British actor Paul Bettany has the dashing looks and commanding presence of a leading man, but his filmography bolsters the case that he’s not a creature of vanity or easy paychecks. Whether comparing his drunken Chaucer in “A Knight’s Tale” to his ruthless thug in “Gangster No. 1,” or his hypocritical do-gooder in Lars von Trier’s arthouse masterpiece “Dogville” to his self-flagellating albino monk in a splashy blockbuster like “The Da Vinci Code,” Bettany continually proves himself an intelligent and versatile performer who’s passionate about new career challenges.
In director Jean-Marc Vallée’s luxurious new biopic “The Young Victoria,” Bettany co-stars as Lord Melbourne, a Prime Minister who became the 18-year-old, freshly ascended Queen Victoria’s self-serving political tutor. Set in 1837, the film portraitizes Victoria (Emily Blunt) as we haven’t seen her: a progressive-minded, spirited beauty in the early days of her reign and her courtship with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). Both a drama of political intrigue and a sweeping romance, it’s yet another film in which Bettany — only given as much screen time as history allowed here — takes his chance to pilfer his every scene. I spoke with the man about playing a political animal, how not to greet Prince Charles, working with his wife Jennifer Connelly (again) in next month’s “Creation,” and why he no longer lives in Brooklyn.
“The Young Victoria” presents its subject as a progressive hedonist trying to go with the flow. Why have we never seen this more charming and vibrant side of Victoria represented before?
Oh, I quite like the old grumpy one. Behind that sterile, matriarchal image — black dress, bun on the top of her head — the very reason she wore black for the rest of her life was in mourning this love that she had for Albert. It’s beautiful, really. Although if you go to London, it’s just littered with monuments that she kept building to him.
The factoid that tugged on my heart is the title card at the end of the film, which said she laid out her late husband’s clothing every day until she lost power at 81.
Well, I bet she didn’t lay it out. I bet she had some underpaid servant to lay it out. [laughs]
Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York, was a producer on the film. Did you have any interactions with her?
Yeah, weirdly. When I met her, I was really busy on set. She was talking to me, and I was trying to make a cup of tea, and I was delayed. Then they called me back on set, and she felt bad about it, so she made me a cup of tea. I thought, “Brilliant. Come the revolution!”
Have you ever met anyone else in the Royal Family?
I met [Prince] Charles at a premiere — I think it was “Master and Commander.” It was really funny because you all stand in a line, and he works his way up. We’ve all been told what to call him, “Your Royal Highness,” or whatever. It was a big night, and I got flustered. I said, “Alright, mate!” He shook my hand, which is the last thing you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to wait for him to offer his hand, you’re supposed to bow, and I didn’t. He looked at me quite frostily, actually. [laughs]
Being British but living stateside, do you find yourself less in the loop or not caring about politics over there since it doesn’t affect you so directly?
Well, thank goodness we’re not involved in British politics. I still read the British papers, but I’ve never been a Royalist, ever. It’s funny, there always seems to be much more of a fascination with the Royal Family over here then there does in England. I think newspapers like the Guardian and the Observer are really extraordinary. I still look to those papers for news on the U.S., especially with regards to foreign policy and what’s going on around the globe with America, outside of America.
In the film, Lord Melbourne isn’t depicted as a villainous schemer so much as another piece in this political chess game. How much sympathy was there in Julian Fellowes’ script, compared to what you wanted to bring to the role?
God, I’m not sure. He was always written as a sort of political animal, slightly Machiavellian as politicians have to be and are. Yet, he had one moment of redemption in that he admits that his guidance might not have always been the best advice. I remember seeing an early cut, and [that scene] was gone. I’ve never, ever commented on a cut, and I went: “Listen, I do think that’s an important moment for Melbourne, that he has the balls to admit to [Victoria] that he has misguided her at times, and apologizes.” I’m glad it went back in — I mean, I assume it’s in there. [laughs]
Have you ever been manipulated so artfully that you couldn’t get too upset when you found out?
Oh, yeah. The very best agents are like that. Half the time, you don’t even find out. With the bad ones, you find out. There are certain people who are that charming that you just forgive them all of that.
Besides any makeup to help you get into character, what’s the trick to pulling off a role much older than you really are?
I wouldn’t know how to answer that question. It’s for other people to decide whether I’ve pulled it off at all. [laughs]