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Paul Bettany

Hometown: London

Influences: “The obvious ones — Marlon Brando, Chris Walken, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Susan Sarandon — and the unobvious ones like Daniel Auteuil and an actor who was in ‘Gangster No. 1’ with me, Eddie Marsan.”

Favorite thing about the biz: “The word ‘lunch’ — when they call it on set.”

Least favorite thing about the biz: “Flying. I am enormously frightened. When I get on the plane I always wonder why they close the door to the pilots’ cabin. The only reason is because they are constantly drinking and doing drugs.”

Where you might have seen him: in TNT’s “David Copperfield” as Steerforth.

Paul Bettany has done a lot of good theater, quite a bit of TV and had roles in several film fest travelers, including “Land Girls” (Sundance, 1998) and “After the Rain” (Seattle, Toronto 1999). And this year’s “Gangster No. 1,” from “The Acid House” helmer Paul McGuigan, got Bettany an actor nomination at the British Independent Film Awards, which will be held this week.

But not much of his work has been seen widely Stateside.

That’s likely to change this summer when the rakish blond thesp stars alongside Heath Ledger in Columbia Pictures’ “A Knight’s Tale,” directed by Brian Helgeland (“Payback”).

Bettany plays the poet Chaucer, a role Helgeland wrote for him. The writer-director had seen an audition tape Bettany did for another pic that Helgeland was set to direct but was never made.

“After that fell apart, I started to write ‘A Knight’s Tale’ and I thought of him,” Helgeland says.

Chaucer has several long speeches, which Helgeland says Bettany handles with ease. “He’s like a 21st-century Peter O’Toole. He’s very leading man but can pull off all those things that you sometimes look for character actors to do.”

For a virtually unknown British actor, however, actually being offered the part was a different matter altogether, says Bettany. “It took five auditions and three flights to Los Angeles. (Studio execs) were saying ‘He’s English, but he’s not Rupert Everett. …'”

It’s exactly that sense of humor and grounded nature that helped Bettany get through the role’s other challenges.

“Most of the film I am stark bollock naked,” he laughs, explaining that Chaucer is also a compulsive gambler who starts betting his clothes when his money runs out.

Adds Helgeland: “He was very sporting about it. He put the crew at ease about him being naked.”

Bettany’s other upcoming pics include Brit gangster comedy “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” with Chris Penn and Stellan Skarsgard, and an adaptation of the Martin Amis novel “Dead Babies,” co-starring Olivia Williams.

He’s currently in Spain shooting McGuigan’s “Morality Play” in which he plays a priest on the lam who hooks up with a group of actors. Pic co-stars Willem Dafoe and Gina McKee.

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