For actor Paul Bettany, all roads lead back to the one he trudges down in A Knight’s Tale. The argument holds water when you consider how his American studio-feature-film debut planted the seeds for a robust screen-acting career that has put the BAFTA-nominated performer toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks (The Da Vinci Code) and Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), had him co-leading prestigious small-screen and indie dramas (Discovery’s Manhunt: Unabomber, Margin Call), and launched him into some of today’s largest entertainment franchises with Solo: A Star Wars Story and, of course, 13 years voicing J.A.R.V.I.S. and playing Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As the story goes, Bettany’s performance as a fictionalized Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale so impressed filmmaker Brian Helgeland that when Ron Howard needed an actor to play Charles Herman, the imaginary roommate and confidant to Crowe’s schizophrenic mathematician in A Beautiful Mind, he threw Bettany’s name up for consideration. The job was his. He met his future wife, Jennifer Connelly, on set; both Howard and Crowe became repeat Bettany collaborators down the line; and forward the world spun. “Life is really curly, and you can keep doing that because it’s all this sort of continuous rolling kind of weird journey,” Bettany reflects by Zoom from his rented London flat. “The truth is, one thing always leads to another.”
A Knight’s Tale is remembered not just for its fusing of period-specific 14th century flourishes with a contemporary pop-rock soundtrack and other modern nods, but for being a Heath Ledger breakout vehicle. The late Oscar winner stars as peasant and squire William Thatcher, who, upon his employer’s death, adopts the knight’s armor (and the name Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein) to “change his stars” and follow his dreams as a master swordsman and jouster. Flanked by two fellow squires (played by Alan Tudyk and Mark Addy), William stumbles upon a nude and muddied Chaucer, the esteemed Canterbury Tales author and poet of the Middle Ages. He agrees to forge documents proving Thatcher’s noble lineage in exchange for clothes, food, and companionship. Thus begins a rollicking buddy action-comedy-romance that made a star out of Ledger and helped solidify its supporting players as future screen stalwarts.
In recognition of the film’s 20th anniversary, Bettany — fresh off his run on Disney+ and Marvel’s WandaVision — took a break from filming the upcoming A Very British Scandal (in which he and Claire Foy dramatize the notoriously contentious divorce of the duke and duchess of Argyll) to reminisce on his time filming, his intoxicated (and admittedly blurry) bonding with Ledger and Helgeland, and the wrap present that to this day makes him blush in memory.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of filming A Knight’s Tale 20 years ago?
Well, what year was it?
It came out in May 2001, so you must’ve been filming in 2000.
The first thing that comes to mind is Brian Helgeland, who really supported me and had tried to get me on a previous film [called The Sin Eater, which was later made in 2003 as The Order, reuniting A Knight’s Tale actors Ledger, Addy, and Shannyn Sossamon without Bettany], but the studio didn’t want me.
This was for The Sin Eater?
Yeah, and the studio didn’t want me. He fought and fought and fought and then he decided he was going to write me something that wasn’t the lead so that he could sneak me in. So he did, and I auditioned, and the studio didn’t want me. And he flew me over to meet with everybody, and I auditioned. They looked at the tape and decided they didn’t want me. [Laughs] So I went home, and I came out again; he flew me out and I auditioned again. And … they decided they didn’t want me. And finally, Brian said, “All right, I’m not gonna make the movie.” And I think that they had such a going concern with Heath, who was suddenly a big star, I guess, from 10 Things I Hate About You — is that what it’s called? — that they didn’t want to lose the picture. So they thought, All right, we’ll let him have this gangly, blond actor from England. I’m really glad they did let him!
What was your read of the situation when you were getting that feedback?
I think I was too young and naive to have any thoughts regarding it except to think I wasn’t good enough.
What was it that developed your relationship with Brian in the first place?
The story Brian told me was that I had sent in a video … I went to a casting director — I don’t know who it was — in England, and I tested. I did an audition and I sent it off into the world and then didn’t think about it — nor did he because he didn’t get to see it. And then he found the video in some office in L.A. for Sin Eater, and he was like, “Oh, I like this guy! Who’s this guy?” And then he flew over to London and did a proper screen test with a crew and everything — and God bless him, I don’t know why. I mean, I guess we just really enjoyed each other’s company and he recognized in me, maybe — I don’t know! Maybe he recognized somebody like himself who was trying to sort of, like in A Knight’s Tale, change their stars. Plus, we have a shared love of the Beatles.
I had assumed you might have been friends beforehand, but it turns out he was just a fan of yours.
Oh, no! I hadn’t even met an American at that point.
Looking at the way A Knight’s Tale really plays with genre and modernizes some aspects while keeping others period-specific — was that playfulness appealing to you? What made you want to play this character in the first place?
Oh, Ben — having a job was appealing to me! I was just trying to pay my rent at that point in my life and just get experience. I fell in love with being in front of cameras. Well, let me clarify: I hate being in front of still cameras, but [I loved] being in front of movie cameras, and I loved everything about being on a set, and I had a sort of voracious appetite for knowledge about how it’s done. And so I was just excited to go and play in another movie.
What kind of research, if any, went into playing Chaucer?
There’s not really a lot you can do, except reading The Canterbury Tales. There’s not a great deal of source material on that, so no, I was just sort of making it up as I went along, I think.
For your first scene in the film, you’re butt naked, for lack of a better phrase. You’re covered in mud. Was that a daunting ask for you to bare it all on screen?
I didn’t really think about it at that point. The idea was: If you could pull off being naked and covered in mud and still have a smile on your face, the audience is probably going to love you. That was, I’m sure, Brian’s idea for writing it like that.
