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Paul Bettany is witty and grounded, plays the guitar, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., still misses London, drinks vodka and quit smoking last year. Now the 6-foot-3 actor and self-described "fundamental atheist" explains why he said yes to pal Ron Howard when asked to play Silas, a murderous, self-flagellating albino monk, in The Da Vinci Code, which opens today.

How long did it take each day for makeup to turn you into the raging

albino, who slices and dices his way through Paris, all in the name of

serving the Catholic Church?

Just the face and neck took 2½ hours. The full body was about five hours with three people working on me. I'm pale compared to, say, Antonio Banderas, but it was still a real challenge. First they put green makeup on me to knock out all the freckles and the red. Then a pale makeup on top of that, at which point you're sort of featureless. The makeup artist would then draw in planes and scars. My eyebrows and eyelashes were bleached. Then she'd put features back into the face and airbrush the whole thing. The wig would go on. And contacts went in, which were very pale blue. The reason we didn't go for red is twofold: more often than not, albinism doesn't produce red eyes in human beings; and we thought red eyes on the screen would result in people missing a lot of the dialogue because they'd just be going, 'He's got red eyes!'

Silas is a monk carrying a gun,

whipping himself, and shooting and choking people. How did you prepare to take on the twisted psychology

of this character?

In my mind it was kind of taken care of because you're just killing people. I just tried to deal with the damaged part of him that wants a father. I don't think he's evil. I think he's mad. I'm not sure I believe in evil. I think he's insane and, at times, it was very pleasant being in his head.

How many takes did Ron Howard

require to get the self-flagellating scene?

It took two days. We discussed in detail how it's going to be.

I said to Ron I thought that the acting would exist in the recovery from the hits. We used a light-weight whip. We've all seen people get whipped in films before.

You have a choice to do it frantically or more measured, and I thought it would be more interesting to be measured.

The first hit is shocking, the second in the same place, is wince-making. But from then onward, you lose the audience because people get used to it. I tried to keep the numbers down, and the acting lay in absorbing the pain and building yourself up to hit yourself again, and again. It's hard to keep that kind of intensity and energy throughout.

Were you surprised the film earned the wrath of the National

Organization of Albinism and

Hypopigmentation (NOAH),

in the United States?

If anyone's offended, I apologize. But frankly it's no more a comment on albinos than it is a comment about monks or people who wear sandals. It's really not about that. I refer to him as a monk assassin. I have never referred to him as a monk albino assassin because I imagine people feel very much just like other people, whether they're albino or not.

Opus Dei, the secretive conservative arm of the Catholic Church,

also has its robes in a knot, as do the Vatican and Christian groups around the world. Did you ever expect the movie to be such a lightning rod of controversy?

[The reaction]is sort of indicative of the era we're living in.

Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ and [Francis Ford]Coppola's Godfather III [which suggested the Catholic Church and mafia were in cahoots]didn't get anybody riled up. All I can say, it's an odd era we live in.

Were you glad to reunite with

Howard and did you enjoy working with Tom Hanks?

Ron's a really fantastic actor's director. It's the second time I've worked with him, and I enjoy it enormously. He really lets me be free, and gives you insightful direction. As for Tom, he's incredibly funny and very relaxed on set.

He's funny in a very surprisingly dark way.

What's your next project?

I haven't the smallest idea.

I'm going to see how this turns out, and make some decisions after that. The first time I'll see

Da Vinci Code will be in Cannes.