Paul Bettany : Going against the tide

In Master and Commander, Paul Bettany plays Russell Crowe's gentle sidekick. But in real life, as Ryan Gilbey discovers, he's devilishly sharp
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No sane-minded person could have wanted to be in the same room as Paul Bettany after seeing him in his first starring role, as a natty psychopath with a graveyard face in Gangster No 1. He has worked hard to dispel that intimidating image in the intervening four years: he played Chaucer as a rambunctious, buck-naked ringmaster in A Knight's Tale, and brought the same aplomb to the part of Russell Crowe's imaginary roommate in A Beautiful Mind.

Bettany is again playing Crowe's best chum, a real one this time, in Peter Weir's admirably grimy high-seas adventure, Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World. His portrayal of the dedicated surgeon and naturalist Stephen Maturin, who advises Crowe's gruff captain, represents another instalment in the actor's charm offensive, and it fair brings a tear to the eye. I mustn't even think about the scene in which Bettany is presented with a Galápagos beetle by a cherubic one-armed child (no, really), or else I will have to stop writing and sob pitifully.

"I hate action movies," says Bettany, toying with a cigarette that he never actually gets round to lighting. "But I think the success of this is that it's got real human beings in it. The whole thing stands or falls on how much you care about the characters. Usually you get some dreadful explosions, then two people - buddies, apparently - talking in a language that, frankly, I don't recognise as human." He wrinkles his nose and looks terrifically snooty.

The on-screen Bettany may have softened, but in person he can still show his fangs. He looks sharp, and not just because he has come to our meeting in a black suit and a pink shirt. He is a shade over 6ft tall, with a shock of blond hair that's just this side of ginger, and a freckled face that projects a sunless tinge even through its tan. Cold blue eyes complete the picture.

When Richard Loncraine met Bettany, before casting him as a tennis ace in the upcoming Wimbledon, he expressed trepidation. "I'm a bit nervous," said the veteran director. "I'm not sure if you're going to punch me or hug me." Just as Bettany's sickly Britishness shows through his new American glow, it seems the ghost of Gangster No 1 lingers on. He is, though, a proper charmer, and when he spikes an idea, he does it quickly and efficiently, as though putting it out of its misery. He quashes politely my suggestion that Master and Commander might be a hard sell. "Not presuming that you care about these things," he purrs back, "but it just had an enormous opening weekend in the States. They were worried that women wouldn't go, but they did. Everybody went." Job done, no messing.

He's currently enjoying a break after a period of concentrated work, and the birth in August of his first child by his wife, Jennifer Connelly (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year for A Beautiful Mind). The family, which also includes Connelly's child from a previous relationship, divide their time between London and New York, but prefer to steer clear of Los Angeles. "Things got a bit odd there after Jennifer won the Oscar. We were being chased by cars full of paparazzi. We were photographed at the beach with the kids. A famous friend told me: 'If you don't mind being photographed, you can go out. If you do mind, stay indoors.' What kind of choice is that?" He scoffs at the magazine reports that he and Connelly were shopping for wedding rings when in fact they were thousands of miles apart. "We did actually spend three hours in Bond Street looking for rings, but nobody bothered us then," he hoots. "London's great. No one here gives a shit."

When Bettany does get accosted, it's usually in LA, and often for the same reason. "You could be on the phone having an argument, and they'll just call out: 'Hey! Naked guy!' You just want to stick a spike in their eye. 'What's that? Oh, right, 'cos you saw my arse in that film. That's real funny.'" When he stops ranting, I point out that many people are more familiar with his body than they are with their own. "Yes," he says, "though I should make it clear that if it was crucial to the part I would consider keeping my clothes on."

Bettany was raised in London and Hertfordshire by his parents, both of whom are actors. He had stints as a busker and a care worker before studying at the Drama Centre, after which he would act in anything. Once, he even appeared in The Bill. "I would take any acting job going. It might have looked like I was making wise choices, but I was just saying 'yes' continually. In fact, it's only recently that I've started turning things down."

It has been suggested for a while now that Bettany will be the next Ewan McGregor, the next Jude Law. Certainly he shares those actors' commercial instincts, and their ability to remain in the eye of the Hollywood hurricane with their integrity untarnished. And, just like McGregor and Law, he has acted with Nicole Kidman. How many more similarities do you want?

