At 43 years of age, Jude Law has the meaning of life figured out: “It’s about having a family around you and being yourself in that family and learning who you are through it. I mean, what else is there, to be honest?” he says from London, where after throwing himself into eight months of intense production on the new HBO series The Young Pope he is taking some well-deserved time off. “I think without children and family in your life, you’re not living. It’s a wonderful, vital element.”
The father of five is certainly in a unique position to bear witness to life through all its stages, but part of this realization may stem from the fact that, for the past year, Law has donned the slippers of a man that many look to for an answer to that very question.
In The Young Pope, the English actor gives the performance of his life as the newly elected, youngest pontiff in history, Pius XIII: An American, chain-smoking, Cherry Coke Zero-swigging religious leader, lacking in both humility and diplomacy. Directed by Academy Award-winner Paolo Sorrentino (who wrote and directed The Great Beauty), it’s a sumptuous look behind the scenes of the Vatican and a probe into the big questions plaguing most people—religious or not.
Though the material affords Law an opportunity to truly showcase his talent, the initial selling point for the actor was Sorrentino. “I loved how he told human, small stories, but it has echoes of grandeur and seems to really capture bigger issues whether they be about getting old or feeling relevant in the world,” he says. “Big, big issues we all understand and we all ask ourselves.”
Playing the father figure to a following of more than a billion people is certainly no small task. To prepare for his role, Law’s first instinct was to delve into the history of Catholicism. “I have great interest in faith and how faith evolves through different influences, but I had very little solid understanding of the Catholic faith,” he says. “So I read the history of the Vatican. I read the history of the popes and the papal order. I read around the history of the church. It was a never-ending library. ... I didn’t really feel like it was getting me particularly any closer to this character.”
Sorrentino advised the actor to instead focus on Lenny Belardo, the orphan abandoned by his parents at 7 years old, who rises to the highest order at the age of 47 and now seems to be looking for a direct line to God. “Lenny is a contradiction,” muses Law. “He’s someone who is coming to terms with his place as an orphan and as someone who feels unloved. And he’s also someone who has tried to find answers his whole life through a devout faith and through a very dogmatic approach to faith. ... He’s wonderfully rounded, so his manipulative, mischievous, maneuvering self is countered by a vulnerable, insecure and raw self.”
It’s a paradoxical description of a character who in the first two episodes comes across as a narcissistic master manipulator, eager to move the people around him as if they were mere pawns on a chessboard. So calculating is the main character that the series quickly earned the nickname “House of Cardinals” when it premiered at Venice Film Festival last September. With Law’s first foray into series television since early in his career, he is now getting used to the art of promoting a project without the ability to share the entire arc. “When I discuss a character, usually everyone’s seen the whole piece,” he says. “Of course, you’ve only really seen 20 percent, so I know a lot more about his inner workings, which I hope people will stick with. ... I have a whole sense of who he is as a man. And therefore a great sense of—I suppose—recognition of his vulnerabilities.”
“I love how age has such an influence on the job I do. The career you’re having as a 40-year-old actor is completely different than you have as a 20-year-old actor.”
Since he started acting in the late ’80s, Law has never lacked for complex roles, many of which have garnered him accolades. His portrayal of self-absorbed rich kid Dickie Greenleaf in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley earned him his first Academy Award nomination and his role as a Confederate soldier struggling to return to his wife in Cold Mountain—also directed by Minghella—gave him his second Oscar nod. But while he continued to show his versatility on screen and stage, the actor long felt a frustration with which part of his efforts were being praised. “I think for me, personally, for a few years I felt I was doing some really good work as a young actor, and it seemed people just wanted to talk about what I look like, as opposed to the work I was doing.” A few years ago, Law says, he made a concerted effort to show another side of himself as an actor, playing the cold Count Alexei Karenin in Joe Wright’s stylized version of Anna Karenina, a deadbeat dad making amends with his daughter in Dom Hemingway and a manic submarine captain in the dark disaster thriller Black Sea. “I was trying to stretch out and play parts that I felt like I’ve never touched on before and sort of go against people’s opinions, or what I assume people’s opinions of me as an actor were,” he says.
Though as handsome as ever, the focus seems to finally have shifted to his work. “I guess, you get into [your] mid-40s, as a man anyway, they don’t want to seem to emphasize that quite as much,” he says. He then chuckles: “Or maybe the emphasis isn’t there anymore because there are other young, good-looking types coming along, and they’re probably more interesting to write about.”
To say Law seems at peace with this new era of his life would be an understatement. “I love how age has such an influence on the job I do,” he says. “The career you’re having as a 40-year-old actor is completely different than you have as a 20-year-old actor. ... I could never have played Lenny when I was 25 because there’s a certain amount of experience he has that a 45-year-old has that a 25-year-old doesn’t have.”
There’s no telling if Law has settled down with age, but after enduring nearly constant scrutiny from the tabloid press for more than a decade, the actor cops to now at least being better at playing the game. “There are ways in which I can have people think that I’m public property without being,” he says. “You learn to play the game to a degree, where you go, ‘Okay. I give them that, but they’ll never have this.’” Right now, “this” is 30-year-old psychologist Phillipa Coan, Law’s girlfriend of more than a year, with whom he enjoys a relationship mostly out of the limelight. “She’s mine and no one else’s,” he says. “I’m very, very happy. A large part of that is the fact that she’s a very private person. And our relationship is a very private thing, and I think part of the fact it works so well is exactly because of that.”
And while he is equally protective of his kids, he has no problems discussing his own feelings about fatherhood. “I love being a dad,” he says. “It’s emotional and exhausting. But it’s also wonderful.” He suspects his oldest children are headed in his footsteps but is careful not to put pressure on them or speak on their behalf—which, of course, doesn’t mean that he would lack fatherly advice, should they choose a career in the arts. “I would certainly be very opinionated if they entered into this business, absolutely. Because I had experience in it. Would they want to hear it? I don’t know,” he laughs.
When they’re ready to listen, he’ll be there. “Teenagers are going through such a hellish time, and the people they love the most, they’re going to get it in the neck. It’s like a rite of passage. When they come out of it—hopefully unscathed, a little wiser—and they return to the fold and sort of realize you’re not the ogre they thought you were, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Photo Assistants: Zenith Richards and John Griffith | Prop Assistant: Jon Gillen | Fashion Assistant: Helena Kontos