PAUL Bettany has been wowing theatre goers and independent movie fans for years, but it took his buttock-baring turn as Chaucer in 2001’s A Knight’s Tale for Hollywood ‘bigwigs’ to sit up and take notice.
He’s now clocked up roles in The Da Vinci Code and Oscar-winning movies A Beautiful Mind, where he met his wife Jennifer Connelly, and Master And Commander.
But his latest has proved his most daunting yet.
In Creation, London-born Bettany plays the revolutionary scientist Charles Darwin, the author of arguably the most explosive book in history, The Origin of Species.
Published 150 years ago, it was a culmination of more than 20 years of research inspired by his travels as a young man.
In it, Darwin revealed a scientific explanation for the diversity of species, including the evolution of man, and forever changed the way we view our place in the world.
Creation is based upon Annie’s Box, a book written by Darwin’s great-great grandson, Randal Keynes. In it, we see Darwin as a young and vibrant family man – albeit one whose mental and physical health gradually buckles under the weight of guilt and grief for a lost child, his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.
A man torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place.
So there’s much to talk about as I prepare to interview the 38-year-old actor at the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
I step into the room but there’s no sign of Mr Bettany, so I take a seat and only then do I notice the soles of two feet hanging off the end of a line of chairs.
“Um... Paul,” the PR says gently and a rather tired and bewildered looking Bettany pops his head up. It turns out Bettany is feeling rather poorly and admits he only got an hour’s sleep the night before but, ever the professional, he ploughs on with the interview.
His blue eyes may look slightly glassy but, even in this exhausted state, Bettany still makes a striking figure. Tall and slim, his hair is shaved for a film role but it only maximises his razor-sharp cheekbones.
“Darwin’s a bit of a hero of mine. I think he was an extraordinarily brave human being,” he says in quiet but well-spoken voice. “I like the idea of a person who is a social conservative having this revolutionary idea.”
He felt particularly close to his character while filming at Darwin’s actual home, Down House in Kent: “It was beautiful. I am not particularly sentimental but I was really moved. I found it extraordinary to walk that walk where a great deal of his thinking was done.”
For director Jon Amiel there was never any question as to who would play Darwin. Jon has said: “Paul’s physically the most like Charles Darwin that you could possibly imagine but above all else he is a very, very intelligent man and brings to the role an effortless, piercing, luminous intelligence.”
Bettany’s far too modest to comment on such praise but says: “Darwin had a much rounder face than me though, so I put on about 40 pounds through eating cheese sandwiches.”
The requisite receding hairline, he admits: “was less fun”. When he received the script, he says, “I thought it was beautiful, one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. It’s a story about a marriage in crisis and the loss of a child. It’s compelling enough even if it wasn’t about Darwin.”
The film is reported to have failed to find a distributor in the US because Darwin’s theory of evolution is not accepted by religious Americans.
But this is a tale of great love. Darwin was married to Emma for 44 years and they had 10 children, although just seven survived to adulthood.
“We wanted to make the science clear but the film doesn’t deal with the political fall-out about his ideas, not really. It deals with the domestic fall-out of his ideas.
“Charles and Emma were so in love with each other, but had this incredibly alienating experience at a time when she was being drawn into religion and he was being pulled apart.”
It seemed to make sense that Bettany’s wife, Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, played the part of Emma.
Had they been looking to work on a project together? “Only in that I think she’s a great actress and think it would be a shame not to work with her.”
He and Jennifer now live in New York with their son, Stellan, six, and Jennifer’s son from a previous relationship, Kai, 12.
“You know, work-wise it doesn’t really matter where we live. I’m in a lucky position that it just doesn’t matter for me anymore,” he says.
But he adds with one last valiant effort, “It took me three years to realise ‘**** I’m not going home, I’d better get some American mates’!”
And, with that, it’s time to leave Bettany to enjoy what rest he can, before the next interview begins.
Creation opens in cinemas next Friday when there will be a review on our Culture pages.
Charles and Emma were so in love with each other, but had this incredibly alienating experience