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Carry on, doctor

Forget his height -- Paul Bettany brings 'Master and Commander's' standoffish surgeon to life.

November 09, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

On location in Baja to film the swashbuckler "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," English actor Paul Bettany lived alone in a rented house, far from the others. He shrugged off "boot camp," pre-filming training exercises where cast members learned to fight, row and climb the rigging of an early 19th century frigate. When Russell Crowe, who stars as the ebullient ship's captain, asked the actors to sew their characters' names onto T-shirts colored according to rank (an exercise in following captain's orders), Bettany showed up in his own clothes.

A versatile actor hitting his stride, Bettany's standoffishness had a purpose. Just as the others were fueling their performances as 1805 sailors dedicated to God, service and Crowe's Capt. Jack Aubrey, Bettany was fueling his as Dr. Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon who stands apart from their authoritarian world. "Russell, to his credit, congratulated me," Bettany says. "He's a mate.''

Bettany dyed his white-blond hair and brushed it forward in a Napoleon-era cut, wore early 19th century spectacles and learned about pre-Darwinian medicine, religious thought and the cello. All this was key to making audiences engage with the historical saga, based on Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels, set on the high seas during the Napoleonic wars, says Australian director Peter Weir. It is both Bettany's and Weir's first action/adventure film, though Bettany calls it "an action movie where the two leads play the cello and the violin together."

Coming from the theater and small European films, Bettany, 32, is probably best known to U.S. audiences as Crowe's roommate in "A Beautiful Mind" (2001). He's been both character actor and leading man, but he's not your typical matinee idol. Tall and skinny, his physical appeal varies with the roles he inhabits. His roles have tended to the offbeat, ranging from the lead psychopathic killer in "Gangster No. 1" (2000) to a Monty Pythonesque Geoffrey Chaucer in "A Knight's Tale" (2001) to a loving but unfaithful husband in "The Heart of Me" (2003).

In "Master and Commander," he and Crowe pair again as the complicated and unlikely friends Maturin and Aubrey. Weir calls Maturin "the shape of modern man," a curious man of reason one could meet today while Aubrey, a wise warrior driven by absolutes, is a man of his time, a type headed for history's dustbin.

The dramatic plot -- the French and British warships trying to outwit one another on the high seas -- is intensified by the competing obsessions of the longtime friends who confront their differences ferociously. "What's lovely is they both have objectives that are huge for them and conflict with each other. Then, their relationship has a history. [Aubrey] feels promised things, [Maturin] feels betrayed. It's so much fun to play."

Casting Bettany opposite Crowe seemed "too obvious" at first, Weir says. "I thought I should have a fresh kind of combination of Russell with somebody else." What's more, a literally authentic portrayal of Maturin, whom O'Brian described as small, would rule him out.

Few actors today can go toe to toe with the powerful star presence of Russell Crowe, who tends to dominate the screen, Weir says.

After what Bettany describes as endless readings and auditions, Weir concluded Bettany was most like O'Brian's Maturin because he was "somebody I could spend two years at sea with and not run out of things to talk about. Paul did hold the screen, which is essential for the story about their relationship and friendship."

The actors had already developed a friendship on the set of "A Beautiful Mind," bonding, Bettany says, over their common interests in music, Peter Cook imitations, foul language and good claret. (Bettany also met his wife, actress Jennifer Connelly, on the set. They married in January after he finished filming "Master and Commander.")

"I trust Russell and he trusts me," Bettany says. "If you're working with someone you don't know and don't trust, you're worried about their ego being damaged. He and I felt completely safe and to say, 'No, I think that's crap,' knowing neither one of us would be hurt by frankness and openness of our discussions. You don't have to have a discussion where you say, 'Should we be pushing it in another way? I wonder if your character would do that?' "

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