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The Da Vinci Code - Paul Bettany interview

Paul Bettany in The Da Vinci Code

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PAUL Bettany talks about his role as Silas, the albino killer monk in The Da Vinci Code, as well as the controversy surrounding the book and the film.

Q. What do you think of the controversy surrounding The Da Vinci Code? Did you have to think twice about doing the role?
A. I think the whole hoop-la about the book feels to me 80% fabricated. I remember Francis Ford Coppola made a movie a few years ago where he sort of suggested that the Vatican was in cahoots with the Mafia and nobody batted an eyelid. So I really don’t understand what the furore is. I took the job, I went to the bookstore assuming it was in the fiction department, I walked up to that department and there I found it. I didn’t for once think to go and look in philosophy and personal growth. It didn’t enter my mind. The Da Vinci Code is a page turning holiday novel. Anybody who’s read theological discourse knows that it isn’t a page turner – it’s quite dull and it takes a lot longer than a day and a half to read. So it was always clear to me that it was sort of a big adventure story-cum-thriller. And we made it in that sort of spirit.

Q. Are you very religious?
A. I’m not. I was born a Catholic and now I’m an elapsed Catholic. I’m something but I’m not a believer any more.

Q. Akiva Goldsman wrote the screenplay. Has he stayed fairly loyal to Dan Brown’s text or is some of it missing?
A. A film has to be reductive. It took me a day and a half to read it and if I was in the cinema for a day and a half I would be killing people – and I quite like movies. So you have to reduce it drastically but at the same time make everybody feel like they’ve seen the whole film because it’s sold 50 million copies and is clearly doing something right for people. That achievement, technically, is just mind-boggling.

Q. In the book, Silas is an albino? Does he look like that in the film?
A. Yes, that was addressed with absolute diligence by my make-up artist of many years, Veronica Brebner, who experimented on me and with people of my colouring in order to knock out the freckles and red tones. Truly, making someone look like an albino is an extraordinary job if you do it properly. It took two and a half hours. First of all there was a green make-up that went on, and then a paler version because they’re not white, they’re pale-skinned – you look like you’re in Memoirs of a Geisha! At that point, you have to draw features back on, so she would draw in veins and, of course, all the scars and the wig. Then she would airbrush. That was an incredibly long process for what you could see of me – my head and shoulders.

Q. And how tricky was it to get the distinctive look of the eyes?
A. That’s more simply done – it’s endless experiments with contact lenses.

Q. How did your kids react when they saw you?
A. They were absolutely not worried about a thing until I put on a robe and then Stellan screamed the house down. Just because I put on a monk’s habit!

Q. Silas is also prone to self-flagellation. Did you study the history of flagellation?
A. No. I thought about it a great deal and I’ve seen people getting whipped and seen people whipping themselves on screen. But I thought what would be shocking about that? I could make it look like a frenzy but then I thought if you keep seeing someone whipping themselves, you start to get used to it. So I thought that the scene actually existed in between each stroke. It’s the recovery from the pain and then the build up to having the willpower to hit yourself again in the same place, as if somebody else was doing it. That was the only thing that was intriguing about seeing that on screen, the result.

Q. Given the amount of time it took to apply the make-up, was simply wearing a habit a bit of a relief costume-wise?
A. I kind of liked it. It was kind of freeing. I didn’t have to think about it. If you can be butch and scary in what is essentially a long, brown dress and open-toed sandals, I think I’m getting somewhere. As for the robe itself, there were no discussions about what sort I’d like [laughs]. You just go: “It’s a robe and it’s brown – do you like it?” There wasn’t a range of them to choose from. I wanted burnt ochre.

Q. Did you get many protesters while filming? Are you expecting to receive a flurry of protests from religious people?
A. I’m sure I’m going to meet really angry, indignant people but I haven’t actually met one so far. I’ve only heard journalists telling me that there’s lots of them out there and that they’re all after me. But I would say this, if they are Christians, then forgive me.

Q. Did you get to go behind the scenes at The Louvre?
A. It was an incredibly exclusive shoot at times but I didn’t get any of that, which was really irritating. I went to Paris for one day and shot a bit outside the Saint-Sulpice and then I went home. Everything else was recreated. We built the inside of the Saint-Sulpice on the 007 stage at Pinewood. They built it there and then recreated it in the computer. It’s just extraordinary, because I was there and there were a load of chairs, and a couple of pillars and a font and loads of blue. I’ve seen that bit and it’s the Saint-Sulpice, it’s unbelievable.

Q. You’ve played the villain twice in recent memory – in this and Firewall. Is that part of a game plan for your career?
A. Oh my God no. It was as simple as this – there’s Ron Howard, there’s a monk assassin, there’s 50 million copies of the book sold world-wide – if you say no you might as well get on a plane and go home.

Q. Do you get to beat anyone up in this film?
A. I beat up Tom Hanks and then in turn I’m beaten up by Audrey Tautou. What that says about me I don’t know. She’s tough!

Q. Are you happy with where your career is right now and enjoying the moment?
A. I think I’m too neurotic for that to be honest with you. I’m still worrying about where the next film is coming from. Is it going to be good? Will I be able to do it? Will I be able to pull it off? Will it be able to fit in with the schedule of kids and wife? I should be enjoying it, you’re right. I should be able to hold my happiness and sit there and look at it and have that be enough. But then I wouldn’t be a twisted, ambitious actor like I am. Not really!

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