PAUL Bettany is a busy man. His two latest films - The Secret Life Of Bees and Inkheart - are about to hit cinemas within a week of each other and he's currently filming Darwin biopic Creation with his wife Jennifer Connelly.

When we get a moment to speak, he's en route from the Creation set in Wiltshire to meet Jennifer in London, where she's also busy promoting her latest film, a sci-fi adventure with Keanu Reeves.

"I'm just coming back from Bradford-On-Avon and if you can hear some weird noise in the background, it's my son Stellan watching Scooby Do on my iPhone," says Paul, apologetically.

The British actor, who's now based in New York, achieved leading man status in 2004's Wimbledon before playing a twisted monk in blockbuster The Da Vinci Code.

Despite working continuously since then, it's clear the most important role in his life now is being a father to his and Jennifer's two sons Kai, 11, and five-year-old Stellan.

"When my films are coming out, I have to do a lot of press and people tend to see you more and recognise you, but then I'm able to flip back into being a dad again, which is great," the 37-year-old says.

It was actually the couple's eldest son, Kai, who inspired Paul to take on his latest role in the film adaptation of the first book in Cornelia Funke's Inkworld trilogy.

"Kai was reading Inkheart himself when the script turned up and he was loving it, so in quite a cynical attempt to make him think I was cool, I decided to take the part."

Inkheart tells the story of 12-year-old Meggie Folchart and her bookbinder father Mo (Brendan Fraser), who has the power to 'read' fictional characters out of books who then swap places with real people.

Unfortunately, when reading aloud Inkheart, he read Meggie's mother into the book and out came the evil Capricorn and a host of other magical folk, including fire-eater Dustfinger (Paul), who tries to help find Meggie's mother.

"Dustfinger was 'read out' of the book about 12 years ago and he's been trying to get back in ever since," explains Paul.

"Some of the magical characters have adapted to the real world in quite a horrific way. Dustfinger gets by making money by performing his tricks on the street but he just wants to get home.

"He was a really good character to play, because you couldn't tell whether he was a goodie or baddie to begin with. He's a much more complicated goodie than we often get in modern children's stories."

To get into the character Paul had to learn to swing chains with flaming balls of fire on the end called poi - "YouTube it, it's quite amazing!" - but it's not a party trick he's planning to keep.

"What often happens with these things is the film ends and I've got so bored and frustrated at having tried to get something right for the film... it's the same with tennis. I made Wimbledon and the moment it was over I didn't play tennis again for five years because I was so tired."

Inkheart was shot on location in Italy, where Cornelia Funke had set the novel.

"We filmed in an abandoned walled city in Northern Italy and it was really spectacular and beautiful and it's so much nicer than green screen for actors, actually being somewhere on location."

The all-star cast was completed by Dame Helen Mirren, who plays Meggie's great aunt Elinor, Jim Broadbent as Inkheart's author Fenoglio and Andy Serkis as Capricorn.

"The shoot was lovely, it's a family film, so there was a family atmosphere, my kids were out there a lot and there were lots of dinners," Paul says.

"Iain Softley, who is a great director, also doubles as a really great chef and throws a fantastic party."

Helen Mirren was in the midst of all the Oscars buzz over her performance in The Queen during filming, but Paul says she was really down-to-earth and totally committed to her role in Inkheart.

"She was so studious. I turned up for my first day of rehearsals and she had this huge carrier bag with her and I said 'what's in the bag?' and she said 'my research'. And it was her research for the part in this kid's movie - I couldn't believe it!"

Since Inkheart is all about a father reading characters out of storybooks, it seems only natural to ask Paul who he would like to meet from a book.

"When I was younger, I sometimes fantasised about going into books, but I was a little afraid of the baddies coming out. The sort of books that I'm into as an adult... well, you wouldn't want to meet those characters," he says, laughing.

"What I would really like to do is read a biography of John Lennon and have him come back."

Now he's a father, Paul says he reads stories to his sons every night. Are there any favourites?

"Let me just ask him... Stelly, Stelly, what's your favourite book that we read at night?" the actor says to his son, before a little voice pipes up: "Tintin!"

"We've been reading a lot of Tintin," confirms Paul.

It seems only natural that Paul pursued an acting career when you consider that he was born into a theatre family in London.

After a number of small roles, he made a splash as a violent but intelligent thug in Gangster No. 1, before heading to Hollywood as Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight's Tale.

He became friends with Russell Crowe and met his future wife Jennifer on the set of A Beautiful Mind, before working with Russell again on Master And Commander.

Creation, due for release next year, will be the first time Paul's worked with Jennifer since they wed in 2003, a prospect he initially found quite scary.

"It has been peculiarly easy," he says of playing Jennifer's on-screen husband Charles Darwin.

"We were a little worried that it would be difficult to keep a straight face, but it was actually incredibly easy."

Filming on Creation wraps in Thailand in mid-December and for Paul, Christmas - and a well-earned break - can't come soon enough.

"I feel like I've been working too much," he admits.

"I'm going to finish this on December 14 and then I'm going to fly back to New York and sit down with my family for Christmas and not make any decisions until the New Year... about anything."