An Affair to Dismember

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An Affair To Dismember

As a mod mobster in the new film Gangster No. 1, Paul Bettany is Young Gangster, a jewel-eyed serpent in stovepipe pants who paralyzes his prey by telling them to look in his eyes. It wouldn’t work if he weren’t worth watching. The 31-year-old Briton, veteran of A Knight’s Tale and A Beautiful Mind, is currently filming Master and Commander with Russell Crowe for director Peter Weir; his next films include Dogville, which costars Nicole Kidman and Chloe Sevigny and is directed by Lars von Trier, and Reckoning, the story of a priest on the lam for having sex with a parishoner. Looks like his time is now.

Why are you in this film?

I had no desire to make another gangster movie for middle-class white boys like me to masturbate to. And I don’t know how successful we were in that, but our intention was to sort of make a film that would pull the rug on the audience. You think you know where the narrative is going, but the whole film sort of gets dark really quickly.

As a child, were you the one getting beaten up, the one doing the beating, or the kid watching from across the street?

I was the person who was getting beaten, the person who tried to stop the beating up, and then, um, I learned judo so I didn’t get beaten up anymore. And then I forgot it all, and now I get beaten up again.

You hung out with old-time London gangsters to research the role. What’s the best thing they taught you?

Well, I was given advice that I employed in the film, when I used a corkscrew to stab a guy in the neck. But the gangster I talked to didn’t use a corkscrew. He had knocked out this guy, and he was so furious that it wasn’t enough. He walked to his car, which was a journey of about two minutes, got a hammer out of the car, and then he walked all the way back, a journey of two minutes. So now it’s four minutes he’s managed to maintain this sort of quiet rage. And he looks at this guy, who is sort of lying unconscious on the floor, turns him over onto his front, feels for his kidney, and then hammers him into the kidneys, thinking ‘You’ll be pissing blood for a week.’ I thought it was so specific and weird that he maintained that rage.

There’s another one, in which I was told about this guy who had broken into a house, this rich, posh house in the countryside. The family was away, but the maid was there, and they were looking for the safe. One of the guys started hitting the maid, and the leader of the pack said don’t don’t don’t. They put her on the ironing board, and he put the iron on her stomach and plugged it in. And she told them where it was within thirty seconds.

How do you feel about the violence: in one scene, you graphically torture and kill a guy, in another you watch a woman’s throat being slit from across the street. It’s a glam film, and the violence is sort of glam by association.

I don’t really understand the morality of trying to make violence palatable to the screen. It seems sort of an absurd thing to do. But we wanted to make a film about violence, and I suppose that cinema, in some ways, should reflect the world in which we live. If people don’t think it’s a violent world, I would probably suggest that they don’t get out that much.

I watched a bit of A Knight’s Tale, although I had to turn it off when they started playing “We Will Rock You” during the crowd scene. But you were funny. You wear dirt well.
Thank you.

Do you have to strip off in all your movies?

If the plot really demands it, I will keep my clothes on.

A quote attributed to you, taken from the internet: “I’m a Gemini. I like windsurfing and men who cry.” What does this mean?

It doesn’t mean anything. I have a loathing of chat shows, horoscopes and self-help books, and it encompasses those three things. I think we’re filling up our lives with absolute junk. It’s very sad. I think that therapy has led to some of the single worst things — Oprah Winfrey, for instance.

I haven’t seen A Beautiful Mind, because I don’t like vomiting. Are you going to tell me everyone was a dream to work with and it was a great learning experience?

I’ll tell you what it was — a Hollywood film that has certain requirements. And for what it was, I think it’s a really interesting and important movie. I don’t really understand the backlash, the controversy about the lead character being Anti-Semitic. The man was mentally ill. He also thought he was a squirrel at the time.

Are you a friend or foe of Russell Crowe?

Both. But I wouldn’t work with him if I didn’t really enjoy it. I don’t understand the backlash against him either. Russell isn’t good with nonsense, and there’s a lot of nonsense in this business. He doesn’t like bullshit, and he’s feisty. But if you took that away from him, he wouldn’t be Russell.

Did you two ever do any windsurfing or crying together?

No, we’ve never done that.

‘Cause I heard he’s a closeted windsurfer.


What was it like working with Lars von Trier on Dogville? How cryptic is he?

You have hour-long takes where you just improvise, and if I ever said, “No! I can’t do this until we talk about it,” he’d just stand there and say, “Don’t worry, I’ll shake the camera around and make it look real. I’ve been getting away with it for years.”

I found him really straightforward, but infuriating because he’s only interested in real life. You have absolutely no control over your performance. You don’t really give a performance. You try so many things, and ninety-eight percent is bullshit, and hopefully two percent is worthwhile, but after improvising with him for twelve hours a day, you’ve got no idea.

What’s it about?

I was trying to get that out of Lars for eight weeks myself, and now you’re trying to get it out of me, and I don’t know the answer. I can tell you it’s set in the Rocky Mountains in the ’30s in a depressed mining village. I play a writer-cum-philosopher who’s always calling town meetings, and, um, it’s sort of about the nature of town meetings. And property and, uh, what morality is  . . . I think.

To read an interview with Gangster No. 1‘s Malcolm McDowell, click here.

Gangster No. 1 opens June 14 in New York and July 12 in Los Angeles.

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