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PAUL Bettany is rather taken aback when I tell him that he made me cry. The 41-year-old Londoner is kitted out in a tweed three-piece suit and wearing glasses with round frames. He looks like the epitome of the English gent – even a tad Bertie Woosterish – and certainly nothing like a cad given to making ladies cry.

He's relieved when I explain that it was in his role as surgeon Stephen Maturin in the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World that he got me blubbing. The film, which also stars Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, is set during the Napoleonic Wars in 1805 and Bettany's character, an eager naturalist, has been promised several days exploration on the Galapagos Islands. At the very last moment, Captain Jack abandons the plan in order to chase an enemy vessel. The way in which Bettany managed to portray his character's utter devastation was extremely understated yet so powerful that I wept aloud (and I'm not given to sobbing in the picture house). I left the cinema that night raving about this wonderful new actor – I hadn't recognised him as the same wonderful new actor I'd raved about in A Beautiful Mind two years earlier.

Bettany, despite his leading man looks – tall, blond and very handsome (so handsome that he can get away with the Bertie Wooster get-up) – has a chameleon quality that allows him to disappear inside the characters he portrays.

In his latest film, Blood, he plays Joe Fairburn, an ordinary middle-aged policeman, in an everyday British town (although it does have the fanciest police station ever seen on film). Joe is quite a bland character; he's been married for 20 years and has been in the same job his entire adult life. He grew up in the town where he works – his brother Chrissie (Stephen Graham) is also a policeman and his father Lenny (Brian Cox) has retired from the force.

Joe's life could be described as happy but dull.

Underneath the seemingly content exterior however, Joe has plenty of mental turmoil – his overbearing father Lenny (an impressive performance from Cox) is suffering from dementia and his teenage daughter is no longer Daddy's little girl.

As Bettany sees it, the character of Joe has no way in which to process all of the upheaval and instability in his life. "Someone like Joe," Bettany explains, "has absolutely no introspection." When Joe and Chrissie are called to investigate the murder of a young girl, the stress of the case proves the tipping point and Joe's inner mayhem physically manifests itself in an act of violence that leads him to have a complete mental breakdown.

While Blood initially appears as a standard police procedural/thriller, it is really about the breakdown of both an individual and a family unit. Watching Joe go from seemingly happy family man to a hopeless wreck, although compelling viewing, is not always easy to watch. So how does Bettany as an actor tap into the psyche of someone like Joe? He tells me that his job as an actor is to see where he does and doesn't identify with the characters he's playing. When he identifies the character traits that he has himself, he "cleaves to them whilst working on the others."

He explains that with Joe, there was quite a bit of personal material to work with as he's suffered from two separate mental breakdowns when he was younger.

He's happy now and strongly advocates therapy ("it helps people make sense of their lives") as it helped him to get "rid of all the mud" that was weighing him down.

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Bettany then adds that although he is very rational, and even though he was able to intellectualise and understand why he was so unhappy, after having therapy he felt as though a "monster had released me from his jaws".

This is a very powerful image of mental suffering and one that could easily be applied to poor Joe as he becomes unmoored.

Was it a very gloomy set, I wonder. Bettany says that when working with heavy material like this, he always tries to keep it light on set and goes on to praise all of his cast mates, especially Brian Cox, whom he describes as "magnificent" adding that Cox was the only logical casting choice for the man who is simultaneously fearsome and fragile.

"Nobody else could portray the father, nobody has the finesse but with that hint of menace. He's an old man but he could still lamp you one."

Although he tried to keep things light on set, he says he could not help but take the character home with him. For the past nine years, home has been New York where he lives with his wife, actress Jennifer Connelly, whom he met on A Beautiful Mind, and their three children.

For a long time he and his family lived in Brooklyn. "Jennifer is from a typical Irish-American Brooklyn family," he explains, and then adds while shaking his head and laughing, "Irish Americans – they're more Irish than Irish people." The couple, who are known for their non-celebrity lifestyle, recently moved to Tribeca (downtown Manhattan). They both like the relative anonymity of living in New York. "New Yorkers are too cool to act impressed by fame," he explains.

Although he loves his adopted home, Bettany – born in London in 1971 to thespian parents – admits that he does miss a lot about England, especially pubs, curry and the English sense of humour. But, he's quick to point out that he can't stand the whole Englishman abroad routine. He visibly cringes when he talks about LA "being stuffed full of Brits complaining that American people have no sense of irony".

"That's ironic," he laughs. He's not into the whole home away from home thing either. "I've been to those English pubs (in New York) at 7am to watch the football and there is nothing more depressing," he says. It's not just English pubs but theme bars in general.

"The very fact that you are pretending to be somewhere else, denying where you actually are, is isolating in itself," he says. Being a big fan of fish and chips, he recently braved a themed English chip shop in search of a fix. "I felt as if I'd walked into a time warp. There's Silver Jubilee bunting everywhere," he says gesticulating with his hands, "the Clash playing ... but I have to say the fish and chips were very good and I know about fish and chips because I used to make them (for a living)."

Apart from working in a chipper, Bettany was a busker for a couple of years in the early 90s. He can't quite recall just exactly how long he plied his trade on the streets and subways of London as "I was quite mad at the time." Soon after he left the busking scene ("a terrible job") he made the film Dead Babies (2000).

He's not particularly proud of the film but on set he met Charlie Condou, who Coronation Street fans will know better as Marcus Dent, who has become one of his best friends – they are godfather to each other's children and both families spend every second Christmas together.

Despite his friendship with Condou, Bettany doesn't watch Coronation Street and never did, even when he lived in the UK. He explains that this has nothing to do with being a high-falutin' thesp or soap snobbery but a deep seated fear of commitment. "Apart from my marriage, I'm a commitment phobe. I don't want to start watching something on TV if I have to keep watching it!" Given the number of roles Bettany has played, it's doubtful that he has the time to watch TV anyway.

Blood is available on Video On Demand and Pay Per View on May 31 and on DVD and Blu ray from June 10.

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