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A Salute to Paul Bettany, the Most Versatile British Guy in Hollywood

Yes, he’s in ‘Solo’ and ‘Avengers: Infinity War’—but those roles are only the beginning of Bettany’s long, varied, and pretty unpredictable (in a great way) career

Discovery/Disney/Sony/Getty Images/Universal Studios/Columbia Pictures

I’ve got lots of weak suits, but I think you have to be [empathetic] if you’re an actor. Trying to be a good actor has to be involved with placing yourself imaginatively in different people’s circumstances. If you’re actively engaged in trying to be a good actor, you’re placing yourself imaginatively in different people’s positions. — Paul Bettany, on Paul Bettany, in 2015


Paul Bettany is a man who does what he speaks. He is a man who, since first appearing on a British TV series called Wycliffe in 1994, has been devoted to becoming other people. He has been a famous wordsmith, a religious devotee, an even more intense religious devotee, a washed tennis player in love, a sweater-wearing robot, and, most recently, a berobed crime lord with the same last name as a premium water company in the forthcoming Solo. And those are merely a handful of roles he’s taken on in film; the list gets much longer when measuring the figures he’s portrayed in his real life (husband, father, lover of hued glasses). To use his own words, he’s placed himself imaginatively in different people’s positions—like, in A LOT of different people’s positions. Paul Bettany presumably does not say “no”; he says, “I never saw myself as a romantic professional athlete, because I’m quite thin and often play scary characters, but OK, let’s get weird.” He quietly has one of the biggest ranges of any actor in Hollywood, leapfrogging from priests to robots to Unabombers so skillfully that it hardly registers. But it’s also important to note that he’s not Christian Bale, a man disappearing into characters. While he is able to become other people, he also has a knack for remaining very much himself, imbuing each of his characters with a Bettanyesque mix of British charm, British modesty, British eccentricity, and British self-deprecation. When you watch Bettany, you know it’s Bettany, even as you think, Wow, what a choice for Paul Bettany.

Just days before the emergence of his latest character, it feels like as good a time as any to consider the man’s greatest contributions to society, and to thoughtfully examine his most important roles, in both life and film. To help along this arduous journey, I enlisted The Ringer’s Kate Halliwell, who possibly loves Bettany more than anyone on the planet. —Andrew Gruttadaro

Priest Paul Bettany

Likes: Buzz cuts, aggressive displays of piety, any and all “raging at God” scenes

Dislikes: Demons, most humans

Kate Halliwell: Paul Bettany loves himself a holy role, and he’s made a habit (ahem) of playing various priests, monks, and even a demon-killing angel. In 2002, he donned an all-time terrible wig as an exiled priest in The Reckoning, which kicked off a career full of holy men who are way more badass than probably necessary:

After The Reckoning, he became an albino monk named Silas in The Da Vinci Code in 2006 (more on him in a second). In Legion, he played an oft-shirtless angel with a buzz cut and a penchant for machine guns. Then came Priest, in which he played Priest, a vampire-killing … priest. I despise scary movies more than anything, and yet I saw both Legion and Priest in theaters, because the closer Paul Bettany is to God, the closer we all are to Paul Bettany.

Self-Flagellation Paul Bettany

Likes: Self-flagellation

Dislikes: The burden of his own sins, fathers, anyone trying to prove that Jesus had a son

Gruttadaro: The Da Vinci Code is an all-time bad movie featuring Tom Hanks’s worst haircut, and yet I haven’t been able to forget freaking Silas since I saw him in theaters in 2006.

This version of Paul Bettany is a horrifically fractured man, rejected by his own family, ashamed of his own appearance, and driven to self-mutilation out of a misguided notion that pain equals penance equals redemption. Silas is a tragic character, a pawn whose greatest insecurities are exploited by toxic institutional figures.

He’s also, if we’re being brutally honest, just a deeply weird character—and a choice that perhaps speaks to who Bettany is as a person better than anything else. At some point, Bettany must’ve had this sort of conversation:

Bettany: So let me get this straight—I’m going to be naked, bleach blond, wearing a spiked chain around my thigh, and whipping myself relentlessly while crying in Latin?

Bettany’s Agent: Yeah … that cool?

Bettany: Sure.

