Welcome to Career Watch, a vocational checkup of top actors and directors, and those who hope to get there. In this edition we take on Jude Law, who’s always been hard to pin down, and his title role in HBO Emmy Contender “The Young Pope” is no exception.
Bottom Line: As he embraces his mid-40s, Jude Law has morphed from British golden boy to globally bankable character actor. His range is wide, from tragic robot Gigolo Joe in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” to Robert Downey, Jr.’s comedy sidekick Dr. Watson in Guy Ritchie’s blockbuster “Sherlock Holmes” franchise. Still stunningly handsome, Law is gaining grit and gravitas as he gets older. But there’s a sense he’s still holding back.
Latest Misfires: Law took on evil power-monger Vortigern opposite Charlie Hunnam as Arthur in Ritchie’s attempt to similarly update “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” which went down in flames with both critics and audiences. Law was the best thing in the $150-million Warner Bros. write-off, which short-circuited on anachronistic over-pixellation. Another recent disappointment was literary biopic “Genius,” in which Law scenery-chewed as volatile writer Thomas Wolfe.
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Career Peaks: The child of two teachers, Law earned a Tony nomination for his first Broadway appearance opposite Kathleen Turner in the London import “Indiscretions,” and a second for the title role in “Hamlet.” Law earned a 1999 Supporting Actor nomination for Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” perfectly cast as the effortlessly charismatic European golden boy Dickie Greenleaf, adored by his girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) and both idolized and resented by his wannabe best friend Tom Ripley (Matt Damon). The next year, Law went American and scored a Best Actor nomination in the director’s “Cold Mountain” as a Civil War soldier who deserts the Confederacy to make the long walk home to his long-suffering wife (Nicole Kidman).
Law revealed his darker side in Sam Mendes’ “Road to Perdition” as creepily morbid photographer Maguire. He cameoed as matinee idol Errol Flynn in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” and played the loving inventor father in “Hugo.” He let his hair grow thin as the cuckolded Karenin in Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina,” bringing empathy to the role.
Latest award contender: Law broadened his fanbase by producing, with Paolo Sorrentino, the outrageous HBO drama series “The Young Pope,” in which he headlines as Archbishop of New York Lenny Belardo, who in a surprise Vatican conclave vote becomes Pontiff Pope Pious XIII. In the juiciest, most difficult role of his career, Law plays a brash New Yorker in spiritual crisis as a radically conservative Pope who believes that remaining shrouded in mystery is the source of his strength. But he is tested along the way, as he challenges his closest confederates, from scheming Cardinals to nurturing Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who raised him and best friend Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd) in an orphanage. Pious resists temptations thrown his way and successfully prays for a devout young woman (Ludivine Sagnier) to conceive a child, but drives others deep into the abyss.
Law made the leap into premium television with Oscar-winning Italian filmmaker Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) based only on the concept. “I had an idea of the overall world and character,” he said in a telephone interview from London. “Then we met. That was it. And he started writing. He puts it all the page: the mood, the music, even some of the visuals were there, and the humor, certainly.”
What Sorrentino wants, Sorrentino gets, said Law, who trusted his director: “It’s the same with all these big-personality writer-directors and creators. If you get on board, you want their whole input; you can’t take them in another direction. It’s clear from the get-go where they want to go. I knew the interpretive element spaces in the script were going to be filled and padded out by Paolo, who is a director who tells stories with a visual eye to the way he edits and constructs the story. His point of view is very present with where he puts the camera and how it moves, which points the whole drama in another direction, and adds irony or humor not there on the page.”
Law wrote himself a road map for his character “with a clear sense of the constructed inner workings of Lenny as a child up to the man you meet in the beginning of Episode One,” he said. “I was clear about how he used his ambiguities and contradictions at times to manipulate, and where his own self-doubt and questions lay.
“Lenny’s relishing the position he’s in, the opportunity to get some answers and also to settle into this position of power,” he said. “He doesn’t take it lightly. From great power comes great stillness and introspection. He believes in the moment in what he’s saying, but that may change. The most important journey he goes on is when he acknowledges his change of opinion on homosexuality in the last episode. It’s refreshing to have a character saying ‘I was wrong.'”
Law had an understanding of this orphan pope’s longing to find his parents. “It was close to my heart,” he said, “as both of my parents were orphans. So I had years of discussion and analysis and understanding of what that’s like and what it can do. Both of my folks are well-rounded and sound, loving human beings, but they come from complicated backgrounds, so I feel a kinship with Lenny in that way.”
While the extravagantly theatrical Pontiff costumes were reality based and Vatican tailors made the clothes, said Law, “Lenny chooses at the height of his process to delve into the Medieval ritual costumes of the Catholic Church. Costumes always help to create a character, and wearing those robes adds a whole other level.”
Law said his shift from movie to television actor was a struggle, as Sorrentino was shooting 10 episodes at Rome’s Cinecitta, with a multi-lingual crew, out of sequence. “You plan where you have been going and go back to rereading what you’ve done to keep up with where you are,” Law said. “I underestimated how hard-wired I was to the two-hour story — two months in we were a quarter of the way through, when I’d usually be thinking about the ending.”
Biggest Problem: Law is less a Hollywood marquee draw than a reliable chameleon, and is often wasted in such foreign-driven formula action fare as “Repo Men.”
Assets: The actor can be muscular and dangerous, or fey and complex. He’s capable of heroism (“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Enemy at the Gates,” “Black Sea”) and villainy (“I Heart Huckabees,” “King Arthur”). He can do comedy (“Spy,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), tragedy (“Anna Karenina,” “Closer”), romance (“The Holiday”), big-budget studio adventure (“Sherlock Holmes”), and costume drama (“Genius”), and is ready to grow and change as he ages.
Current Gossip: Law has sired five children with three partners — the first three with his ex-wife Sadie Frost, who engaged him in a protracted custody battle when they divorced in 2003. He was on and off again with his “Alfie” co-star Sienna Miller, and briefly dated actress Ruth Wilson; his latest girlfriend is psychologist Phillipa Coan.
Next Step: He’s taking on younger Angus Dumbledore in the next “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” as well as another franchise turn as Dr. Watson. And Law is willing to juggle his busy schedule to shoot Season Two of “The Young Pope.” “We’re still trying to work out what it is, to be honest,” Law said. “To make a 20-hour film with Paolo is how I saw it. What’s important is to go out and nail what he had in mind. I feel we did that. Paolo’s written a fantastic idea of the evolution of all the characters, and I’m confident there’s a little bit more of Lenny to show. I don’t know that I want to play him for the rest of my life. You‘d have to call him the old pope!”
Career Advice: Law should continue to seek artistic challenges where they come, whether theater, film or television, and accept fewer big-studio action vehicles like submarine adventure “Black Sea” and more demanding character work like “The Young Pope.” Law’s mystery is an asset — we want to tap into more of him.