Paul Bettany for “Wimbledon”

Paul Bettany may have been nursing a bad flu, but that didn’t stop the Brit from adopting the old stiff upper lip attitude, as we chatted in his Los Angeles hotel room, a few hours before his departure for Australia. In Wimbledon, Bettany plays a former tennis pro on the verge of retirement, when his game suddenly improves as he begins to fall in love with an American star-on-the-rise [Kirsten Dunst].

Not necessarily known for his turn at romantic comedies, and knowing how tough they are to make work, Bettany says that he has a philosophical attitude when it comes to choosing the right project, and this one was no exception. “I read the script and at the end of reading it there’s either a lot of empty cups of coffee or not, and I flew through this script and at the end I went “Shakoom” and that’s basically it”, Bettany says smilingly. “The movement of the script seemed to really work, it was good writing and the comedy didn’t seem to comprise of cheap gags, but rather borne out of the situation. I also really enjoyed the director when I went to meet him.” A romantic comedy that is part Hollywood but mainly quintessentially British in tone, Bettany says that he is not quite sure why the Brits excel in making a certain type of romantic comedy work. “I think there’s a sort of mocking self-deprecating wit in England. If somebody’s in trouble, you mock them, and then give them a hug later. Watching that seems to be really enjoyed by Americans, which is quite odd to me, because it’s not their sense of humour at all.”

One of the more unique elements of this film is its tennis setting, and there are many moments of fiery tennis matches being played out on screen. But Bettany doesn’t agree that you need to be a fan of the game to appreciate the film. “The thing about it was the director hired three actors: Austin Nichols, Kirsten Dunst and I who knew nothing about tennis. I’d never played tennis before and knew absolutely nothing about it, so the theory was that if we endeavoured to make it understandable, it would be understandable by anybody who likes tennis or doesn’t.”

Bettany laughingly says that there was one thing that surprised him about tennis when preparing for this film, “which is that I’d done four months of lifting weights and playing tennis every day, trying to get myself in shape, was feeling quite good about myself, and then I went to see Andy Roddick play and suddenly realised that what I’d done was enormously arrogant, to think that you could pull it off. They were so beautiful, these men and women, who’ve been doing it since they were four. You finally realise what you’ve actually done is tantamount to saying, that I’d love to play Rudolf Nurayev, so how long do I have to learn ballet? They’re very good at what they do, hit the ball so hard, and move so elegantly on court.”

As Wimbledon also explores the nature of celebrity, with scenes of Bettany’s famous champ on the run from the press, Bettany says that in his own life, being married to actress Jennifer Connelly, he, too, is fast discovering all about celebrity. “How celebrity works out, it usually coincides with either myself or my wife doing publicity for a movie, but can then get a bit tricky with paparazzi and stuff like that, but most of the time we lead kind of quiet lives.” Both actors live on either side of the Atlantic, he says. “I suppose the theory is we split our home between London and New York.”

Now afather, Bettany says that it’s important for the couple to keep their child out of the glare of publicity. “I think it’s my job to keep children normal when you do this sort of thing but then they see free gifts being sent to me, so it is really a tough thing to explain to children that it’s all privilege and a job of work. The only thing I think I can be accused of about paparazzi is being really na├»ve. I didn’t think about it coming along with the job and I never, during my three years at drama school, fantasized about one bit of it. However you’ve chosen this life and my kids haven’t, so I find myself very irritated when I find paparazzi taking pictures of my kids.”

In his relatively short career in front of the cameras, Bettany has chosen a diverse career from the mainstream to smaller fare. He says that all he has ever wanted to do in his career is diversity. “I want to do lots of things,” even when the actor is under pressure to ‘go Hollywood’. “The actual problem is that, before the baby was born, I was making 2-3 films a year and I won’t do that any more because I need to bring up a child so it’s the slower journey.”

The 33-year old Bettany was born into a theatre family. His father, Thane, is still an actor while his mother has retired from acting. Immediately after finishing at Drama Centre he went into the West End to join the cast of ‘An Inspector Calls’, though when asked to go on tour with this play he chose to stay in England. 20 films later, Bettany has never looked back. While it was natural for him to become an actor given his parentage, he says his being drawn to the profession “was borne out of a couple of things, out of the sort of playfulness, not wanting to play and also sort of terrible revenge fantasies against anybody who ever bullied you at school, and then hopefully you harness that to do something more useful for yourself.”

Of course, as he grew older, acting was far more than an extension of mere childhood fantasy. “What’s important to me now, is that I can learn things about making a movie about people, if the writing’s good, I can, if I read a great book, learn something about people, and if the script is good, I can learn something about people, but also I’m an entertainer. Everybody wants you to be dark, edgy and cool at the moment, which is really sort of fashionable, and I have to say, as unfashionable as it is, I don’t know how to tap dance but if there were a pair of tap shoes here, I might have the impulse to try and do it for you.”

Bettany is next set to play a baddie in The Wrong Element, opposite Harrison Ford, another example of the diversity of the actor. “I just want to do lots of different stuff and as many different things as I can.”