English actor Paul Bettany has made a career habit of mixing up his roles. From his breakthrough role in Gangster No. 1 (2000), to his butt naked turn as the cheeky Geoff Chaucer in A Knight's Tale (2001) and two tours of duty with Russell Crowe - A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Master And Commander (2003) - Bettany has always managed to inject a little bit of British class. Wimbledon (2004), his first stab at rom-coms, may have only just skimmed the net, but he's now back playing the villain - and a villainous monk at that - in the blockbuster adaptation of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
What do you think of the controversy surrounding The Da Vinci Code? Did you have to think twice about doing the role?
I think the whole hoop-la about the book feels to me 80 per cent fabricated. I remember Francis Ford Coppola made a movie a few years ago where he sort of suggested that the Vatican was in cahoots with the Mafia and nobody batted an eyelid. So I really don't understand what the furore is. I took the job, I went to the bookstore assuming it was in the fiction department, I walked up to that department and there I found it. I didn't for once think to go and look in philosophy and personal growth. The Da Vinci Code is a page turning holiday novel. It was always clear to me that it was sort of a big adventure story-cum-thriller. And we made it in that sort of spirit.
Are you very religious?
I'm not. I was born a Catholic and now I'm a lapsed Catholic. I'm something but I'm not a believer any more.
Akiva Goldsman wrote the screenplay. Has he stayed fairly loyal to Dan Brown's text or is some of it missing?
A film has to be reductive. It took me a day and a half to read the book and if I was in the cinema for a day and a half I would be killing people - and I quite like movies. So you have to reduce it drastically but at the same time make everybody feel like they've seen the whole film because it's sold 50 million copies and is clearly doing something right for people. That achievement, technically, is just mind-boggling.
In the book, your character Silas is an albino - how did you manage that?
That was addressed with absolute diligence by my make-up artist of many years, Veronica Brebner, who experimented on me and with people of my colouring in order to knock out the freckles and red tones. Truly, making someone look like an albino is an extraordinary job if you do it properly. It took two and a half hours. First of all there was a green make-up that went on, and then a paler version because they're not white, they're pale-skinned - you look like you're in Memoirs Of A Geisha! At that point, you have to draw features back on, so she would draw in veins and, of course, all the scars and the wig. Then she would airbrush. That was an incredibly long process for what you could see of me - my head and shoulders.
Silas is also, shall we say, prone to a spot of self-flagellation. How did you approach that element of his character?
I thought about it a great deal and I've seen people getting whipped and seen people whipping themselves on screen. But I thought what would be shocking about that? I could make it look like a frenzy but then I thought if you keep seeing someone whipping themselves, you start to get used to it. So I thought that the scene actually existed in between each stroke. It's the recovery from the pain and then the build up to having the willpower to hit yourself again in the same place, as if somebody else was doing it. That was the only thing that was intriguing about seeing that on screen: the result.
You've played the villain twice in recent memory - in this and Firewall. Is that part of a game plan for your career?
Oh my God no. It was as simple as this:there's Ron Howard, there's a monk assassin, there's 50 million copies of the book sold worldwide. If you say no you might as well get on a plane and go home.
Do you get to beat anyone up in this film?
I beat up Tom Hanks and then, in turn, I'm beaten up by Audrey Tautou. What that says about me I don't know. She's tough!