There appears to be a running theme in the career of British actor Paul Bettany. He played a heroic-yet-blasphemous angel in last year's Legion, an assassin monk in The Da Vinci Code, and a priest on-the-run in The Reckoning. In the unequivocally titled, Priest, he plays yet another man-of-the-cloth, this time, a priest gone awry on a vampire hunt. It seems Bettany, a self-described atheist, may have some morality issues.
Holed up in Beverly Hills to promote the movie, Bettany has heard it all before. He says, "Unless Priest 2 happens, this is absolutely the last movie with any religious undertones I'll ever do because it's all I get asked about."
Considering the repeated subject matter, it's not surprising he's fielding questions of this nature. However, he views this movie differently. "For me, it was the chance to be that kind of stoic American, cowboy hero but in a totally new urban setting. So, that's why I did it," he says. "And remember, I'm British, meaning, I'm starting from a butch deficit so it was a great opportunity to play this role."
Directed by Scott Stewart, Priest is a sci-fi, western-themed apocalyptic thriller, adapted from a Japanese graphic novel by Min-Woo Hyung. In contrast to recent movies of this ilk, these are not your benevolent "adorable" vampires conjured up for the pre-teen market.
"I think there are many things you can do with a vampire myth, but the one thing you shouldn't do is cut their balls off and make them not frightening," says Bettany. "That's just something I don't understand, because I do think that it can empirically be said that vampires are frightening."
Bettany reteams with director Stewart, with whom he worked previously in Legion.
Priest, with an alleged US$60 million budget ($68 million), has taken in just over US$76 million worldwide.
Is the audience suffering from vampire-movie fatigue?
"Not at all. I grew up reading Bram Stoker's Dracula, and in fact, I'm reading it to my kids at the moment. It's a great book. The genre is hundreds of years old. I don't see any reason for it to stop." Clearly, not a fan of the Twilight series, Bettany scoffs, "You want a vampire to be sexy and terrifying. Not the kind you bring home to your mother."
It might be an understatement to say that Bettany has made some unusual career choices. Apart from what he accepts, he famously turned down the role, specifically written for him, of King George VI in the Oscar-winning The King's Speech.
He says, a little defensively, "I don't regret turning it down. I had just made Priest and I was away for four and a half months from my family on that set. They'd come out to see me during that time but we've never been apart for more than two weeks. It's very stressful for my kids when I'm away," he says, passionately. "However, I really would regret it, in 20 years time, if I was looking at my children, realising, 'somebody else raised you. I wasn't there. I was paying for somebody to raise you'. That is a regret that I am more terrified of than turning down the occasional film that does well," he says. "And, let's be clear, Colin Firth is f***ing amazing in the movie. Who's to say that it would have had the same impact had I been in it?"
The cast of Priest includes New Zealand's own Karl Urban as a rogue vampire "Black Hat".
"I'm not always a bad guy." Urban says. "I played Bones in Star Trek and I don't see this character as necessarily a villain. To me, he's a fallen hero. In particular with this movie, I loved Westerns growing up, and I think Scott [Stewart] has taken this eclectic mixture of genres and fused them together really well. We've never seen a vampire cowboy before."
*Priest opens on August 11.