- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2001

Actor Paul Bettany, who appears in the new movie "A Knights Tale," admits to being "29 in your Earth years." This is a flourish that accentuatesa thin frame and somewhat elfin face in a curious way, and one wonders why he hasnt been cast as a movie android yet or snapped up by the "Star Trek" apparatus to embody a puckish crew member.
"Knight," however, is set in a somewhat anachronistic 14th-century Europe. The movie champions a poor boy named William (Heath Ledger), who aspires to be the greatest jousting knight on the Continental tour.
Mr. Bettany, a native Londoner who says his basic schooling was sorely deficient, plays a silver-tongued recruit to Williams entourage the undiscovered poetic and comic immortal Geoffrey Chaucer, encountered as a naked vagabond. Writer-director Brian Helgeland has Chaucer functioning as Williams press agent, scribe and master of ceremonies. Chaucer whips up audiences to root for a gallant underdog, obliged to feign a noble identity as "Ulrich von Lichtenstein" to qualify for horse, armor and lance.
"My first American movie, made entirely in Czechoslovakia, or the Czech Republic now," says Mr. Bettany, in Washington for promotional interviews. Professionally trained at the Drama Centre in London, he has appeared in several British movies, but only "Bent" and "Land Girls" have been seen in the United States.
"Whats lovely about ('Knight) is that (Mr. Helgeland) is a great friend of mine. We tried to make a movie together, a horror movie, but a good one. The studio said, 'Under no grounds. We dont know who Paul Bettany is. Its not going to happen," Mr. Bettany recalls.
"Six months later, Brian rang me up and said hed written a part in this. He sent me a whole lot of research for the picture, along with a lithograph or something of what appeared to be an enormously fat, bald, bearded dwarf. Like any other self-respecting actor, I panicked. The research went out the window, and I hoped for the best."
Mr. Bettany believes contemporary illustrations of Chaucer (circa 1340-1400) tend to be scarce and unflattering. The movie seems to place him in a dimly documented stage of the poets youth in the 1360s, after participation in an English invasion of France. A prisoner of war, Chaucer was ransomed by King Edward III in 1360, but his activities for the next six years remain a historical blur. His greatest — though unfinished — poetic and narrative achievement, "The Canterbury Tales," remains a couple of decades beyond the movies slap-happy frame of reference.
Mr. Bettany has little patience with anyone tempted to "get pompous about the historical inaccuracies in our movie."
"I would think the note of inaccuracy was always quite obvious," he says. "I had an interview the other day with someone who got on his high horse about it. I said I bet he didnt take 'U-571 to task for its inaccuracies, starting with the fact that it should have been an English submarine doing such an espionage mission at that point in the war. And he didnt know (about U-571). To have a strong, angry reaction to 'A Knights Tale is like stomping on a puppy."
Mr. Bettany, being close to the writer-director, has the movies inception at his fingertips.
"Brian had a page of notes about jousting. Hed read a book about it and become fascinated. Several times he underlined one particular fact: 'Youve got to be of noble birth to compete. The notes spent some time in his ideas drawer," the actor says.
"He had a very bad experience on a film called 'Payback. Incidentally, in his version, the Mel Gibson character dies. It was Roman and Greek tragedy. If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
"Anyway, it didnt turn out the way he wanted, so he was trying to do a script about a screenwriter attempting to become a director. After about two weeks, he realized it was so parochial that not even he would want to see that film," he says. "So he started looking for other ideas, and in the drawer was his jousting idea. So if you swap peasants for screenwriters and lords for directors, youve got the same impulse in a costume picture."
Mr. Bettany grew up in unfashionable districts of London, Willesden and Harlesden. His father was a teacher who did some acting on the side. His mother worked as a secretary.
"I went to what we call a straight school and what you call a public school," he says. "My acquaintance with any kind of literature was absolutely nonexistent. Their sheer tenacity in not teaching me anything was remarkable. At 16 I left school. I dropped out of one school where I intended to study drama. Then I was a busker on the streets someone who played the guitar for money."
Then he decided to take a serious stab at drama school. The Drama Centre accepted him, although he was a little older than most of the students. He believes the three years he spent there changed his life decisively for the better.
"We worked from 9 in the morning till 8 at night — Saturdays included, because there was so much to catch up on," he says. "I was taught by two brilliant men, Christopher Fettes and Yat Malmgren, whos Swedish. … I was a latecomer, and I was just astonished by literature, language, ideas, peoples absorption in the world around them.
"Occasionally, one hears criticism aimed at the Drama Centre because it teaches kids too idealistically and doesnt prepare them for the world. My answer to that is, 'Youre going to learn everything you need to know about the real world within five minutes of leaving school and looking for work. Its a really beautiful thing to sort of shield people for three years. I really bless that time. Its given me an enormous amount of collateral in the working world."
Mr. Bettany has spent the past several months in New Jersey — Princeton and Bayonne mostly — working on the Ron Howard version of the biography "A Beautiful Mind." The production is still in progress.
"Its about a man called John Nash, played by Russell Crowe — a brilliant mathematician who won the Nobel Prize for economics," Mr. Bettany says. "Then he had a very disturbed, psychotic history. I play a sort of composite of the people who stood by him. For the purposes of the movie, Im his best friend. I look after him while everyone else is losing their heads or turning their backs on him. Essentially, its a one-character piece. Lets be honest. Its very much Russells film — about a mans descent into madness and how he pulls himself out of it."
Is it possible that Hollywood awarded the Oscar a year earlier than necessary? "Exactly," Mr. Bettany says. "Hes been entirely charming and helpful and marvelous. Were shooting mostly at an abandoned old military terminal in Bayonne now. There doesnt seem to be much activity around there except for us.
"Anyway, Im getting to spend a lot of time in New York City. Maybe I can get to 'The Producers before we wrap. Im a big Mel Brooks fan. Well, a massive fan of the East Coast, I discover."

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