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Twenty years later, the star of A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code still doesn’t seem to know his place.
He arrives two minutes late, having called to say he may be delayed ('I have a pathological fear of being late’), without the harem of media managers that invariably accompany big-name actors to interviews here in LA, and his opening gambit is, 'I can tell you right now that I’m not feeling particularly guarded.’ He is derisive – on occasion vitriolic – about the film business, has been married for 10 years to the same woman (the Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly, with whom he has two children: Stellan, nine, and Agnes, 22 months), and claims to have suffered his lowest moment not as an out-of-work actor but at the peak of his success when, in 2003, Master and Commander – the Peter Weir-directed historical naval drama based on Patrick O’Brian’s string of novels – was a global box-office hit, and Bettany could finally afford to be as discerning as he wanted with his career choices.
'I take my hat off to Hugh Grant because that stuff is ------- hard.
'That film paid no money, but it solidified all the things I loved about acting and made me realise that I had made some bad choices.
I decided I wasn’t going to do that any more.’ He looks pensive for a moment.
'It was when my son was born that I had this moment of realisation,’ he says, his long, denim-clad legs concertina’d beneath him in a patio chair. The world is precarious and I’m going to make my children as safe as possible – with dough.” And I went about doing that.It was ludicrous, of course, because they were safe.His are the traditional good looks that could hide a multitude of sins – or act them out.So he twisted himself into a Hugh Grant-like shape to play a winsomely inept British tennis pro opposite Kirsten Dunst in the romantic comedy Wimbledon in 2004, and moulded himself into a limpid-eyed villain, blackmailing Harrison Ford in Firewall in 2006.I know great actors whom nothing has ever happened for.’ The decision to safeguard his family financially – buy them the 100-acre farm in Vermont he wanted his children to have as a weekend retreat from their home in Tribeca, New York, and ditch the 'self-aggrandising’ thoughts that might have made him opt for lower-budget independent films over big studio cash cows – didn’t come without twinges of conscience for Bettany.
Looking at him now, his hair unexpectedly dark, the lightness of his eyes dimmed by round tortoiseshell glasses, one gets the sense that little does.