No, I wasn’t daunted at walking naked — I was much more daunted at … I remember costume coming to me, and I went, “Oh! I’ve got a costume? I thought I was naked.” And they brought my costume, which was a Day-Glo yellow sock.
I can imagine what that was for …
Well, I didn’t! I couldn’t! I said, “What’s this for?” And they said, “Um, it’s to put on your penis.” And I said, “Well, why would I put a Day-Glo yellow sock on my penis?” And they went, “In case you feel embarrassed.” And I went, “The one thing more embarrassing than walking down the street naked in front of people is walking down the street with a Day-Glo sock on your penis.” So we didn’t go with the sock. Actually, my wrap gift from Brian Helgeland was — because it was all on film — all the cut footage of my penis in a film tin that must be somewhere in my house, never to have been shown.
Have you revisited that footage, or it’s just good to know it’s in a safe place?
Well, you know, I haven’t a projector, so I never really thought about revisiting it.
Speaking of costumes, a lot of people love the jacket that costume designer Caroline Harris had you in as Chaucer. What are the chances that’s still hanging in your closet?
I don’t know that in real life that jacket would have worked on me. I can’t imagine a situation where I might find myself wearing that jacket. Not to in any way deride the jacket — the jacket’s marvelous, in a medieval-pop comedy. But I don’t think, walking down the streets of New York City — it doesn’t feel like a good choice for me, sartorially speaking.
Tell me a little bit about these big introductory speech scenes before the jousting tournaments. How’d you go about memorizing those lines? Was anything ad-libbed?
I remember on the first day, there was a big list of names — I just had to recite a bunch of names, and I just couldn’t learn it. I said, “Look, you’re just gonna have to put it on the wall behind this actor’s head so I can do it.” Because there’s no logic to it, and I couldn’t learn it. I remember all the producers getting very worried, like, “He’s got these huge speeches coming up!” And the difference between huge speeches and lists is that I don’t really have to — I don’t know what to say about this because I know some people who do learn lines. I don’t ever learn my lines. It never comes to the point, really, where I’m learning lines because they just start sticking to whatever the idea of the speech is. They just start sticking, and hopefully they stick in the right order.
There wasn’t really improvisation. But there was a lot with the speeches of me going to Brian saying, “Oh, what about this?” and him going away with that idea and rewriting. But Brian is a really great writer; I’ve never felt the need to mess with his words.
At this point, there was a lot of buzz around Heath’s career after 10 Things I Hate About You, The Patriot. But you were 28, 29; he was 20, 21. Was that a felt age difference, or were you quick friends? What can you tell us about working with him?
I can tell you that he just had a light that shined off him. He was a movie star, you know? Just immediately, you met him, and he shone, as you lot say, and it was very hard not to fall in love with him — I think for anybody. He was a very playful, joyous spirit.
For the two weeks prior to filming, I’ve read, you, Heath, Brian, and the rest of the cast had a “rehearsal period” that turned into mostly drinking and bonding in Prague, is that right?
Yeah, it’s a little blurry. Or maybe I was a little blurry. But yeah, we became a really tight-knit group that really enjoyed each other’s company, and it was just a really funny time. You can imagine: We were all young and in the Czech Republic all together having a ball. And then at some point, it turned out we had to start working, but it never really felt like work at all.
My understanding from there is that it was also Brian who put you on Ron Howard’s radar for A Beautiful Mind, and then you can connect the dots from there to several other projects, and to several personal developments in your life — including meeting your wife, Jennifer Connelly. Is it funny for you to be able to link it all back to A Knight’s Tale?
There’s so much of that, though. Life is really curly and you can keep doing that because it’s all this sort of continuous rolling kind of weird journey. The truth is, one thing always leads to another, so yes, I believe that is true. But other things are true: I remember Peter Weir had an issue when my name was put up for being in Master and Commander, with my being blond. [He] couldn’t believe that I could look brunette, and he really wanted the character to be brunette. So my manager sneaked into his hotel and left a video of me in another film where I was a brunette outside his door. So, you know, there’s all of those stories.
A Knight’s Tale also showcases your comedic skills, which you haven’t always had the chance to flex until something like WandaVision, where you’re playing with all those sitcom mini-genres. Is comedy something you would’ve liked to explore a bit more in your career or that you hope to in the future?
I don’t really think like that. There are certain sorts of comedy that I just don’t think I’d be any good at at all. But I mostly respond to a mixture of the material just being really good and speaking to me or a sort of quite bullish desire to do something that’s very opposite of what I’ve just done. And I can’t shake that. I’m not sure it’s particularly helpful for a young actor because I sort of always wanted to be a character actor and play lots of different sorts of roles. But I happened to be coming up at a time when branding yourself was really happening and you branded yourself as this sort of an actor. And I just didn’t want to.
I’m hoping it’s going to pay dividends now as I’m not in my 20s any longer, but I can’t shake that thing, you know? Right now is an example, in point of fact: I finished WandaVision, where I’m playing Vision, who’s an incredibly sort of warm, Jimmy Stewart sort of character. And now I’m doing this thing with Claire Foy where I’m a misogynistic drunk duke who’s incredibly cold and cut off. So I still have that instinct.
As a final question for you, we really are taking a walk down memory lane here: If you could give your younger self any piece of advice, something that you’ve learned over the years that would’ve been helpful back then, what would it be?
I’d say this: 90 percent, maybe more, 95 percent, of the things that you’re gonna spend the next 30 years worrying about are never gonna happen, and if you worry about each and every single one of them, you’re going to be exhausted when a real crisis comes up. So keep your worry powder dry, and enjoy being young. I think that being young is almost wasted on the youth, you know? It’s so vital, it’s such a vital time. I really try and teach that to my kids. It’s extraordinary. It’s just extraordinary, and the world is opening up for you, and it will open up for you. Don’t worry so much.