Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by Shutterstock
For actor Paul Bettany, all roads lead back to the one he trudges down in A Knights Tale. The argument holds water when you consider how his American studio-feature-film debut planted the seeds for a robust screen-acting career that has put the BAFTA-nominated performer toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks (The Da Vinci Code) and Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), had him co-leading prestigious small-screen and indie dramas (Discoverys Manhunt: Unabomber, Margin Call), and launched him into some of todays largest entertainment franchises with Solo: A Star Wars Story and, of course, 13 years voicing J.A.R.V.I.S. and playing Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As the story goes, Bettanys performance as a fictionalized Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knights Tale so impressed filmmaker Brian Helgeland that when Ron Howard needed an actor to play Charles Herman, the imaginary roommate and confidant to Crowes schizophrenic mathematician in A Beautiful Mind, he threw Bettanys name up for consideration. The job was his. He met his future wife, Jennifer Connelly, on set; both Howard and Crowe became repeat Bettany collaborators down the line; and forward the world spun. Life is really curly, and you can keep doing that because its all this sort of continuous rolling kind of weird journey, Bettany reflects by Zoom from his rented London flat. The truth is, one thing always leads to another.
A Knights Tale is remembered not just for its fusing of period-specific 14th century flourishes with a contemporary pop-rock soundtrack and other modern nods, but for being a Heath Ledger breakout vehicle. The late Oscar winner stars as peasant and squire William Thatcher, who, upon his employers death, adopts the knights armor (and the name Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein) to change his stars and follow his dreams as a master swordsman and jouster. Flanked by two fellow squires (played by Alan Tudyk and Mark Addy), William stumbles upon a nude and muddied Chaucer, the esteemed Canterbury Tales author and poet of the Middle Ages. He agrees to forge documents proving Thatchers noble lineage in exchange for clothes, food, and companionship. Thus begins a rollicking buddy action-comedy-romance that made a star out of Ledger and helped solidify its supporting players as future screen stalwarts.
In recognition of the films 20th anniversary, Bettany fresh off his run on Disney+ and Marvels WandaVision took a break from filming the upcoming A Very British Scandal (in which he and Claire Foy dramatize the notoriously contentious divorce of the duke and duchess of Argyll) to reminisce on his time filming, his intoxicated (and admittedly blurry) bonding with Ledger and Helgeland, and the wrap present that to this day makes him blush in memory.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of filming A Knights Tale 20 years ago?Well, what year was it?
It came out in May 2001, so you mustve been filming in 2000.The first thing that comes to mind is Brian Helgeland, who really supported me and had tried to get me on a previous film [called The Sin Eater, which was later made in 2003 as The Order, reuniting A Knights Tale actors Ledger, Addy, and Shannyn Sossamon without Bettany], but the studio didnt want me.
This was for The Sin Eater?Yeah, and the studio didnt want me. He fought and fought and fought and then he decided he was going to write me something that wasnt the lead so that he could sneak me in. So he did, and I auditioned, and the studio didnt want me. And he flew me over to meet with everybody, and I auditioned. They looked at the tape and decided they didnt want me. [Laughs] So I went home, and I came out again; he flew me out and I auditioned again. And they decided they didnt want me. And finally, Brian said, All right, Im not gonna make the movie. And I think that they had such a going concern with Heath, who was suddenly a big star, I guess, from 10 Things I Hate About You is that what its called? that they didnt want to lose the picture. So they thought, All right, well let him have this gangly, blond actor from England. Im really glad they did let him!
What was your read of the situation when you were getting that feedback?I think I was too young and naive to have any thoughts regarding it except to think I wasnt good enough.
What was it that developed your relationship with Brian in the first place?The story Brian told me was that I had sent in a video I went to a casting director I dont know who it was in England, and I tested. I did an audition and I sent it off into the world and then didnt think about it nor did he because he didnt get to see it. And then he found the video in some office in L.A. for Sin Eater, and he was like, Oh, I like this guy! Whos this guy? And then he flew over to London and did a proper screen test with a crew and everything and God bless him, I dont know why. I mean, I guess we just really enjoyed each others company and he recognized in me, maybe I dont know! Maybe he recognized somebody like himself who was trying to sort of, like in A Knights Tale, change their stars. Plus, we have a shared love of the Beatles.
I had assumed you might have been friends beforehand, but it turns out he was just a fan of yours.Oh, no! I hadnt even met an American at that point.
Looking at the way A Knights Tale really plays with genre and modernizes some aspects while keeping others period-specific was that playfulness appealing to you? What made you want to play this character in the first place?Oh, Ben having a job was appealing to me! I was just trying to pay my rent at that point in my life and just get experience. I fell in love with being in front of cameras. Well, let me clarify: I hate being in front of still cameras, but [I loved] being in front of movie cameras, and I loved everything about being on a set, and I had a sort of voracious appetite for knowledge about how its done. And so I was just excited to go and play in another movie.
What kind of research, if any, went into playing Chaucer?Theres not really a lot you can do, except reading The Canterbury Tales. Theres not a great deal of source material on that, so no, I was just sort of making it up as I went along, I think.
For your first scene in the film, youre butt naked, for lack of a better phrase. Youre covered in mud. Was that a daunting ask for you to bare it all on screen?I didnt really think about it at that point. The idea was: If you could pull off being naked and covered in mud and still have a smile on your face, the audience is probably going to love you. That was, Im sure, Brians idea for writing it like that.
No, I wasnt daunted at walking naked I was much more daunted at I remember costume coming to me, and I went, Oh! Ive got a costume? I thought I was naked. And they brought my costume, which was a Day-Glo yellow sock.
