Pious killer in ‘Da Vinci’


LOS ANGELES (AP) – Geographically, Paul Bettany has just arrived from London and Barcelona, where he was doing press for “The Da Vinci Code,” after time in Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa, where wife Jennifer Connelly is shooting a film.

Artistically, Bettany has arrived at the role of pop literature’s most notorious albino after stints as a bestial gangster, a Napoleonic era ship’s surgeon, a lovesick tennis player, Geoffrey Chaucer and an imaginary friend.

A renaissance man? An actor with eclectic tastes? An artist determined not to repeat himself?

“Just out of boredom, that’s why you really do it,” Bettany told The Associated Press in Los Angeles before heading to the Cannes Film Festival, where “The Da Vinci Code” was picked as the opening night film.

“Like with “Wimbledon,’ I’d never been in a romantic comedy before. I wondered what’s that sort of like? So I tried one, and then wanted to keep going on trying new things. It would be dull otherwise.”

The British actor, who turns 35 on May 27, was offered the role of albino monk-assassin Silas after previously working with director Ron Howard on “A Beautiful Mind,” in which he played a phantom buddy to Russell Crowe’s schizophrenic character. Bettany met Connelly on the film, which earned her the supporting-actress Academy Award.

Though Bettany had not yet read “The Da Vinci Code,” the role was an easy sell when Howard called.

“I took about nought-point-two seconds to answer, and said yes,” Bettany said. “What was going on in my head was, monk-assassin, Ron Howard, 40 million copies sold. If you say no, at that point you should go, “I should just get on a plane and go home.’ That’s quite a lot of things that are already right about it.”

Add a cast led by Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou and Ian McKellen, a lurid hunt for the Holy Grail and a religious firestorm over author Dan Brown’s speculations that Christ and Mary Magdalene were married, and Bettany found himself at the center of one of Hollywood’s most anticipated productions.

Bettany said he had avoided reading “The Da Vinci Code” partly out of “some ghastly English snobbery. … I just thought it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea.” Once he took the part, Bettany went out and bought a copy, devouring it in two days.

“There’s an absolute motor that sort of drives it, and it’s sort of like a guilty pleasure, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” Bettany said.

Bettany was born into a theatrical family, his father and grandmother working as actors and his mother spending time as a stage singer.

Initially raised as a Roman Catholic (“a lot of guilt, and I still smell the incense”), Bettany then attended Church of England and Methodist congregations as his father experimented with different Christian branches.

Now “fanatically atheist,” Bettany said he was not prepared for incessant questions about the religious debate over the novel, which theorizes about a conspiracy to cover up Christ’s marriage and villainizes the Catholic group Opus Dei, whose leader helps orchestrate dark deeds in pursuit of the Grail.

Monk Silas is an extremist Opus Dei member who practices “corporal mortification,” wearing a barbed chain on his leg and flogging himself during prayer.

Bettany’s answer to “Da Vinci Code” critics: It’s only make-believe.

“When I went out to buy the book, I bought it in the fiction department. I didn’t buy it from the philosophy and personal growth department. A theological discourse as we all know is not a page-turner. I, like most people, read it like a beach novel over two days,” Bettany said.

“I would be surprised if there’s much furor over the movie. Personally, I’ve only noticed it in America. Nobody mentions it in England or France. The only place it’s been mentioned is here, and I’ve yet to meet anybody that is sort of offended. And if we have offended anybody, if I have offended anybody, they’re Christians, so I’d ask them to forgive me.”

After early success in British theater, television and film, with a notable turn as a criminal mad dog in “Gangster No. 1,” Bettany clicked with U.S. audiences as ribald poet Chaucer in “A Knight’s Tale.”

Following “A Beautiful Mind,” Bettany worked again with Crowe as a shipboard doctor in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” In “Wimbledon,” Bettany was a fading tennis veteran who becomes an underdog sensation after striking up a romance with a hotshot American player (Kirsten Dunst). He co-starred with Nicole Kidman in “Dogville,” director Lars von Trier harsh indictment of America.

Most recently, Bettany was the black-hearted mastermind who holds Harrison’s Ford’s family hostage in the high-tech heist tale “Firewall.”

Bettany got into acting after a prolonged period of grief and isolation after his younger brother died in a fall. He said he made the mistake of talking about his brother’s death and its aftermath in interviews before but now declines to discuss it to avoid “me having to have a bad day because I’ve had to go back to the darkest place in my personal history.”

He’s effusive about his family with Connelly, though. Besides a stepson from Connelly’s previous relationship, Bettany has a son of his own with the actress and looks forward to more kids.

“I would like to just repetitively make children and practice making children in between,” Bettany said.