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September 2004
Wimbledon: An Interview with Paul Bettany

Wimbledon: An Interview with Paul Bettany

By Todd Gilchrist

After supporting performances in films like "A Knight's Tale" and "Master and Commande" as comic relief and a source of sage wisdom, Paul Bettany continues a meteoric migration towards the limelight with a lead role in the upcoming romantic comedy "Wimbledon". In the movie, Bettany plays an aging tennis star who finds success- and love- at the historic competition, and proves that he's as good leading the cast as holding it up- even when his on screen competition is "Spider-Man"'s Kirsten Dunst. Bettany recently spoke to blackfilm.com about his role in the film, about falling in love with Dunst (on camera, at least), and finding his real life splayed across the front page of newspapers worldwide as his profile in Hollywood, much less as Jennifer Connelly's husband, continues to rise.

People are saying this will establish you as a leading man in movies, comparing you to Hugh Grant. How do you feel about that?

Paul: I think that Hugh Grant is also British and there the similarities probably end. I think that he does something that I can't quite do and I think he does a Cary Grant thing beautifully. I watched a lot of those movies before doing this one and he's brilliant at being charming and doing that sort of elegant fluff and I mean that in no sort of patronizing way. I think it's wonderful to watch Fred Astaire manipulate a top hat and a cane. There's an aesthetic pleasure you can receive from watching that and I think he's brilliant at it. I don't know what it feels like to be Hugh Grant so I have no frame of reference as to whether I'm becoming him. Maybe I am. My wife would be shocked or maybe pleased. I don't know.

On the physical logistics of shooting this film. Were you hitting a real tennis ball or were they always imaginary (CG)?

Paul: All the serves are real. The serves have to be real because you are handling the ball and that's impossible to do on computers. If the camera is just on me or just on Kirsten or on Austin Nichols then you're hitting a real ball. The moment that there are two players in frame at the same time, after the serve it becomes a computer ball. It has to be because every point is meticulously choreographed and you cannot hit the ball and repeat that choreography endlessly all day for coverage from other cameras. So this film wouldn't have been able to be made in this style until very recently.

So nothing you served went wild?

Paul: Well I did hit the cameraman three times. He was very sweet about it. He made Knight's Tale and we knew each other very well. Two of the times they were just glancing blows and the third time I bought him a bottle of scotch because I really hit him in the head. Mostly, things went pretty smoothly except for a fractured rib and a torn up chin and so on.

Owww! You got a fractured rib doing this?

Paul: Yeah, I had a fractured rib because I, stupidly asked for a mat to be put down because I'd done this dive [to the ground] so many times. At this point I was beginning to get sore. So, they put a mat down for me and I sort of half missed the mat and busted up my rib on the floor. Usually you put your hand down but I saw a big fluffy mattress and I didn't put my hands down and I fractured a rib. Slightly stupid of me.

Obviously you and your leading lady took some lessons to be in the film but if we were to actually see you two play, which on would win on the court and secondly how was working with Kirsten?

Paul: I have no notion of who would win because the pressure of trying to look right for film was such that we all had separate coaches so we never actually played together even for fun because, at that point there was no fun. It was I must practice every minute of the day'. As far as working with her, it was seven weeks of shooting tennis and it was such a delight when it ended, there were suddenly words to say. She's clearly been doing this since she was a fetus I think. She was therefore very relaxed in front of the camera and gets so much for nothing. She's very, sort of free and that's all I ask for in any partner that I'm working with. It's what you hope for that you feel relaxed with them and they feel relaxed with you and hopefully you can made some happy mistakes.

Can you talk about the challenges of working on a romantic comedy?

Paul: I sort of can. I approach everything in much the same way. I try to tell a story as honestly as I can. Now, having done it, it's much more difficult to play somebody who is really straight and nice, you know. Mess tends to give you something to really hold on to when you are playing somebody else. If they've got mess in their life and they've got problems, it's much easier in front of the camera to say my mother's dead', than say you want to go down to the pub?'. It's easier to hold on to. So, playing nice people is really difficult, I found.

What was it like to step out on Center Court at Wimbledon?

Paul: It was as close to how I imagined being a rock star feels. You walk on and everybody is screaming you name. I sat down to take my racquet out and a remember thinking I'm so pleased that I don't actually have to play a match because I can't walk'. There's actually a photograph somewhere of Austin Nichols carrying me or helping me walk off Center Court because, literally, my legs were like jelly.

Can you talk about how quickly to took to the game and the training and advice you got?

Paul: A man called Steve Turner taught me in New York and Pat Cash sort of oversaw that and then, in London, he took over. For the first week, I think, I wasn't allowed a racquet so I was just catching balls. I'd catch the ball and I'd throw it back and finally, I would hit the ball with my hand. He said everything's a catch. You've got to stop thinking about hitting the ball. Catch the ball'. The most interesting advice Pat Cash gave me wasn't really about the game, it was about the character. He said that the most important thing to him was not the feeling of winning, but the feeling of losing and he couldn't bear the feeling of losing. It wasn't so much that he loved the feeling of winning, he just hated the feeling of losing. That drove him as a kid.

