Paul Bettany: Let's get physical

Paul Bettany's branching out, and putting on the pounds, as a romantic lead. Sam Ingleby meets a model professional

Halfway through an audience with Paul Bettany in an opulent suite at the Dorchester hotel, in London, a big bluebottle that has somehow managed to avoid the PRs and security and gain access to the room starts buzzing slowly around my head. I try to ignore it but Bettany, in the middle of an answer about his career choices, notices it and leaps up and snatches at the offending bug with one hand. He opens his palm with a sense of anticipation, but the fly has gone. "Oh," he says, a little disappointed. "I thought I was a ninja for a minute."

Halfway through an audience with Paul Bettany in an opulent suite at the Dorchester hotel, in London, a big bluebottle that has somehow managed to avoid the PRs and security and gain access to the room starts buzzing slowly around my head. I try to ignore it but Bettany, in the middle of an answer about his career choices, notices it and leaps up and snatches at the offending bug with one hand. He opens his palm with a sense of anticipation, but the fly has gone. "Oh," he says, a little disappointed. "I thought I was a ninja for a minute."

It is one of several un-starry moments in the interview with the decidedly big-time Bettany, who is in the country to promote the release of the sports rom-com Wimbledon, in which he co-stars with Kirsten Dunst. The film charts the progress of the journeyman British pro Peter Colt through his last Wimbledon tournament. Initially, he hopes merely to avoid complete humiliation, but later on, inspired by his relationship with Dunst's character, he aims to win.

The film is more than a little different from his last, the Lars von Trier- directed Dogma, which took as its subject the not inconsiderable matter of the insularity of the United States.

Why did he decide to do it? Bettany immediately drops into self-deprecating mode. "My plan - well, it isn't much of a plan, but it's mine and I like it - is to try to do lots of different things.

"One of my film heroes is Peter Weir, who made Fearless but also made Green Card. Ang Lee makes a western, he makes a Seventies psycho movie, a costume drama and a monster movie. I wanted to be like that. I finished this in October and I haven't worked since, because my wife [the actress Jennifer Connelly] had just had the baby and I wanted to be with them. But I've just taken on a film called The Wrong Element, which is a thriller with Harrison Ford. I'm doing it because I've never done a thriller before and I just get..." He pauses, searching for the appropriate description. "I just get bored if I don't do different things."

He may get bored, but this ability to change genre and to avoid being typecast is testament to Bettany's malleability on screen. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he looks every inch the leading man: blond, blue-eyed, 6ft-plus, he definitely has the lineaments of a film star. But rather than letting his looks dictate the roles he plays, he manages to employ them in a protean, changeable way.

He says that after his breakthrough success as a cold-blooded dandy in Gangster No 1 all he was offered were parts as sociopaths. Then, after his turn as a garrulous, bawdy "Jeff" Chaucer in A Knight's Tale, he was offered a series of louche, lounge lizard parts. His desire to play against what people expect of him and to try different characters was another reason he took on the role of Peter Colt.

"When I read the script I thought, 'well, that really works'. I went to see the director, Richard Loncraine, and straight away he said to me, 'I think you're completely wrong for this film.'

"I really loved him for it, because I agreed - I'd never done a film like it. He asked me why I wanted to do it and I said that I'd never done a Friday night date movie before, which was exactly what he was hoping to make. Not make anything more than that. That's when you get into trouble at times, when you pretend the film is something it isn't."

And did he, a classically trained actor, find it easy to act in a rom-com, date-movie feature? "Not at all. I watched a lot of romantic comedies, because it's a genre and you've got to service it rather than pretend to be in a different sort of movie. The director, although he'd never done a rom-com before, really knew what he was doing. We were always frank with each other. He would say to me, 'Paul, don't do it like that, that was crap.'"

How did he feel about such candour? "I really appreciate that kind of honesty because it helps things move along," he says, without a hint of affectation.

The film is a Working Title production and there were rumours that the part of Peter Colt was originally offered to that Working Title stalwart, Hugh Grant. Whether or not that is the case, Bettany happily admits to studying him and others to achieve what he calls the right sort of "elegant froth" that these films depend upon.

"People like Cary Grant, Will Smith and Hugh Grant do it brilliantly. They are just relentlessly charming and self-deprecating. I found that really difficult. But there may be other reasons for that," he says, self-deprecatingly. And what of the part of Colt who, I suggest, is a rather typical British sportsman: a good loser. He roars with laughter. "I love the way British people see ourselves. We say, 'He's like us, a bit of a loser.'

