Paul Bettany - From heaven on a wing and a prayer

Paul Bettany seems to have made a habit of playing religious misfits, notably in The Da Vinci Code. Now he’s a gun-toting, zombie-battling archangel. He tells James Mottram about the appeal of altared states

Looking at the recent career of Paul Bettany, to quote a Life of Brian classic line, he's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy. First off, he was the self-flagellating Silas, the albino monk that made Rasputin look sane in Ron Howard's turgid Dan Brown adaptation The Da Vinci Code. Then he was the grandfather of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin in 2009's Creation. Now he's a gun-toting version of the Archangel Michael in the ludicrous but enjoyable Legion.

Not that Bettany has any regrets about potentially angering Bible readers. As he says of The Da Vinci Code, "If, through that film or performance, I have offended any Christians, I would ask them to forgive me, which is the main tenet of Christianity." He doesn't see any problem with dealing with religious subjects on film yet not being a Christian. "If I was playing Odysseus, it wouldn't mean that I believed in Zeus." Dressed all in denim, which marks a strong contrast to his pale skin and strawberry blonde hair, Bettany is as open and outspoken as when I first encountered him on the set of oddball gangster movie Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang) back in 2000.

Back then, it was another gangland movie – Gangster No. 1 – that announced his arrival, with Bettany terrifying as a younger version of Malcolm McDowell's psychopathic criminal. He was 28 years old, and talked freely about how "in the absence of Jesus" he'd been "an enormously angry young teenager." As he put it, "shit obviously happened" to turn him this way – primarily the death of his younger brother Matthew, who died from a fall when Bettany was 16. "It was a sort of quiet angry," he said of how he felt. "I didn't really mix much." With all this in mind, it's not hard to see why this incisive actor has perpetually skirted with controversial religious fare.

Not that Legion is quite in this vein. Directed by Scott Stewart, a former visual-effects artist who has worked on films from Superman Returns to Iron Man, it's an end-of-days story to end them all. Set around a backwater diner – subtly named Paradise Falls – in the Mojave-desert, it transpires that God has had enough, sending out a series of Biblical plagues to destroy mankind. A bunch of humans – led by Dennis Quaid and Charles S Dutton – are stranded in the diner and look to be easy meat until Bettany's rogue angel comes to the rescue. "God turns his back on human beings," says Bettany. "But Michael doesn't. He hasn't lost faith in humans."

With the film turning into a zombie movie, as a legion of humans become angelically possessed to do God's bidding, in truth, it's not the sort of material you associate with the cerebral Bettany. Having survived everything from Lars von Trier (in Dogville) and Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander) to the Working Title romantic comedy Wimbledon, he's not embarrassed about this new direction. "I loved it," he says. "I'd never made an action movie before. It was such a great experience and I loved doing it. It felt fun. It was exactly what it was and I loved doing it."

The part meant training to do his own stunts, which was something of a novelty for him. "I was learning how to spin around in the air – a lot of wire stuff and a lot of fighting. I wouldn't say I know kung fu. It's not quite like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, saying, 'I know kung fu'! I would love that it did, because I did feel like Bruce Lee! They wrap a wire around you, and this guy yanks it, and you fly up in the air and spin – and because of gravity you can't help but land on your feet. Then you go and look at playback on the monitor, and you look like Bruce Lee!"

Certainly he did to his six-year-old son Stellan (the product of his seven-year marriage to actress Jennifer Connelly, with whom he starred in A Beautiful Mind and Creation) and 13-year-old stepson Kai. "I made them fly out to watch me so they'd think I was enormously cool and tough. And they now will now do whatever I tell them to, because they think I can do a butterfly twist!" By the sounds of it, Legion even helped him get back to the land of make-believe that he explored as a child. "When I wanted to be an actor, when I was a kid, it was because I was given a set of holsters and a cowboy hat and guns, and making Legion absolutely fulfilled that bit of me."

Bettany's own background meant he was always drawn towards a life in drama. His grandmother Olga Gwynne had acted, while both his mother and father were performers in their day. Though, by the time he was born, this was no longer the case. "By then, my father was teaching drama. He had danced before that and acted before that. But growing up, it felt like I was the son of a teacher. I think very nobly, he wanted to afford a stable life for his children, so he became a teacher. And my mum, she was a singer but she was also a secretary for a while."

Perhaps following his mother, when growing up Bettany wanted to be a musician. Calling himself "a passable rhythm guitarist", he used to busk on Westminster Bridge, often singing his own songs. "That was my big love in life. John Lennon is my biggest hero in the whole world." When it came to forming a band, he never really made it past "messing around" with mates, though. Instead, aged 19, he switched to acting, training at the Drama Centre in Chalk Farm, London, 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.

By the time Gangster No. 1 came along, Bettany was being hailed as one of the brightest acting hopes of his generation. But, more often, he was at his best in support – see his drunken Chaucer in A Knight's Tale – rather than playing the lead. Then something shifted in him. "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. There have been some flops along the way – Firewall, with Harrison Ford, was a particular stinker – while Bettany, wisely, hasn't returned to the romantic comedy after Wimbledon. Being moulded into a leading man just clearly isn't his thing.

Fortunately, Bettany's not an angst-ridden actor. Now 38, he's realistic about his prospects in the industry. "I always thought I'd make ends meet," he says. "By the time I had kids, I'd done enough film work to know that somebody would employ me in television if it all fell through. I'd be alright." He and Connelly live with their children quietly in Vermont, away from the celebrity carousel of Hollywood. As he told me back on the set of Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang), "Seeing famous people doesn't constitute a good evening for me. It's not that I'm like 'urgh' of that whole circuit. I just haven't done it really. The times I have, I've felt pretty sweaty, and anxious and out of place."

It seems the only actress he's interested in hanging out with is his wife. While their collaboration on Creation was hardly awe-inspiring, he waxes lyrical about her talents. "She has this quality that I strive for. Vincent Cassel has it. I made a film with Vincent Cassel [2003's The Reckoning, in which Bettany played – surprise – a medieval priest]. It's more about being able to be entirely un-vain and less preoccupied with what you and your face are doing on camera, and much more interested in what the other person's face off camera is doing. She's got that."

If he sounds content, it's because Bettany is no longer trying to squeeze into a Hollywood-pressed mould. Frankly, he's doing what he wants, high- or low-brow. He has recently re-teamed with Legion director Scott Stewart on vampire movie Priest. Based on a manga comic by Hyung Min-woo, the teaser poster shows Bettany's face with a big cross on it – just in case anyone thought he was planning to get away from the religious iconography.

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