This Moviecrazed interview took place early in 2002, when Paul Bettany rampaged so forcefully as a vicious killer in "Public Gangster No. 1." Before that, he'd made a quiet but memorable impression in "A Beautiful Mind," a movie rumored to have brought Bettany's fellow players, Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, together in an off-screen relationship that did not end well. In the great showbiz tradition of happy endings, however, Bettany and Connelly eventually had their own special meeting of beautiful minds (and bodies) and are now enjoying a beautiful marriage all their own. --GUY FLATLEY

Talk about evildoers. Back in the late sixties, there lived a remarkable specimen of the breed, a villain who carved a path through London's criminal jungle, torturing, slashing and obliterating anyone who blocked his climb to the top of the underworld. This man loved what he did, and one of the happiest nights of his life was spent murdering a rival thug, stripping to his underwear so as not to soil his Carnaby Street duds, then blissfully butchering the corpse into neat, manageable chunks. And the beauty of it all was that he could pin the atrocity on his mentor, sending the man whose power he coveted to the slammer for thirty years.

Thank God, this fiend exists only in "Gangster No. 1," Paul McGuigan's extraordinary British film, released two years ago in England and finally premiering in New York [on 6/14/02]. Even so, as I await the arrival of Paul Bettany, the 6'3", 31-year-old actor who plays the consummate killer known only as Gangster, I feel a shiver. But when he enters the cool, spare lobby of the Mercer Hotel in Manhattan's SoHo district on a recent Monday morning, my anxiety vanishes. Bettany, looking like an overgrown boy in his blue blazer, tee shirt and jeans, smiles warmly, offers a firm handshake and apologizes for being late.

Sitting across from me now, he apologizes again, this time for firing up a Marlboro Lite--definitely not his last of the day. His sandy hair is tangled and his blue eyes--so mean and piercing in "Gangster No. 1"--look sleepy, as if they'd seen the New York sun coming up this morning. Yet Bettany, best known until now for his strong supporting work in "A Knight's Tale" and "A Beautiful Mind" (and for his off-screen romancing of the latter film's leading lady, Jennifer Connelly), is totally alert as he describes the process of getting into the character he plays in "Gangster No. 1" (a character played as an older, though not nicer, man by Malcolm McDowell in a story that spans three decades).

"My preparation involved spending a lot of time with a man named Bruce Reynolds, who was the architect of The Great Train Robbery. Bruce spent thirty years in prison, and consequently was one of the most fantastically well-read people you'd be likely to meet. An incredible, self-educated man," says Bettany, whose own formal education was spotty at best. "And I also spent time with people that sort of walk in that world now. I did some very hard drinking with them."

It's odd to imagine inhabitants of the underworld inviting a stranger to come study their illicit activities. "Obviously, I can talk with you about Bruce Reynolds," Bettany says, "but it's difficult to talk about people who walk about in that life now, because I'd have my legs broken. How did I know these people? Because of my dubious past."

Bettany is referring to his lengthy love affair with drugs. "I've got nothing against drugs--the Beatles were really, really high when they wrote great music. It's just that drugs had become a full-time job for me. The decision to really stop is everything. I failed so many times, and then I absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, knew that I wasn't going to fail anymore. I'm two-and-a-half years clean of drugs today, but I made 'Gangster No. 1' four years ago. So I knew some people who knew some people and they were kind enough to let me come drinking with them around the time of the movie."

Still, it's an enormous jump from the shady behavior of Bettany's drinking buddies to the sadism of Gangster. "Well, as far as getting into the head of that character, let me put it this way. At the moment, I'm making a film with Russell Crowe for Peter Weir called 'Far Side of the World,' and my character plays the cello very well. I'm never going to play the cello very well myself, but if I work hard enough, I might look like I'm fingering it the right way, even though if you're on the set, it will actually sound like I'm punishing a squirrel. And it really and truly is the same thing in 'Gangster No. 1.' I'm happy to say I'm not a psychopath, or even a sociopath. Essentially, what I'm doing is giving an impression."