Was it grueling, all the training?

Paul: It is incredible. I spend six months training and four months making the movie and that's the only way I could square it away in my head was I have ten months that I have to be committed to hitting fairy balls. All I have to do is hit fairy balls for ten months and eat boiled chicken six times a day for just ten months and then I can go back to not hitting fairy balls and eating cheese'. But, these people since they were four years old, have been out at the dawn of their crack on the court hitting balls. I'm just not that driven frankly.

Were you particularly good at any shot after completing your training?

Paul: My serve. I worked very hard on my serve and I remember, during filming, we went away for a weekend to this hotel and I went out to practice and there was this guy who I saw playing with his wife and he was clearly a really good amateur and I caught him checking out my serve and he finally came up to me and said I've been watching you serve and you look good. Do you want to have a set?' And I said no, thank you. I've got a shoulder injury'. And I went off because I knew my serve was hot but I didn't really want to put anything to the test. Pat Cash actually wanted to put me into a competition, a pro-amateur competition and I said no way'. The whole notion is I'm able to fool myself that I've got the stuff to be a professional tennis player. I don't want to have it absolutely proved to me in black and white that no, you don't have the stuff at all, no'.

You did look especially buff in the movie. Was that the tennis workout or a workout on your own?

Paul: Certainly not on my own. Again, I'm not that driven. I get into a gym and there's heavy things to lift and I go I could do this or I could go home and read and book' and I'm out of the gym like that so, thankfully, Universal and Working Title paid this man called Mike Hood who is this toughie from Flatbush Avenue who I was genuinely scared of, and he would say do it' and I would go okay' and all the notion of reading books left. It's an incredible thing really. At the gym where we were working at the time there was this poster that said Think less. Feel better' and I thought this is the most frightening sort of culture I'm getting into, the gym culture think less and feel better'.

What does that mean?

Paul: There is a certain truth to it. It's impossible to have a creative thought when you've got something really heavy about to fall on your head. I can stand and wash up and an interesting thought can occur to me. Not once have I had an interesting thought while working out. And people lie. They say oh you get this sort of endorphin high' or when I'm running I get into this sort of trance-like state'. It's nonsense. It's just painful. If you go to Tibet, there are pictures of a rather rotund man with a big smile on his face, sitting down. You don't see statues of meditative joggers, you know what I mean? It's a complete fraudulent notion.

Did all the paparazzi chasing these tennis players seem familiar to you? Have you had that experience?

Paul: Yes. I'm not that nice to paparazzi. I don't smile. It's a really difficult thing because when actors are a little shitty about paparazzi, it's well, it's incredibly nave if you didn't think that was going to happen to you'. Well that's absolutely true. I'm incredibly nave. I never thought anybody would have any interest in what furniture I was buying for instance and when they're taking pictures of your kids who didn't choose it, that's really irritating and, also, when I was at drama school for three years, I never once fantasized about that side of the job. I never did.

So, they pick weird times to want to photograph you?

Paul: I never fantasized about people taking your f---ing picture when you might be having an argument with your best mate and there you are going you (expletive)" (screws up his face while on an imaginary phone) and click, click. They are the same all over the world. They're really pond life. I've got my wife and my family to just stand there and say go on. Take your picture'. They don't want that. They want the one where you don't know that they are following. It's like being hunted. They get so excited and they duck behind cars. It does make you feel incredibly aggressive when you've got your children with you.

Is there a particular moment where this first became a reality for you?

Paul: Yes. I did this really foolish thing of marrying a famous American and we sort of got together around her Oscar time. We were chased by like five cars. It's insane and boring. I remember ringing up somebody and saying what can I do?'. And they said well, look, it's very simple. If you don't mind getting photographed you can go out and, if you do, just stay indoors'. I went those are my choices? Those are my two choices? I have to stay in?' So, that gets a bit irritating. But, it's fine if I do out on my own. I just get called naked guy' on occasion.

Oookay, changing the subject. What are you listening to now music-wise?

Paul: Well, I have a one-year-old so it's very difficult for me to speak grown up at the moment. My wife was making a film called Dark Water in Toronto and she came home and she'd had a miserable day one day and I wanted to comfort her and I had the impulse to sing, The Wheels on the Bus go Round, Round, Round'. So, at the moment, what I find myself singing and listening to is The Wheels on the Bus go Round, Round, Round'.

Can you compare shooting in Europe and the U.S.?

Paul: It doesn't make a difference to be honest. All film sets are pretty much alike. I guess, in the U.S., if you're making a movie they've got more money and, because of the more money, you can hear the kind of whimpering of producers slightly louder when people are talking about a scene. Sometimes, directors and actors like to talk about a scene before they shoot it and you can see these producers going just shoot, it, shoot it, shoot anything, shoot it'. That's slightly louder but, all over the world people are either lovely or they're not.

What's next for you?

Paul: I'm doing a thing called The Wrong Element with Harrison Ford.

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