Actor Paul Bettany, who appears in the new movie "A Knight's Tale," admits to being "29 in your Earth years." This is a flourish that accentuates a thin frame and somewhat elfin face in a curious way, and one wonders why he hasn't been cast as a movie android yet or snapped up by the "Star Trek" apparatus to embody a puckish crew member.
"Knight," however, is set in a somewhat anachronistic 14th-century Europe. The movie champions a poor boy named William (Heath Ledger), who aspires to be the greatest jousting knight on the Continental tour.
Mr. Bettany, a native Londoner who says his basic schooling was sorely deficient, plays a silver-tongued recruit to William's entourage - the undiscovered poetic and comic immortal Geoffrey Chaucer, encountered as a naked vagabond. Writer-director Brian Helgeland has Chaucer functioning as William's press agent, scribe and master of ceremonies. Chaucer whips up audiences to root for a gallant underdog, obliged to feign a noble identity as "Ulrich von Lichtenstein" to qualify for horse, armor and lance.
"[This is] my first American movie, made entirely in Czechoslovakia, or the Czech Republic now," says Mr. Bettany, in Washington for promotional interviews. Professionally trained at the Drama Centre in London, he has appeared in several British movies, but only "Bent" and "Land Girls" have been seen in the United States.
"What's lovely about [`Knight'] is that [Mr. Helgeland] is a great friend of mine. We tried to make a movie together, a horror movie, but a good one. The studio said, `Under no grounds. We don't know who Paul Bettany is. It's not going to happen,'" Mr. Bettany recalls.
"Six months later, Brian rang me up and said he'd written a part in this. He sent me a whole lot of research for the picture, along with a lithograph or something of what appeared to be an enormously fat, bald, bearded dwarf. Like any other self-respecting actor, I panicked. The research went out the window, and I hoped for the best."
Mr. Bettany believes contemporary illustrations of Chaucer (circa 1340-1400) tend to be scarce and unflattering. The movie seems to place him in a dimly documented stage of the poet's youth in the 1360s, after participation in an English invasion of France. A prisoner of war, Chaucer was ransomed by King Edward III in 1360, but his activities for the next six years remain a historical blur. His greatest - though unfinished - poetic and narrative achievement, "The Canterbury Tales," remains a couple of decades beyond the movie's slap-happy frame of reference.
Mr. Bettany has little patience with anyone tempted to "get pompous about the historical inaccuracies in our movie."
"I would think the note of inaccuracy was always quite obvious," he says. "I had an interview the other day with someone who got on his high horse about it. I said I bet he didn't take `U-571' to task for its inaccuracies, starting with the fact that it should have been an English submarine doing such an espionage mission at that point in the war. And he didn't know [about U-571]. To have a strong, angry reaction to `A Knight's Tale' is like stomping on a puppy."
Mr. Bettany, being close to the writer-director, has the movie's inception at his fingertips.
"Brian had a page of notes about jousting. He'd read a book about it and become fascinated. Several times he underlined one particular fact: `You've got to be of noble birth to compete.' The notes spent some time in his ideas drawer," the actor says.