Actors often say that they have drawn on real-life experiences to help them to be more convincing on screen.
But in the case of British actor Paul Bettany — playing a gay literature professor in the film Uncle Frank — his own family story is far more extraordinary than the fiction of the movie.
His father, Thane, a ballet dancer turned school teacher, came out in his 60s, and went on to live happily in rural Fife with his partner, Andy Little.
However, after two decades together, Andy died — and Thane spent the final three years of his life saying that ‘it had all been a big misunderstanding’ and denying that he was homosexual after all. He died in 2015.
In an interview in the latest issue of Total Film magazine, Bettany, 49, said that his father, a strict Catholic, had been driven by fear.
Actor Paul Bettany, pictured with his wife Jennifer Connelly, has spoken candidly about his extraordinary family life and his father Thane ahead of the release of his next film Uncle Frank
Paul said: ‘He came out of the closet at 63. He then had a 20-year relationship with a man called Andy. It was a joyous relief for everybody, actually.
‘And once his partner died — he was in his 80s at this point — my dad decided to go back inside the closet and say it had all been a big misunderstanding because he was a Catholic and concerned about getting past Peter through the pearly gates.
‘The shame he felt for his sexual identity was devastating. He was unable to mourn the person who I think was the love of his life.’
Bettany Jr made his name with his breakthrough part as a naked Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger in the lead role.
He followed that up with a memorable performance as the albino monk in The Da Vinci Code, and confirmed his status as Hollywood royalty as crimson-faced android superhero Vision in three instalments of the blockbuster Avengers franchise.
When he married the Oscar-winning American actress Jennifer Connelly in 2003, they immediately formed one of Tinseltown’s leading power couples.
He also has an intriguing link to the British Establishment via his father’s role as Sophie Wessex’s godfather.
But Bettany had initially refused the part in his latest film Uncle Frank because of the way it resonated with his own experience.
‘Initially, when I read the script, I turned it down. I thought it was beautifully done, but I thought, “I don’t really want to go here”. So I was scared of it.’
So who was this man who cast such a long shadow? It turns out that with a little bit of luck Thane Bettany could have been a star like his son.
Thane, a ballet dancer turned school teacher, came out in his 60s, and went on to live happily in Fife with his partner, Andy Little, but said it was a ‘misunderstanding’ after Andy’s death
After taking up dance, he was talented enough to study at Sadler’s Wells under the godmother of English ballet, Ninette de Valois.
When his training was interrupted by National Service in the Navy, he would exercise in the ship’s hold in secret at night using one of the warheads as a barre — the last thing he wanted was his fellow sailors to find out that he was a ballet dancer.
After some ‘difficulties’ with de Valois, Thane became a principal dancer in West End musicals and spent three seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
But as the years passed, his career was punctuated by periods of unemployment and, after marrying West End actress Anne Kettle and having three children, Sarah, Paul and Matthew, he opted for the security of work as a dance teacher instead.
In 1980, he took a job at Queenswood School, a private girls’ school in Hertfordshire. It was there that tragedy struck in 1988 when Thane’s son Matthew — his youngest — died after falling off the roof of a tennis pavilion on to concrete. He was just eight years old.
In an interview, Thane said: ‘Doctors told us that he was brain dead and would be a vegetable for the rest of his life. We made the very difficult decision to let him go. I felt guilty about it for a long time afterwards.’
Matthew’s death also had a devastating effect on his older brother Paul, who left both school and home at the age of 16.
‘That was the end of family life from that point, as often happens in families where’s there’s a death of a child,’ Paul said later. ‘The family explodes. Life was never the same again . . . It was hideous in all shades of hideousness.’
For three years, Paul supported himself by busking, at times sleeping on a park bench, or on friends’ floors. During this period he drank to excess and took drugs. ‘I would wake up in people’s gardens with a half-eaten kebab in my pocket,’ he said.
Eventually, he returned home and, aged 19, got a grant to attend the Drama Centre London, and went on to spend a year with the RSC. But as his acting took off, his cocaine habit deepened. ‘I did not learn my lesson or stop taking drugs,’ he said.
Rare appearance: Thane Bettany, pictured at on the top step of the church, at the wedding of his goddaughter Sophie Rhys-Jones to Prince Edward, the Earl and Countess of Wessex
His father, who saw him ‘rarely’, was confident that he would pull through: ‘When Paul admitted he was on cocaine I was worried, but I trusted his sense of values to get himself sorted out.’
By now, Thane’s relationship with Anne had fallen apart. ‘Our marriage never really recovered from losing Matthew,’ he said.
Following their divorce in 1993, Thane announced that he was bisexual and five years later moved with Andy into a tower in Cupar in rural Fife.
Soon afterwards, an interview was published in a Sunday newspaper in which Thane appeared to suggest that he was contemplating gender reassignment surgery. He was quoted as saying: ‘A few years ago the operation cost £7,000, and I did think, yes. But £10,000 is a lot of money. I have to pay for it. I’m too old to have it on the NHS.
‘It also depends on whether it’s wise for me, at my age, to have the procedure. It’s an idea I have played about with. In fantasies I’ve thought it would be much easier to have a relationship.’
He added: ‘Can you imagine me trying to make my living as an actress? It would be much too late.’
Thane made a rare public appearance in 1999 when he attended the wedding of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones.
Thane and Sophie’s father Theo had been friends since childhood and Thane became her godfather.
By this time, son Paul was well established as a film actor. He took the leading role in the movie Wimbledon in 2004 and both his parents came to the premiere.
Paul has claimed that he quit drugs around the time he turned 30. But his drug use hit the headlines again in the summer when one of the barristers involved in Johnny Depp’s libel action against The Sun newspaper referred to him as Depp’s ‘drug buddy’.
Paul Bettany in his latest film Uncle Frank with co-stars Sophia Lillis and Peter Macdissi
The court also heard that Paul Bettany had received a text confession about ‘powders… a thousand red bull and vodkas’ from a rattled-sounding Depp in 2014 after a fight with his then wife Amber Heard on a plane.
And it was Bettany, too, the trial was told, who joked about drowning Heard to check whether she was a ‘witch’ after Depp had suggested burning her.
The two men’s friendship — which seems to involve a dash of hero-worship by Paul — had blossomed over the course of making three films together: The Tourist (2010), Transcendence (2014) and Mortdecai (2015).
In an interview, Bettany said: ‘We got on well from the get-go. I think he just likes British people. We made each other laugh a lot so it was very easy and fun.’
Bettany met Connelly on the set of A Beautiful Mind in 2001 and their son, Stellan, was born two years later — the same year they married. They also have a daughter, Agnes Lark, who is now nine.
The family is based in New York, where home is a £13 million townhouse not far from the residence of fellow Brits abroad Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz.
In interviews, Bettany says that he counts himself lucky to have come out of his troubled early years relatively intact: ‘I did a lot of work on myself in therapy and all of that stuff and I still can’t quite escape the sensation that at some point a monster opened its jaws and let me swim out.’