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Wimbledon - Initially, I think the film was developed with Hugh in mind, and he got too old, and frankly I was like, every cloud...

Feature by: Jack Foley

PRESSURE is not something that appears to be troubling Paul Bettany. Having made a name for himself in British gangster flick, Gangster No.1, he then furthered his reputation by delivering scene-stealing support turns in films such as A Knight’s Tale, A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

Now, he is headlining the new Working Title romantic comedy, Wimbledon, in which he appears as a struggling British tennis player whose unlikely romance with Kirsten Dunst’s emerging American player provides the catalyst for unheard of success at the All England Championships.

The role has enabled the charismatic Bettany to make the leap from reliable supporting player to leading man with aplomb, even though it meant he has had to fend off comparisons with another rom-com specialist, Hugh Grant.

"Initially, I think the film was developed with Hugh in mind, and he got too old, and frankly I was like, every cloud… ," he joked, at a recent press conference, at the Dorchester Hotel, in London.

"But I didn’t feel under any particular pressure. I think what we have in common is that he’s British, and that’s it. We did sort of consciously steer away from doing what he does, very elegantly, because he has that sort of quality that I think Cary Grant and Will Smith have - a sort of relentless charm that doesn’t get dreary.

"I enjoy watching him and I thought ‘you’re never going to be able to do that’, so I tried to do something different."

As Peter Holt, a British player who was once ranked 11th in the world, but who has now slumped to 119th, Bettany was also able to get an insight into the sort of pressure that British No.1 Tim Henman (now ranked fourth in the world) is under - although, again, it didn’t really seem to bother him.

"I didn’t really feel any of that, so I’ve got no notion of what that might be like. I can’t imagine dedicating my life to something like that.

"I mean, these people stay fit for so long. I squared it away in my head going, ‘I’ve got ten months of eating boiled chicken, that’s all, I can get through ten months, I can get through ten months’, but I just couldn’t live my life like that. And I’ve never felt that kind of pressure. I really don’t think I have."

As for the sport itself, Bettany has been a long-time fan of playing and so relished the opportunity of working with former Wimbledon champion, Pat Cash, on some of the tennis set pieces - even though he forced himself to stay away from the sport for some time after filming.

"I actually smashed my racket on the last day and I promised I wouldn’t play until the film came out," he revealed. "I love playing and learning to play, but as the start date of the movie rushed up to greet me, I stopped enjoying my mistakes and I went home kind of furious if I’d had a bad day at tennis, and I wanted to play for fun again and to enjoy it."

In spite of Bettany’s relaxed attitude, however, there were many challenges that had to be overcome when filming Wimbledon, as director, Richard Loncraine discovered.

For starters, there was securing access to Wimbledon itself, as well as securing the co-operation of key people to add to authenticity.

He recalled: "The biggest challenge, undoubtedly, was to get permission, as they [Wimbledon] didn’t really want us there for a long while, and it took an awful lot of persuasion. In fact, it was a man called Mark McCormack, the tennis agent who died, sadly, who introduced Wimbledon to Working Title and got the two groups together.

"But they were very nervous about us making a film there, because Wimbledon is a very valuable property in their eyes, and a lot of damage could have been done. But once they accepted us on board, they were fantastic and they’ve really become friends.

"I was almost more nervous about showing them the movie, because they really trusted that we would do something that we said we would do, than anyone else."

Casting was also an issue, with the decision being made at an early stage not to approach any recognisable players from the sport.

"We deliberately decided that it would not be the right thing to do, because we had to suspend belief," he explained, before confessing, somewhat embarrassingly, to having turned down this year’s women’s champion, Maria Sharapova - who was still an emerging player in 2003.

"We had to find somebody to play against Kirsten when we were shooting at Wimbledon and I went to see Sharapova, and I turned her down. I thought she was another blonde, and it wouldn’t really work, but it didn’t go down too well when she won," he admitted.

The film does, however, employ the talents of former tennis luminaries such as Chris Evert and John McEnroe - the latter of whom proved difficult to get on board.

"He was very hard to persuade and, in fact, it was the hardest two hours of my life," continued Loncraine.

"It’s not that John’s rude, but rather that he waits for you to hang yourself. He doesn’t suffer fools, but he’d been in a film before that wasn’t that good with the tennis, and so wasn’t sure whether this man from England was going to make a better job than the last one.

"But we eventually persuaded him and he was fine. He’s not demanding, but he doesn’t give you a lot until he’s convinced that you know what you’re doing. So, he was fine and he added enormous credibility."

It also adds to the fun of the movie in general, which looks set to become another smash hit for the Working Title production company that has also served up such romantic classics as Love Actually, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

So does Bettany close the film by going one step further than Henman and actually winning the Championship? I’d be risking a code violation if I were to tell you…

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