The house that Paul Bettany shares with his wife, Jennifer Connelly, their 2-year-old son, Stellan, and Connelly’s 8-year-old boy, Kai (from her previous relationship with photographer David Dougan), is one of the most beautiful in all of Park Slope. Nestled on a shady corner opposite Prospect Park, it is distinguished without being ostentatious. Its Ionic columns and great arched windows seem typical rather than showy. The garden—the disrepair of which was once, Park Slope blogger Louise Crawford tells me, a cause of consternation for some neighbors—is now a well-maintained torrent of tulips in varying shades of oxblood, peach, and white. If Brooklyn isn’t so much the new Manhattan as the new Los Angeles—with soundstages and backyards, Heath and Michelle—then Paul and Jennifer are the Park Slope equivalent of Hollywood royalty: attractive, connubial, and (that most compulsory of qualities among the borough’s celebrity contingent) reserved without being recluses.
Recently, however, the man of the house hasn’t been strolling the Slope’s sycamore-lined streets as often as he might like; hectic filming schedules have kept Bettany away. But he’s just returned from Africa, where his wife is shooting The Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio, and now finds himself helping with Kai’s homework while discussing the practicalities of whipping oneself on-camera. “It’s, like, what are your choices?” he says, in a BBC English so considered, and so damn charming, that it almost comes across as a put-on. “You can either whip yourself wildly or you can be more measured. And I thought it would be more interesting to be measured. My belief is, the first hit shocks the audience; the second hit is awful because people think, Oh, my God, it’s landing in the same place; and from the third hit onwards, people start getting used to it.”
Bettany, 34, is wise to mull the intricacies of corporal mortification: As Silas, the homicidal, self-flagellating albino monk in Ron Howard’s monster The Da Vinci Code, which opens this week at theaters (literally) everywhere, he will find his every lash scrutinized by millions upon millions of people, all of whom will likely already have their own notion of how that particular scene from Dan Brown’s ridiculously successful novel should be interpreted.
But to hear him tell it, Bettany, who has yet to see the film (“I think only Ron, Ron’s wife, Akiva [Goldsman, the screenwriter], and Ron’s pet tortoise, Trevor, have seen it,” he says), is entirely unfazed by the scale of the project. Of course, he’s not as lackadaisical as his delivery occasionally suggests. It’s a stance that works to his advantage. Although he would never admit it, his understated but authoritative poise onscreen has prized scenes from some of the industry’s biggest names. As Russell Crowe yells and gesticulates his way through Master and Commander, Bettany—quiet and restrained as the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin—steals the movie.
As for his role as Silas, he says, “I think it’s part of the nature of playing a monk assassin—I imagine they’re on their own a lot of the time. So I would turn up and there would be a modest crew, and Ron and Akiva and maybe someone I was killing or something, and it felt like a really small, independent feature.” A pause. “But I’m beginning to think that’s not the spirit in which it’s going to be released.”
I put it to Bettany that it’s a little odd that a film starring one of the most famous actors in the world (Tom Hanks) and based on a book that’s sold more than 40 million copies is being heralded with such a raucous promotional fanfare. “I know exactly what you mean,” he says. “It seems like everyone could just sit back and save their money. But despite things looking as if it’s going to be the biggest thing of all time, I think everybody wants to make sure.”
“As a married father, I seem to have become incredibly sexy. I can feel it.”
Whatever the mechanics of its publicity, it’s virtually impossible to overstate the movie’s cultural magnitude. Opus Dei is up in arms. As are some albinos. A Catholic organization in India just called for a protest fast (“unto death”). “I just never thought that it would cause this kind of furor,” Bettany says. “I really didn’t. And believe me, I would love to be in a film that shook everything up and made people pissed off. I just didn’t think it would be this one. But I trust Ron 100 percent.”
The last time he worked with Ron Howard, on 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, was the first time Bettany, who was born in Hammersmith, London, met Connelly. Asked if he minds telling the story of their courtship, Bettany becomes slightly hesitant. His cadence loses its dry, self-deprecating swagger. “It’s fine,” he says, slowly. “Except I don’t expect anyone would believe it. We met on-set and ab-so-lute-ly (here, the syllables trickle slowly from his mouth) nothing happened. I was with somebody and she was with somebody, and I suppose we had both made enough films and enough mistakes not to make the obvious mistake again. We both went back and were in our relationships for another year and were just talking on the phone, and my relationship ended and so did hers, and then we got together. We fell in love over the phone.” When Bettany eventually moved to New York to be with Connelly, “it was kind of odd,” he recalls. “I just knew, and she just knew, and so when I got on a plane from London, I knew I was going out to spend the rest of my life with somebody. I never went home. It felt very certain.”