I can imagine what that was for Well, I didnt! I couldnt! I said, Whats this for? And they said, Um, its to put on your penis. And I said, Well, why would I put a Day-Glo yellow sock on my penis? And they went, In case you feel embarrassed. And I went, The one thing more embarrassing than walking down the street naked in front of people is walking down the street with a Day-Glo sock on your penis. So we didnt go with the sock. Actually, my wrap gift from Brian Helgeland was because it was all on film all the cut footage of my penis in a film tin that must be somewhere in my house, never to have been shown.
Have you revisited that footage, or its just good to know its in a safe place?Well, you know, I havent a projector, so I never really thought about revisiting it.
Speaking of costumes, a lot of people love the jacket that costume designer Caroline Harris had you in as Chaucer. What are the chances thats still hanging in your closet?I dont know that in real life that jacket would have worked on me. I cant imagine a situation where I might find myself wearing that jacket. Not to in any way deride the jacket the jackets marvelous, in a medieval-pop comedy. But I dont think, walking down the streets of New York City it doesnt feel like a good choice for me, sartorially speaking.
Tell me a little bit about these big introductory speech scenes before the jousting tournaments. Howd you go about memorizing those lines? Was anything ad-libbed?I remember on the first day, there was a big list of names I just had to recite a bunch of names, and I just couldnt learn it. I said, Look, youre just gonna have to put it on the wall behind this actors head so I can do it. Because theres no logic to it, and I couldnt learn it. I remember all the producers getting very worried, like, Hes got these huge speeches coming up! And the difference between huge speeches and lists is that I dont really have to I dont know what to say about this because I know some people who do learn lines. I dont ever learn my lines. It never comes to the point, really, where Im learning lines because they just start sticking to whatever the idea of the speech is. They just start sticking, and hopefully they stick in the right order.
There wasnt really improvisation. But there was a lot with the speeches of me going to Brian saying, Oh, what about this? and him going away with that idea and rewriting. But Brian is a really great writer; Ive never felt the need to mess with his words.
At this point, there was a lot of buzz around Heaths career after 10 Things I Hate About You, The Patriot. But you were 28, 29; he was 20, 21. Was that a felt age difference, or were you quick friends? What can you tell us about working with him?I can tell you that he just had a light that shined off him. He was a movie star, you know? Just immediately, you met him, and he shone, as you lot say, and it was very hard not to fall in love with him I think for anybody. He was a very playful, joyous spirit.
For the two weeks prior to filming, Ive read, you, Heath, Brian, and the rest of the cast had a rehearsal period that turned into mostly drinking and bonding in Prague, is that right?Yeah, its a little blurry. Or maybe I was a little blurry. But yeah, we became a really tight-knit group that really enjoyed each others company, and it was just a really funny time. You can imagine: We were all young and in the Czech Republic all together having a ball. And then at some point, it turned out we had to start working, but it never really felt like work at all.
My understanding from there is that it was also Brian who put you on Ron Howards radar for A Beautiful Mind, and then you can connect the dots from there to several other projects, and to several personal developments in your life including meeting your wife, Jennifer Connelly. Is it funny for you to be able to link it all back to A Knights Tale?Theres so much of that, though. Life is really curly and you can keep doing that because its all this sort of continuous rolling kind of weird journey. The truth is, one thing always leads to another, so yes, I believe that is true. But other things are true: I remember Peter Weir had an issue when my name was put up for being in Master and Commander, with my being blond. [He] couldnt believe that I could look brunette, and he really wanted the character to be brunette. So my manager sneaked into his hotel and left a video of me in another film where I was a brunette outside his door. So, you know, theres all of those stories.
A Knights Tale also showcases your comedic skills, which you havent always had the chance to flex until something like WandaVision, where youre playing with all those sitcom mini-genres. Is comedy something you wouldve liked to explore a bit more in your career or that you hope to in the future?I dont really think like that. There are certain sorts of comedy that I just dont think Id be any good at at all. But I mostly respond to a mixture of the material just being really good and speaking to me or a sort of quite bullish desire to do something thats very opposite of what Ive just done. And I cant shake that. Im not sure its particularly helpful for a young actor because I sort of always wanted to be a character actor and play lots of different sorts of roles. But I happened to be coming up at a time when branding yourself was really happening and you branded yourself as this sort of an actor. And I just didnt want to.
Im hoping its going to pay dividends now as Im not in my 20s any longer, but I cant shake that thing, you know? Right now is an example, in point of fact: I finished WandaVision, where Im playing Vision, whos an incredibly sort of warm, Jimmy Stewart sort of character. And now Im doing this thing with Claire Foy where Im a misogynistic drunk duke whos incredibly cold and cut off. So I still have that instinct.
As a final question for you, we really are taking a walk down memory lane here: If you could give your younger self any piece of advice, something that youve learned over the years that wouldve been helpful back then, what would it be?Id say this: 90 percent, maybe more, 95 percent, of the things that youre gonna spend the next 30 years worrying about are never gonna happen, and if you worry about each and every single one of them, youre going to be exhausted when a real crisis comes up. So keep your worry powder dry, and enjoy being young. I think that being young is almost wasted on the youth, you know? Its so vital, its such a vital time. I really try and teach that to my kids. Its extraordinary. Its just extraordinary, and the world is opening up for you, and it will open up for you. Dont worry so much.
See the rest here:
Paul Bettany Answers Every Question We Have About A Knights Tale - Vulture
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