But I wonder if there isn't an ambivalence about Bettany that will preclude him from matinée idol status, even as it makes him the more intriguing actor. He was frothy and funny in A Knight's Tale, and has attempted romantic comedy in Wimbledon, but his motivation for taking the latter has a perverse tang. "I wanted to do it because I knew I shouldn't. I don't think I'm the sort of good-looking, elegant person they need for that kind of film."

He exudes an old-school British classiness, but with an edge - like David Niven with a switchblade knife. He can be camp in a rather brutish way, and when he swears it sounds brittle and spiteful, like someone smashing your best china. McGregor and Law still dabble in darkness, but you couldn't honestly imagine either of them courting the audience's disgust the way that Bettany does in Gangster No 1, or more subtly in Lars von Trier's forthcoming Dogville.

Although we are both plainly enthusiastic about Master and Commander, it is Von Trier's film that dominates our conversation. Bettany has only seen a rough-cut, and is full of questions. "Is it good? Does it still have the Bowie song at the end?" He plays Tom, a budding writer who persuades his neighbours in an isolated 1930s village to shelter a woman on the run, played by Kidman.

"Tom's a writer and philosopher who has never written anything and doesn't actually think very deeply," he says, "and I can relate to that." The production was as punishing as it was fulfilling. "Lars is mad as a brush," he splutters. "It's all about him. You don't give a performance at all. Literally the only direction he gives you is: 'Down 200 per cent. Up five per cent. Now shout it. Now do it quietly.' You are mixing colours for Jackson Pollock. That's all you're doing."

On one occasion, actor and director had a full-on stand-off. "I refused to shoot a scene because he wouldn't discuss it first. He's got the camera rolling and I'm saying, 'No, I'm not doing it. I don't understand it.' He said: 'Just say the fucking line, Paul. Come on, I will shake the camera around, it will look real, I've been getting away with it for years.'" He laughs, and folds one gangly leg over the other. "I didn't yield to it as quickly as I should have. He just wants you to play, to let go. And I was like [adopts whiny voice] 'I don't wanna let go!' When you do, you get a childish kind of enjoyment out of it, like when you first started acting."

Part of the difficulty for Bettany came in divesting himself of his normal buffers and safety nets. "Usually you're navigating your way through lots of bad direction on a film. If you know the director's ideas are bad, and he hasn't been able to kick the shit out of your idea, you just do the same thing every take until they get worn down. Then they just shoot it. And CGI a smile on your face afterwards." He is referring to a story he heard about how the makers of The Score digitally imposed a smile onto Marlon Brando when he wouldn't surrender one of his own accord. "And that's Brando," he says, shaking his head. "The man can act. If they can do it to him..."

When I get up to leave, Bettany thanks me earnestly for not asking what it was like to work with Crowe. "I went into meltdown on the red carpet the other day," he says in a cracked voice. "There were all these reporters and they kept asking me about Russell. I just dropped to my knees in front of them and clasped my face in my hands." He does precisely that. The PR woman and I look at one another. "And then someone else asked me the same question. 'Hold on, let me just plaster on my fake smile and come up with the banal answer you want...'"

He must realise that it is only a matter of time before another young actor is tearing out his hair because everyone wants to know what it was like working with Bettany. But if he does envisage that situation, he hides it well. Earlier, he referred to moments during the making of Dogville when it hit him that he was standing beside such living legends as Ben Gazzara and Lauren Bacall. "And here you are," he puffed in disbelief, "this English boy, being asked to improvise a five-minute speech on the nature of property in front of these great actors." Before I leave, I call him on it. Is this jokey self-deprecation, or does he really see himself in such humble terms?

"Sort of," he says. "I was born in Harlesden. I had gone to France, once, before I became an actor. Suddenly I'm shooting films in Prague, I'm living in New York. I'm convinced someone's going to come and take it all away." He looks weirdly helpless. "You know the sort of thing: 'Sorry, no, wrong guy. We meant Paul BATTANY, not Bettany.'"

'Master and Commander' is on general release from next Friday