A Knight's Tale
Interview with Paul Bettany
interview by Elias Savada, 11 May 2001

Court 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…

Elias Savada:  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.)

Paul Bettany: Yes. Am I allowed to smoke on the Internet?

ES: 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.

PB: Yes (a subtle acceptance), it's a different kind of movie.

ES: 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.

PB: It's not pretending to be anything else other than what it is (or what you see).

ES: 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.

PB: I 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 Geoffrey Chaucer.

ES: 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.

ES: Would this film have been his directorial debut?

PB: No, he had already done Payback.

ES: Thankfully, you still ended up together.

PB: Yeah. 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.

ES: I wasn't a fan of Payback, but L.A. Confidential (which Helgeland co-wrote) was a knockout script.

PB: They're 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.

ES: 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?"

PB: Usually 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.

ES: You didn't bone up on Chaucer?

PB: Not 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 alcoholism. Truly.

ES: The entire cast?

PB: The 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.

ES: Any personal preferences?

PB: I'm a big beer and spirits man.

ES: They have some great beers in Czechoslovakia.

PB: They have some GREAT beers in Czechoslovakia. The thing is we all bonded rather quickly, as you tend to do (under the circumstances).

ES: That bonding, that camaraderie certainly shows in the film.

PB: Everyone 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.

ES: Long shoot.

PB: Yeah, four-and-a-half months. And two units working simultaneously.

ES: Did you watch a lot of WWF to get into character?

PB: I 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.

ES: Did Brian pop up in the film in a cameo of any kind?

PB: No, he would never do something like that. (giggles)

ES: Well some directors, like Hitchcock, like to do that.

PB: (now smiling broadly) No I can't see Brian in front of the camera.

ES: 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."

PB: (incredulous) Really?? How lovely! He's a great actor! Truly great, great actor. That's a lovely thought.

ES: As "Young Gangster" you strip down in that film. In you new film, you have that same natural affinity. What's going on here?

PB: (crossing 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.

ES: How did that start? Peer pressure?

PB: It 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.

ES: Is he one of your heroes?

PB: No, 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.

ES: That's the gangster in you.

PB: Christopher Walken. But (getting back to where this all started) Oldham has real touch.

ES: 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.

PB: Well, 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.

ES: Well had Brian seen you in Gangster No. 1 to know you had stripped down in that film? Was this some amusing inside joke?

PB: No, I don't think so. He just knew I would not have too many problems with it.

ES: 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?

PB: We 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.

ES: And you probably spoke more of them than the other characters.

PB: I was just at home being boring learning lines.

ES: You didn't have any training that you had to go through, like Heath did I assume? Like learning to ride a horse.

PB: Well Heath already knew how to ride, brilliantly. He did that in The Patriot.

ES: But had he jousted before?

PB: No, he didn't. I don't think there's a movie producer in the world that would let Heath actually joust.

ES: It's all stunt jousting.

PB: You wouldn't be able to get insurance for Heath to really joust. Imagine someone riding toward Heath Ledger with $50 million on his shoulder.

ES: Were the spears made of balsa wood?

PB: Oh, no. They were entirely made of spaghetti.

ES: Oh. O.K.

PB: Inside the lances…

ES: Any special type? Linguini, perhaps? Penne?

PB: Little bow ties. No, of course not. It was spaghetti spaghetti. Obviously not cooked.

ES: You're making here in the States now. A Beautiful Mind.

PB: Yes, it's still filming.

ES: Why are they letting you off the set? Do you have some time off?

PB: Some 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 publicizing it.

ES: 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?

PB: Pretty 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.

ES: How's it working with Russell Crowe and Ron Howard?

PB: Ron is adorable. So charming. A really nice man who makes good films. Great director. Easy to work for. Russell is just enormously humble.

ES: Really? He's gotten some bad press lately from the set, involving finger gestures to people in the neighborhood where you were filming.

PB: Well, 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.

ES: Well it generates publicity for the film at least. Moving on…. Personal background.

PB: Born in London. 1971. May.

ES: Almost thirty. Any observations on hitting that milestone?

PB: I can't wait to get the twenties out of the way!

ES: Any brothers? Sisters?

PB: An older sister. Not in the profession.

ES: How did you catch the acting bug?

PB: Out 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…."

ES: Parents?

PB: (nodding confirmation) I have them.

ES: How supportive of your career are they?

PB: My parents live very different lives. One lives in Hartfordshire; the other lives way up in Scotland.

ES: Did that happen when you were a kid?

PB: (hesitantly nods) I'm still in touch with both of them.

ES: Any relation to Thane Bettany (who starred in the 1960's British television series The Talisman)?

PB: He's my dad. (Nodding approval of the thespian blood in his veins.)

ES: Has your mom acted, too?

PB: No, my mom was a secretary in a travel firm. Dad's seventy-three and still acting, doing a lot of theatre up in Scotland.

ES: 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 Connecticut.

PB: Yes, 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.

ES: Are you doing mostly film now? Are you getting back to the stage at all?

PB: I haven't been back to the stage for about three years and I'd really love to 

ES: 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?

PB: No, I really don't prepare for anything any differently that anything else 

ES: 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?

PB: He 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.

Click here to read Elias Savada's review or Cynthia Fuchs' interview with Heath Ledger.



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