Bettany takes a drag on his Marlboro and a sip of mineral water before continuing his attempt to explain how he could turn himself into such a memorable monster. "I imagine that all people want something in life. They want to be good at doing something. I love to play the guitar, and when I'm having a good day and playing well, it makes me feel good about myself. So if your particular talent is hurting somebody, it must be very tempting to practice that talent. Imagining that, I got little glimpses of what it might feel like to be Gangster. I remember, one day in rehearsal, imagining that I was ripping David Thewlis's top lip off, and I thought, 'Right, that's him. That's Gangster. I don't really need to see too much of him again.' So I got a little taste. But, thankfully, I can't say that I really got inside the head of the character. I'm sure it isn't a very nice place to be."

Getting inside characters is what Bettany--the son of a teacher and a secretary who were also an actor and a singer--began doing at London's Drama Centre, where he began a three-year course at the age of 19. Up to that point, he'd been an academic drop-out. "I always hear these stories about there being one teacher who saves you, but I fell through absolutely every net. There wasn't one hand that caught me and turned me on to learning. I had been in various schools in London where, frankly, the teachers' tenacity at teaching me absolutely nothing was mesmerizing. I didn't read a book until I was 19."

Before the Drama Centre, Bettany's only ambition--and a dreamy one at that--was to be the next John Lennon. "I wanted to write songs and sing songs. But when it came right down to it, I found that singing my songs in front of people I didn't know was a really bizarre, revealing experience which I didn't enjoy in any way, shape or form. I realized they were personal songs I didn't ever want anyone to hear. Every morning, when I get up, I still kneel down and pray to John Lennon and say, 'Thank you for writing "Mother, you had me, but I never had you".' But I think it's quite strange to allow people to know that much about you. You're writing in the first person and you can't get away from it, whereas with acting, nobody really knows if you're a psychopath."

On the other hand, some would say that an actor would have to be crazy to take on certain projects. For example, "Dogville," directed by Lars von Trier. What was it like to work with the Dogma 95 auteur whose last extravaganza, "Dancer in the Dark," gave us Bjork as a blind factory worker who sang and danced her way to the gallows? Did he mind following the Dogma rules--no artificial sets, no costumes or make-up, and nothing but natural light? "'Dogville' marks a departure for Lars von Trier," Bettany reports. "We didn't use any natural light, and we worked on a set where houses, the steeple of a church and the front of a shop were painted on the floor. There's a dog in 'Dogville,' of course, and that dog is painted on the floor, and beneath the painting it says 'dog.' There's no outdoors. Well, the movie is actually set outdoors, but it's filmed inside, like it would be in a theater."

So what's the story line? "It takes place in a small mining village in the Rocky Mountains, where the mine was closed down years ago. I play a 21-year-old philosopher-writer who's never written anything and gives speeches to the whole town about morality and hasn't got a fucking clue as to what he's actually talking about. Then, one night, into our town comes a girl, played by Nicole Kidman, who's running away from gangsters. And I ask the town to take her on. And the film is the fallout from that decision to welcome this outsider into our world.

"You see, it's not really a Dogma film. There's just me and Nicole with mikes in our hair--so there's no boom--and Lars with a video camera that has a tape in it that runs for an hour. The good side of that is it's hard to remain self-conscious for that length of time, and the bad side of it is that you've got an Australian and an Englishman improvising in sort of 1930's American accents. You can't hope to know what you've done, remember what you've just have to let go and know that Lars is the boss. He's Jackson Pollock, and you're just mixing paint. I've got no sensation of how I did, because 98 percent of it isn't going to be in the movie. And 98 percent of it, I can guarantee you, is some of the worst acting I've ever done in my life. So I'm really banking on the other two percent being left in the film."

Stellan Skarsgard, a Von Trier superstar who's been Bettany's pal since they appeared together in "Kiss Kiss (Bang Bang)" in 2000, is also in "Dogville." "Stellan and his wife kidnapped me and took me to Paris and kept me drunk for about five days," Bettany recalls with a wide grin. "He is the kindest, warmest man you're likely to meet, with an insatiable appetite for trying things, tasting things. He's the all-time heavyweight vodka-drinking champion of the world, so we have a hell of a time together."