberry blond crop should be. "If I were bald, I would have no problem with it," he says, "but I find myself going, 'I'm not bald! It's for a part.'"

He is, in fact, playing the father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, in Creation, in which he stars with his wife-of-five-years Jennifer Connelly, the first time the couple have featured in the same film since they met on the set of 2001's A Beautiful Mind.

Issues of baldness aside, this is the only time Bettany shows a shred of vanity in our encounter. He may have acted opposite Russell Crowe in both A Beautiful Mind and nautical yarn Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, Harrison Ford in Firewall and Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code, but he is far removed from the world of alpha-male A-list stars. Bettany and his wife live in Vermont – with Connelly's 11 year-old son Kia, from a previous relationship, and their five year-old boy, Stellan – partly to keep the celebrity circus at bay. "We don't flirt with that world," he says, "or invite that attention into our lives."

Of late, Bettany admits he's started feeling happy in his work again. "For a while, I stopped enjoying making movies and I stopped enjoying acting, because I made a few decisions that I wish I hadn't made," he says. He won't specify – but you could take a guess that he didn't enjoy being refashioned as a romantic lead in 2004's Wimbledon. He's always been much better suited to disappearing into character roles – his alcoholic Chaucer in A Knight's Tale, his townsman in Dogville, even his self-flagellating monk in The Da Vinci Code. Now he says he's back on track. "I put it down to a few things. One is just my mood. The other is that I changed the criteria for myself. I just wanted to do lots of things."

That's certainly what's happened. Aside from playing Darwin, he has completed The Young Victoria, with Emily Blunt, in which he plays Lord Melbourne, the former Prime Minister who became the Queen's secretary and political tutor. Then there's Broken Lines, a London-set drama about two couples, in which he plays a misanthropic boxer suffering from a debilitating stroke. And last spring, he completed Legion, an apocalyptic kung-fu film with Dennis Quaid. "I'd never made an action movie before," he says. "It was a great experience. It felt fun to me. It was exactly what it was and I loved doing it."

Before that, he has two movies due in December. The first is The Secret Life of Bees, an adaptation of the novel by Sue Monk Kidd. Set in 1964 in South Carolina during the Civil Rights era, it tells the story of a 14-year-old girl named Lily (Dakota Fanning), who flees her abusive father, pear farmer T Ray (Bettany), to wind up on a honey farm run by three sisters (Queen Latifah, songstress Alicia Keys, and Sophie Okonedo). While Bettany's role is small, he fiercely punctures the sentimentality of the film with a brutish performance.

It was the lack of redemption that drew Bettany to the character. In his own mind, he's just a businessman trying to make ends meet. "If he employed white people to work on a pear farm, he would have to pay a lot of money, so why would he ever bother to employ white people when black people are so much cheaper? I don't think he would think of himself as a racist. I think he would see himself as somebody who was very nice to those whom he had working for him. And there's not a point in the movie where he suddenly understands it in a 20th century way, where he goes, 'Oh, I see what I've done wrong.'"

Bettany only appears in a few scenes, but his commitment certainly impressed director Gina Prince-Bythewood. "His process is so intense," she says. "He's the one that put the red sunburn on his arms. To be around that energy is an incredible thing." You might think this came from his upbringing. Both his mother and father were actors in their day, while the latter, Thane Bettany, also taught drama. His grandmother Olga Gwynne also acted. Yet curiously, when growing up, Bettany wanted to be a musician. Dreaming of being John Lennon, he used to busk on Westminster Bridge, often singing his own songs.

When he was 19, he switched to acting, training at the Drama Centre before gaining his first stage role in Stephen Daldry's revival of An Inspector Calls. Twelve months at the RSC followed, and by 1997 Bettany had made his screen debut in the film version of Bent. Three years later, he made his breakthrough film, Gangster No 1, playing the psychotic mobster of the title. "I find it hard to believe it was only eight years ago," Bettany notes. "It's weird in that respect, how hugely different my life is now. But that's not just to do with some bogus sense of having achieved something in your career. That's largely to do with being a dad and a husband, which is so entirely different from what my life was back then."

In the past, Bettany has said he was obsessed with having lots of children – a consequence of the tragic death of his younger brother Matthew, who died from a fall when Bettany was 16. I wonder now how Bettany feels, having fulfilled his dream of parenthood. "I believe it changes you entirely," he says, in particular pointing to his new attitude to work. "You realise [you have] the privilege of being in the stupidly fortunate position of earning a lot of money in a very short period of time. So the actual privilege is that you can then take time off – and if you don't, you're a fool. You're earning all this money to support children whom you then don't see, which is absurd."

It's why Bettany was drawn to children's fantasy tale Inkheart, the second film he has out next month. With a host of British stars – Andy Serkis, Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent included – the film shows what happens when a series of medieval characters are breathed into life from a storybook. "It's really nice to see these fantastic people and creatures in a very real world. Usually it's the opposite way round." It is based on the book by Cornelia Funke, which by coincidence Bettany was reading to his eldest son when he was offered the role of the fire-eater Dustfinger. "It made me a complete hero!" he says. So was it nice to make a film his kids could see? "Yeah, that's really lovely. I don't want them seeing me naked and whipping myself in The Da Vinci Code!"

For an actor with a reputation for taking himself very seriously, Bettany's foray into the Harry Potter market will do him no end of good. Likewise, working with his wife on Creation – she plays Darwin's spouse – seems to have mellowed him. "We were a bit concerned that we wouldn't be able to do it," he says. "The night before we started filming, we looked at each other and said, 'What are we going to do if the camera rolls and we just start giggling?' She and I know each other in an extraordinarily intimate way, obviously. We're not just husband and wife. We're also parents of children and you really find out about each other when you do the job of parenting. But it was the easiest it's ever been, ever, making a film."

Quite what making films like this has done to his standing in the studio system is anyone's guess. "I don't know," shrugs Bettany. "I'm really bad at knowing what my position is." He doesn't seem as hungry for Hollywood as he once was. "Time can slip by very quickly while just being at home playing with the kids," he says. "I hope in the future I'll be able to pick and choose more carefully." He trails off for a second. "I'm sure some people have an absolute grasp of where they are in their careers. I just don't think about it that much."

'The Secret Life of Bees' opens on 5 December; 'Inkheart' opens on 12 December

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