"It reminds me of when I first went to LA. A woman, who shall remain nameless, said to me, 'You're going to love LA, Paul, because over here ambition is not a dirty word.' And I thought, 'Well, you've named one of the things that I feel quite patriotic about.' It's still a little bit embarrassing in Britain if you're seen to try. But it's a difficult trait to play. He's a nice guy. It's simply easier to play somebody with lots of mess because mess is easier to hold on to.

"Apart from not having great self-esteem, which I don't think anybody really has unless they're mad, he's a nice bloke and I find them really difficult to do. It's a lot easier to say, 'Mum's got cancer' than 'Do you fancy a cup of tea?' It's easier to say the emotional, dramatic thing." He scratches his head: "They always trip me up, those lines."

You get the sense that Bettany is entirely comfortable with the type of film Wimbledon is: another unchallenging, glossy, picturesque view of boy-meets-American-girl-in-London - very much in the tradition of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. The challenges for Bettany, apart from his character's lack of angst, were more physical.

He went into training six months before filming began, in an attempt to look like an authentic tennis player. He now says that such an idea is an "enormously stupid and arrogant thing to believe you can do".

"When you go and watch tennis players they move so beautifully. Doing what I did is like the equivalent of saying, 'Yeah, I'd love to play Nureyev in a film, how long will it take me to learn?' These guys have been getting up since the age of four at the crack of dawn, hitting balls. So what I do is always going to be an approximation."

The tennis sequences in the film are augmented by CGI, with the ball being carefully added after the filming, but Bettany still underwent a rigorous training regime - with the former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash - to get his movements on court looking as fluent and professional as possible.

"Jennifer and I got married on 1 January and a week later we were home and I started learning tennis and lifting up heavy things and eating six boiled chickens a day. It was dreadful, really, but only as difficult as getting paid a lot of money to get fit can be. It was strange, though, because my wife had bought this out-of-breath European and suddenly I was turning into all the men she had refused to go out with at college."

Did she like the newly buffed-up version? "No, she hated it. I ended up putting on 16lb for the film and really I'm just a chain-smoking wreck."

He does enthusiastically puff his way through the interview. Did he go and watch any of the pros? He groans. "That was another problem. I had these tapes of [Andre] Agassi's backhand and Leyton Hewitt's forehand slowed down and they became like pornography to me.

"I'd be watching them and Jennifer would come in, and I would rush to the VCR to try to take the tape out in time. I'd be like, 'No, don't come in yet', and she'd say, 'Oh Paul, you're at it again.'"

Has he given up his fitness regime now filming is over? "I still go to the gym because I can't face the idea of having to do it from scratch for another film. But," he says, and his eyes role skyward in gratitude, "I can eat cheese again."

Cheese being a fairly modest addiction, it seems like a good moment to ask him about his reasonably low profile, despite some huge roles, a famous wife and some very famous friends, including Stellan Skarsgard (after whom his son is named) and Russell Crowe. He looks at me a little warily, presuming that we are about to enter into the section of the interview when I ask him what it was like to work with Crowe, who has a reputedly volcanic temper.

"I'm only going to go to premieres if I'm in the film, or my wife is, or someone I really love. I mean, if you go to The Ivy - which has really great shepherd's pie - you will get photographed. We accept that. But other than that, we don't get bothered at all. As long as you're not one of those people who rings up and says, 'I'm sorry, do you know who I think I am?' then you don't deserve attention."

He looks at me a little cautiously. Remembering that he has said that he fears that his life is becoming one long interview, and that if anyone asks him again what was it like working with Crowe, "I could answer, or I could head-butt a railway spike" I move on and ask him if he would like to work more with the Oscar-winning Connelly, with whom he co-starred, alongside Crowe, in A Beautiful Mind. He perks up immediately. "I'd love to. Really we've never worked together, because in A Beautiful Mind I was an imaginary character. We were in one scene together but she was pretending not to look at me. Of course, she was drawn to me." There follows one of the long pauses where you don't know if he's being serious, before he smiles, "I think."

"Nobody has a problem with working with your wife in Europe. I mean, Monica Bellucci and her husband Vincent Cassel do it, but in the US they really come out gunning for you. They say, 'Yeah, we know you're happy - stop rubbing our faces in it.'"

Perhaps if they played characters who didn't like each other? "Exactly. The only way is to do something where you really hate each other. Like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor did."

He giggles. "But perhaps they're not the best example."

And a final word on the film? "Well," he says, "I think that it can be said without doubt that it is the single greatest romantic-comedy tennis movie ever made. I think it's a genre of one, but it's right at the top of the heap, so we can feel completely self-assured about that".

Paul Bettany seems to be assured of much more than that.

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