Never question this man’s devotion to doing the most, in the oddest way possible.

Period-Wig Paul Bettany

20th Century Fox

Likes: Balancing a receding hairline with strong sideburns

Dislikes: Bedhead, natural looks

Halliwell: In addition to the aforementioned atrocity from The Reckoning, Bettany has been cursed with—or perhaps has willfully leaned into—an array of bad wigs. The worst on the list include the Master and Commander cheek fluffs, the Inkheart perm, the Young Victoria mutton chops, and whatever the hell was happening in Creation. Cheekbones this sharp call for a bold sideburn, but Paul Bettany is a man unafraid of relegating his greatest gifts.

Tinted Glasses Paul Bettany

Likes: Tinted glasses

Dislikes: Seeing the world in natural colors

Gruttadaro: A thing you should know about Paul Bettany is that he likes tinted glasses. Like, he really likes them:

Getty Images
FilmMagic

I don’t know if the glasses shield Paul Bettany’s eyes from the flash of cameras, if he’s just bored with normal glasses, or if he’s in a battle to the tinted death against Robert Downey Jr. All I know is that Paul Bettany has been cultivating this vibe for years, and I completely respect it. He looks like if Warby Parker invented a technology to clone British men.

Love & Tennis Paul Bettany

Likes: Spray tans, sporty meet-cutes, dramatic comebacks

Dislikes: Overbearing fathers

Halliwell: Bettany has starred in only one true rom-com in his entire career—“I take my hat off to Hugh Grant because that stuff is ------- hard,” he told The Telegraph in 2013. But that’s a shame, because 2004’s Wimbledon is an absolute delight. As retiring tennis star Peter Colt, Bettany exhibits all the important 2000s leading-man attributes: a great accent, just the right amount of bashfulness, buckets of charisma, and the ability to pull off dangerously flared jeans. And if you thought his freckly, sun-averse frame doesn’t seem particularly well-suited to a sports movie, you were wrong! Paul Bettany was made for tennis whites. The final match in Wimbledon makes me cry every time—usually right around when Bettany’s character starts crying and then goes to make out with Kirsten Dunst.

(P.S. Three years after Wimbledon came out, the tournament began using Hawk-Eye technology to adjudicate line rulings. I like to think Love & Tennis Paul Bettany had a lot to do with that.)

Jennifer Connelly’s Paul Bettany

Likes: Jennifer Connelly, Labyrinth

Dislikes: Jared Leto, I’m guessing?

Gruttadaro: I need you to know that 9/11 plays a primary role in Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly’s love story:

“You know what happened, Larry? What happened is September the 11th,” is 99 percent of the time the opening to a terribly sad, or at least terribly offensive, story, but Bettany’s tale is an exception. “Like so many people’s lives, mine was changed in that moment. And I ran back to this house and spent two days trying to call this woman that I barely knew. And I remember very clearly thinking to myself, What are you doing? Ohh. I realized I was in love, so I finally got her on the phone, said, ‘I’m coming over, and let’s get married.’” Connelly and Bettany are now married and have a family together, and Bettany continues to speak about her in a bracingly intimate, pointedly adoring manner. Here he is in 2012, making her penchant for being tardy sound like the most endearing quality a human could have:

”My poor wife,” he says sympathetically, referring to the actress Jennifer Connelly. They’ve been together since 2003. “She moves at her own pace—she’s sort of slightly in slow motion, it’s mesmerising and very beautiful—and I’m,” he snaps his fingers. “C’mon, c’mon, we’re going to be late!”

Find someone who loves you the way Paul Bettany loves Jennifer Connelly.

Dad Paul Bettany

Likes: Face paint, family sing-alongs, dad jokes

Dislikes: Social media, boring names

Halliwell: All celebrity dads unsure of how to walk the delicate social media balance between “What children?” and Sylvester Stallone–esque, weird overindulgence need to take a page out of Dad Paul Bettany’s book. His kids, Stellan, Agnes, and Kai (who is Connelly’s son from a previous marriage), make frequent, lovely cameos on social media. Agnes likes to do his makeup! They take lots of family trips! Paul told Vanity Fair that they all play guitar together! Stellan has very British taste in scarves! And most importantly, Dad Paul Bettany is also a great dog dad:

Charlie Chaplin and me take a stroll.

