My son, the actor
So when we meet at Dundee Rep, where Bettany senior is currently in rehearsals for Howard Barker’s play, Scenes from an Execution, he glosses over his own long and colourful career. Today, he’s not talking about dancing with Margot Fonteyn, or acting with John Gielgud, or being in a film with Roger Moore. He’s not even talking about being the godfather of Sophie, Countess of Wessex. He’s just being a doting dad.
He does it well. He talks warmly, openly, without affectation. "I’m so proud of my son. As soon as the films come out on video, I say to people, ‘Haven’t you seen my son?’ Both he and Jennifer are on a roll. I can’t wait for Wimbledon [Paul’s latest film, about a tennis player, out in the summer]."
"He and Jennifer presented me with a grandson, Stellan, on 5 August. They came over to Scotland to the Mull of Kintyre, and I went over and met my grandson. I’m hoping when this show is finished, I’ll be able to take a couple of weeks to fly over and spend time with them."
But what about you, Thane? I want to hear about the first time you went to the ballet, aged 13, a boy with a terrible stammer. What was it like to realise, all in a rush, that here was a career you could attain without uttering a single word? A year later, you were in ballet school. A year after that at Sadler’s Wells under the tutelage of Nanette de Valois.
Then, before you had time for so much as a jete in front of an audience, National Service took you into the Navy. I want to hear how, determined to keep secret from your fellow seamen that you were a ballet dancer, you volunteered for the watch in the dead of the night, sealed the massive iron locks into the ship’s hold and exercised daily using one of the ship’s warheads as a barre.
After National Service, it was back to Sadler’s Wells and a debut at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Ultimately "difficulties" with Nanette de Valois took you away from the ballet to be a principal dancer in musicals. I want to hear about that night on stage in Edinburgh in the early 1950s when another dancer’s mistake caused you to dislocate your back. Despite dire predictions, swift action and osteopathy had you back on stage within three months.
Perhaps realising after the accident that no dance career lasts forever, you went to learn mime at Charles Antonetti’s famous school in Paris. And there, in a school of silence, your stammer was cured. "Antonetti said to me, ‘Thane, how many mime artists can you think of who really make a living from mime?’" he recalls. "‘If you do what I tell you and stick to it, I’ll cure your stammer. I’m accepting you into the school, and from the end of this interview, don’t talk until I tell you to talk.’
"I thought he meant just during class. He didn’t. He said, ‘Don’t talk at all, unless you talk in your sleep. Either write it down or mime it, as your mime becomes proficient, use your mime.’ I did that for about seven or eight months. He made me learn the part of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet for his student’s show, so I could mime it. One night on stage, I was about a quarter of the way through the Queen Mab speech when a cry came from the circle, ‘Parle, Thane, parle!’ and I went straight into it. I’ve never stammered since."
Back to England, then, to spear-carrying at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He played three seasons as Osric in Michael Redgrave’s Hamlet, and understudied Ferdinand in Peter Brook’s production of The Tempest, which starred John Gielgud. When it transferred to the West End, he took over the part. Brook redirected the scenes for him: "He wanted it to be my Ferdinand, not a copy of someone else’s".
He played Hamlet on a tour of Australia, and he started to get parts in films, Fire Down Below with Robert Mitchum (1957), Richard III, which was directed by Laurence Olivier (1958). In the 1980s, he was back in film, making North Sea Hijack with Roger Moore and James Mason, and making a cult appearance in the Dr Who episode, State of Decay. But it was a tough life, peppered with periods of unemployment. The needs of a growing family meant that he turned to teaching for a while.
Did he, as a seasoned actor, try to put his son off a career treading the boards? "No. If he wanted to be an actor, that was a wonderful thing. But I made sure he knew the pitfalls. I told him, ‘You’ll find you have months when you’re out of work’ - and of course he’s hardly had one!"
No, Paul didn’t get the clouds, just the silver linings. He walked out of drama school straight into Stephen Daldry’s West End production of An Inspector Calls. After rave reviews, Daldry offered him a ten-month tour with the company to Australia and the US. To his father’s consternation, he said no.
"Had I been faced with that offer, I’d have done the tour. He turned it down and didn’t know where the next job was coming from. I was just amazed at a boy of his age turning down that job, but he said, ‘No, if I go on that tour, by the time I get back, they’ll have forgotten me’. And he was right. Instead, within three weeks he was asked to Stratford, three very nice parts, from there into telly, from telly into films. He never looked back."
Paul’s career built gradually, through low-budget and independent films, until he appeared fully fledged in Hollywood in A Knight’s Tale, A Beautiful Mind (where he met Connelly), Master and Commander, and recently Dogville with Nicole Kidman. Does it not rankle, just the tiniest bit, that it has been so easy for him?
"Not one bit, I’m just so proud. To be a top actor, you need a hell of a lot of talent, but you need a hell of a lot of luck as well. Paul somehow attracts luck to him. He’s a wonderfully photogenic boy, and a fine, fine talent - and he’s played his cards brilliantly. I don’t think it’s biased to say that in a Knight’s Tale he acted everyone else off the film. In Master and Commander, he gave an extraordinary performance, so subtle. Crowe’s fine in it, but Paul’s doctor is just so well constructed."
And, bang, we’re back in the rose-tinted world of Paul and Jennifer. "Jennifer is filming in Toronto at the moment. Beautiful girl, beautiful person too. Paul is looking after the baby and making the coffee in the trailer. He says it’s really quite fun being a coffee boy, not having the responsibility of a leading role. He loves being a daddy, he doesn’t mind changing nappies a bit."
However, can Bettany senior be deflected long enough from his grandson’s nappies to talk about his royal connections? How did he become the godfather to the wife of Prince Edward? He explains how his family got to know the Rhys-Joneses when both families lived in Northern Borneo, how his widowed father married Pat Rhys-Jones and he became step-brother to Chris, Sophie’s father.
"To cement things really, I was asked to be her godfather, never dreaming when I was holding her at the font that one day I would be at Windsor seeing her marry into Royalty. I wasn’t so much invited to the wedding, it was by royal command. If something had happened to Chris that day, I would have been going down the aisle with her.
"I was doing The Importance of Being Earnest at Chichester Festival Theatre at the time. They didn’t like it, me having to go off. I had to take the letter in and show them, ‘It’s not an invitation, it’s a royal command from the Queen!’ I was delighted for her, sweet girl, sweet woman. I chat to her, see her sometimes. But I’m proudest of my son."
But while Bettany junior is in a trailer somewhere in Canada making coffee for his A-list wife, what of Bettany senior? He lives a peaceful life in Cupar, Fife, in a state which he refers to as "semi-retirement". He works when he wants to and he dotes on his daughter, Sarah, who lives in Cornwall, and gave him his first grandchild, eight-year-old Emaly.
There have been hard times. He divorced in 1993 and now lives with his partner, Andy Little. At least one unscrupulous journalist took advantage of his open nature to play on the tensions between his sexual orientation and his royal connections. But he has reached a good place in life. The sheen of paternal pride seems to mask a glow of deeper contentment.
These days, he cherry-picks work that takes his fancy. He chose Scenes From an Execution at the Rep, just as he chose Twelfth Night last year, and the year before, The Duchess of Malfi. This year, he has chosen to do an interview for a Festival production at the Traverse. It’s a good place for an actor to be. It might be the son who’s edging his way on to Hollywood’s A-list, but Bettany senior also has things of which he should be proud.
• Scenes from an Execution is at Dundee Rep, 27 April - 8 May