From his breakout role as Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, who is practically nude throughout the entire movie, Paul Bettany has gone on to create memorable roles in A Beautiful Mind, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Da Vinci Code, The Young Victoria and Creation.
In The Tourist written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Others), Bettany portrays Inspector John Acheson, a policeman tracking down a criminal named Alexander Pearce, whom a mysterious woman, Elise Ward (Angelina Jolie), is trying to protect. During a train trip from Paris to Venice, Elise encounters an American tourist named Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp) who she drags into her deadly game of cat and mouse.
How do you see your character of Inspector Acheson in this?
I think he’s incredibly professional, driven, convinced he’s right and a bit of a maverick. He’s becomes obsessed with catching Pearce. He’s been trying so long and has been foiled at every turn. But the thing about this movie is that nobody can be taken at face value—not even my character. His investigation is complex and twisted—his motivation is complicated for personal reasons.
He’s a man very used to winning, and yet for years and years he hasn’t been able to get this guy and he has spent an enormous sum of money, 8 million pounds, which is about $12 millions, trying to catch this guy and he just can’t get him. And right at the moment where he’s nearly got his hands on him, this buffoon, played by Johnny Depp, just keeps getting in the way and that’s frustrating.
How did this movie come about?
I saw The Lives of Others (which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film), it’s a masterpiece. I then got a phone call from my agent who said, “Florian wants to meet you. He’s a big fan.” I literally couldn’t believe it.
I went to meet him, and I said, “What is the thing that made you such a fan of me?” And he said, “A Knight’s Tale.” And I said, “Where did you see A Knight’s Tale?” And he went, “In Germany.” And I realized that he had seen it re-voiced by a German actor, so thank you so much, I’ve stolen your job! I’m convinced that’s how it happened.
It was a bit of a love feast and he rung me up, he said, “I’m going to call you when I decide what’s next.” Years went by and not a call. I was a little hurt. Then he called me up and said, “Would you be in this movie that I’m making,” and I said, “Of course, I’ll be in your movie.”
This is a remake of Anthony Zimmer—did you see it?
No, I haven’t seen it. Florian wouldn’t let any of us see it, including himself. He’s a clever man and I’m sure he had his reasons. But I can see it now, and I will.
Do you think it’s strange that he would do a big budget film like this for his first American movie?
I think that it probably would have been the end of him as far as making movies in America if he had come over and made a small little movie. He went whole hog and made a bit Hollywood movie in the greatest possible way, in the classic classy Cary Grant/To Catch a Thief movie and it feels really refreshing to see.
It has a layered quality that we haven’t seen in recent movies. We sacrifice so much of that to just gung-ho action, which is great but why can’t you have both? Why can’t you have people jumping off buildings, and also maintain a certain depth and class to it?
I’m sure he will go and make another very well thought of indie movie about the cold war, but I think it was absolutely the right move for him to not do that. He’s got that calling card, “I made The Lives of Others,” for the rest of his life as a beautiful movie.
It was your first time working with Johnny and Angelina, were there any surprises for you?
I like to think it was their first time working with me! They’re both delightful. I fell- head-over-heels in love with Johnny Depp, which everybody does, he’s so generous, kind, funny and refreshing. And he, like me, loves a really good red wine, so it was like a match made in heaven.
It was just so nice to see somebody at that level, having all of this stuff thrown at him, and I never heard him moan once, I never heard him be rude to anybody. He really wants to share the screen with other people. He believes in a company of actors. It was lovely.
It was a lovely feeling on set. I came on set and did my stuff with Angelina; she’s lovely, clever and funny. We all felt safe because Florian is incredibly specific and is so totally confident, and the day might be going, the light might be going, but he is not going to move on until he’s got the scene as he wants it.
You would find yourself sometimes kind of frustrated saying one line again and again and again, and we all found ourselves in that position. But the consequence is you actually have a great deal of confidence when your director says, “Alright, we’re done.” Florian is exacting, demanding and specific.
There is an enormous amount of detail in his direction. He does it in an entirely charming way, but he will not move on until he has exactly what he wants.