Dark roles coincidental for new action hero Paul Bettany

In his new 3-D action film "Priest," Paul Bettany plays a laconic warrior with a cross tattooed on his face, a man who channels divine power to combat the vampire menace that terrorizes the citizens of a post-apocalyptic realm.

But it's not entirely new territory for the English actor, whose resume includes "A Knight's Tale," "A Beautiful Mind" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World."

In last year's "Legion," Bettany starred as an avenging archangel determined to protect the life of an infant as doomsday dawns, and in the blockbuster "The Da Vinci Code," he portrayed a murderous albino monk whose extreme faith demands he whip himself bloody to atone for his sins.

So what exactly is it that draws Bettany to such dark, religious-themed fare?

"It's entirely coincidental," Bettany, 39, said in a recent interview. "But I swear to God, this is the last time. If they make a sequel to this, of course I'll do it, but it's the last time I take on a religious theme."

In person, Bettany is neither alienated loner nor overwrought zealot. Even after returning from a whirlwind trip to promote his latest movie in Moscow, the New York-based actor is relaxed and gracious, talking about the baby he's expecting with wife Jennifer Connelly and his newly minted status as an action star.

"There was a friend of mine who is in the business who said, 'Paul, you're never going to be an action hero.' I went, 'Right,' and went down to the gym. It was that sort of binary and punk-like," said the actor, who described his role in "Priest" as "almost entirely physical. You make a few decisions about the inner life of the character, but really, what it's about is how he looks, and he's got to look like an action hero. The discipline is getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning to go work out."

"Priest," which opens today, gives Bettany the opportunity to channel his inner tough guy. He plays one of an elite team of super soldiers who helped defeat the vampires in a bloody war but now finds himself living on the margins of a totalitarian society controlled by the church. After his niece (Lily Collins) is kidnapped, he teams up with a reckless lawman (Cam Gigandet) and another acolyte (Maggie Q) to find her, defying the orders of his superiors and risking excommunication. As he pursues the girl, he learns that the monsters are plotting to return from exile and resume their war against humanity.

Adapted from the graphic novels by Min-Woo Hyung and directed by Scott Charles Stewart ("Legion"), "Priest" taps into not just religious but cowboy iconography, creating a visual landscape that looks like "Blade Runner" viewed through the filter of the Old West.

Stewart said it was his intention to make the creatures frightening, and having an actor who could bring the right kind of intensity to the role of a man who's devoted his life to battling them was critical.

"I looked at 'Priest' as more of a science-fiction Western, and when thinking about that character, I thought of Paul because he kind of reminded me always of this young Eastwood," Stewart said. "He's got this really chiseled face and this thousand-yard stare and he's lean, and that just felt so appropriate."