Carry on, doctor

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?' "

Rather than a film about a friendship, however, director Weir (who won acclaim with his early films, 1975's "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and 1981's "Gallipoli") says that "Master and Commander" is more about "a world in which we learn about a friendship." Well known for setting stories in enclosed worlds ("Witness," "Dead Poets Society," "The Truman Show"), Weir, who co-wrote the script with John Collee, piled on historically and geographically accurate detail -- from using a 20th century replica of an 1800s British Royal Navy ship to real stormy sea shots from Cape Horn and makeup to simulate the crew's tar-stained finger- and toenails. Most of the cast is British or Canadian, many of them sailors with experience on tall ships. Weir also looked in Poland for "18th century faces" that reflected the diet and sober yet uncynical spirit of the times. Following the custom of the time, some crew members are African and Malaysian, some are young boys.

Cast members were encouraged to use a library on set to research the period. Weir was careful, however, not to overdo it. There were too many details in the 5,000 pages of the 20 novels to explain everything, he says. "A lot of films fall into the trap of explaining too much. The audience is fully informed but not fully engaged. You have to be very careful and have respect for the audience."

Though some fans of the novels might be disappointed, Weir felt no need to explain how Aubrey and Maturin first met (It was at a concert where the noisy sailor annoyed the surgeon) or that Maturin is also a spy and assassin.

Bettany claims he has few of Maturin's enormous personal resources. "He could be put in solitary confinement for 10 years and be pretty much the same when he came out. I would be absolutely spare [crazy]." To learn how he moved and thought, he studied with historians at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and Scripps Institute of Oceanographic Study. One scientist in La Jolla taught him why pre-Darwinian naturalists like Maturin dissected insects and animals. "The thought hadn't occurred to me, being an imbecile," Bettany says. "In those days, God created all creatures. When they looked inside one, they were looking into the mind of God."

Interestingly, Bettany says he understood Maturin best from watching old interviews with author O'Brian. "There's a commonly held belief that the character he identified most with was Stephen Maturin, that [the novels were] semiautobiographical."

Bettany, the son of a teacher and a secretary, both of whom had experience as performers, says acting can be a boring waste of time unless he is learning something new.

Other crew members say he was known on location as serious, curious, self-deprecating, funny and undemanding. He's also healthily incorrect by California standards. He calls himself a dedicated smoker who hates exercise because it prevents thinking. "When you're in a gym, it's impossible to have a thought except, 'When will this be over?' "

As it turned out, it as natural for Bettany as for his character to excuse himself from climbing the riggings, rowing and fighting. "I had no interest in that, and thank God, neither did my character," he says. "It was brilliant."

Weir says Crowe and Bettany worked hard to apply their common musical interests to their characters' interest in violin and cello -- with mixed results. Even after seven months of practice to learn four classical pieces, Bettany admits, "we sounded like two people trying to kill wounded animals." When they filmed the duets, Weir says he played the professionals' recording used in the film as background so the actors couldn't hear themselves

In the end, Bettany says all the work paid off. When he saw the film for the first time recently, he was pleased with his performance. But he denies that the high-profile role means he's gone Hollywood. "It's far too hot for me out there," he says. "I like cappuccinos and scarves."

More diplomatically, he says, "I love an epic movie. It's what Hollywood does amazingly well. In England, we don't have the money to blow [stuff] up in the same way." It's the variety of roles that makes acting fun, he says. He appears soon in Lars von Trier's "Dogville" with Nicole Kidman and has just finished filming a romantic comedy, "Wimbledon," in which he stars with Kirsten Dunst. Next year, he'll co-star with Willem Dafoe in "The Reckoning" as a 14th century priest.

Now making a home in New York with Connelly, he's "gainfully unemployed," enjoying being a new father to his 2-month-old son, Stellan. It was difficult for him to leave his family to film "Wimbledon" in England, he says. But truth be told, he likes working. Beyond what he might learn from a part, he says, "I like the rhythm, getting up early in the morning, trying to achieve something, working with interesting people. You put enough days like that in a row and you have a helluva life."

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