LOS ANGELES — In his new 3-D action film, Priest, Paul Bettany plays a laconic warrior with a cross tattooed on his face, a man who channels divine power to combat the vampire menace that terrorizes the citizens of a post-apocalyptic realm.
But it's not entirely new territory for the English actor, whose résumé includes A Knight's Tale, A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
In last year's Legion, Bettany starred as an avenging archangel determined to protect the life of an infant as doomsday dawns; in the blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, he portrayed a murderous albino monk whose extreme faith demands he whip himself bloody to atone for his sins.
So what exactly is it that draws Bettany to such dark, religious-themed fare?
"It's entirely coincidental," Bettany, 39, said. "But I swear to God, this is the last time. If they make a sequel to this, of course I'll do it, but it's the last time I take on a religious theme."
In person, Bettany is neither alienated loner nor overwrought zealot. Even after returning from a whirlwind trip to promote his latest movie in Moscow, the New York-based actor is relaxed and gracious, talking excitedly about the baby he's expecting with his wife, Jennifer Connelly, and his newly minted status as an action star.
"There was a friend of mine who is in the business who said, 'Paul, you're never going to be an action hero.' I went, 'Right,' and went down to the gym. It was that sort of binary and punklike," said the actor, who described his role in Priest as "almost entirely physical. "You make a few decisions about the inner life of the character, but really, what it's about is how he looks, and he's got to look like an action hero. The discipline is getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning to go work out."
Priest, which opens Friday but wasn't screened in advance for critics, certainly gives Bettany the opportunity to channel his inner tough guy. He plays one of an elite team of super soldiers who helped defeat the vampires in a bloody, violent war but now finds himself living on the margins of a totalitarian society controlled by the church. After his niece (Lily Collins) is kidnapped, he teams with a reckless lawman (Cam Gigandet) and another acolyte (Maggie Q) to find her, defying the orders of his superiors and risking excommunication.
As he pursues the girl, he learns that the monsters, under the direction of a powerful new leader, are plotting to return from exile and resume their war against humanity.
Adapted from the series of graphic novels by Min-Woo Hyung and directed by Legion director Scott Charles Stewart, Priest taps into not just religious but also cowboy iconography, creating a visual landscape that looks like Blade Runner viewed through the filter of the Old West. (The movie was shot traditionally in Los Angeles and other Southern California locations over the course of 62 days last year and was converted to 3-D in post-production.)
Bettany grew up watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies, and he said he responded to Priest's tightly plotted revenge theme. He also happens to adore vampires. Bram Stoker's Dracula was his favorite book as a child, though Justin Cronin's epic novel The Passage and Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain are more recent favorites. But he's not in love with the heartthrob model so in vogue in pop culture these days.
"I love the mythology of vampires, I love the idea that you can do many things with them," he said. "You can change many things, but the one thing you probably shouldn't change is that they're frightening. ... You shouldn't want to bring a vampire home to your mum."
Stewart said it was absolutely his intention to make the creatures frightening, and having an actor who could bring the right kind of grounded intensity to the role of a man who's devoted his life to battling them was critical.
"I looked at Priest as more of a science-fiction Western, and when thinking about that character, I thought of Paul because he kind of reminded me always of this young Eastwood," Stewart said. "He's got this really chiseled face and this thousand-yard stare and he's lean, and that just felt so appropriate."