A post shared by Paul Bettany (@paulbettany) on

Robot-Turned-Sentient-Lover Paul Bettany

Likes: Sweaters, Edinburgh, self-sacrifice

Dislikes: The narrative gimmick of time travel

Gruttadaro: At some point between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Avengers: Infinity War, Paul Bettany’s Vision—who, I’ll remind you, is a combination of artificial intelligence, a synthetic body, and the Mind Stone—became a real chill dude who just wants to see Europe with his girl Wanda. I can’t fully chart this evolution, mostly because all I remember about Vision in Captain America: Civil War is this perfect image:

But let’s just speak generally and say that Vision is an android who gained consciousness and an affinity for love all at the same time, and so the latter is of the utmost importance to him. Isn’t that a beautifully pure thing? He’s so naive, and yet so sure that love is the answer to all problems. Of course this is something Paul Bettany, an emotionally available man (see above: Jennifer Connelly’s Paul Bettany), identified with, telling Collider in 2015 that he agreed to play Vision because he wanted to explore “what it means to be human and what love is.”

Now, I don’t know when or how Vision began to look more like Paul Bettany, but suffice it to say I’m not complaining, and that Vision still looks good in a sweater.

Disney

Unabomber Paul Bettany

Likes: Anarchy

Dislikes: Conditioner, soap, Avatar (probably)

Halliwell: Bettany’s most recently acclaimed role came playing Ted Kaczynski in Discovery’s Manhunt: Unabomber. As far as Discovery shows go, it was pretty good. As far as Bettany roles go, it was markedly different from his usual fare. Granted, there was an atrocious wig and some unfortunate facial hair, but otherwise it was an unsettling transformation for our usually charming Brit. The show received mixed reviews, but Bettany’s performance was largely praised. The Hollywood Reporter’s review sums things up well: “Paul Bettany is terrific, and Sam Worthington tries hard.” A concise review of both careers, as it turns out.

Geoffrey Chaucer Paul Bettany

Likes: Gambling, love, being a hype man, really freakin’ dope overcoats

Dislikes: Alan Tudyk, era-appropriate soundtracks

Gruttadaro: In A Knight’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer Paul Bettany is the only reason Heath Ledger gets laid. You see, Ledger’s William Thatcher (a.k.a. Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein of Gelderland) is majorly in love with a vaguely royal lass named Jocelyn, and all Jocelyn wants is “poetry.” She literally says, “I demand poetry.” This is a frustratingly specific request—especially because, I mean, come on, it’s medieval Heath Ledger, do you really need more of a reason?—but it exists because Paul Bettany’s character is the greatest wingman in film history, a guy who ghostwrites the best love letter ever recorded and therefore leads Jocelyn to yearn for more. Of course, Ledger’s William is illiterate, and also a dirty commoner who doesn’t know how to dance. But Bettany is there through it all to bring William’s feelings to light and to teach William how to move to medieval-music-that-gradually-becomes–David Bowie’s–”Golden Years.” And then William sleeps with Jocelyn, and they eventually live happily ever after.

As someone who first saw A Knight’s Tale at the age of 12, the significance of Bettany’s character being Geoffrey Freaking Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, didn’t immediately dawn on me. But it hardly matters. The point is that Bettany is a great friend, no matter what his name is.

Weird-Number-of-Scars Paul Bettany

Likes: Brooding quietly, making threatening eye contact

Dislikes: A solid skincare routine

Halliwell: In Solo, Paul Bettany plays Dryden Vos, whom Bettany describes as a “gangster, a sociopath, and really good at hurting people.” Dryden Vos could also be described as “a dude with a bunch of scars”:

Disney

Oddly enough, this is a character type Bettany knows well. In Inkheart, he played Dustfinger, another weirdly hot, sketchy type with various facial scars. The angel he played in Legion had a myriad scars and tattoos (just go with it). The Da Vinci Code’s Silas, well, the aforementioned self-flagellation left him with his fair share of scars. Going forward, can we stop putting random stuff on Paul’s face? No scars, no purple paint or weird dots, nothing. As we’ve covered at length, Bettany is a man of many faces. But if you ask me, his actual face is the one I want to see most.