How Jude Law went from golden boy of British cinema to Hollywood laughing stock - and back again.


Shortly before I meet Jude Law, I spy him in his underpants from afar. Not in person, I should add but in a series of photographs from the set of The New Pope, in which the 46-year-old actor's buff and manscaped pontiff is seen striding down the beach in snow-white Speedos. The images caused a stir online and, at his publicist's office in London a few days later, Law seems tickled by his newfound status as the internet's first "pilf".

"I mean, crikey," he chuckles. "Out there on the Venice Lido it just seemed so hilarious. It was a pure piss-take of James Bond, with the Pope in his pants."

Like its predecessor, 2016's The Young Pope, the series was created by Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian director of The Great Beauty, whom Law describes as "quite spontaneous". Two mornings earlier, he had found himself on a two-hour, 6am boat trip to the island of Ventotene - "real Il Postino territory" - because Sorrentino wanted a shot of him walking up a particular cobbled street in his vestments. Even so, as the end of his fifth decade approaches, Law seems to be taking it all in his stride, hunky-trunkies included.

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"You've got to be ready and willing," he says. "That said, I've also been in situations with directors I don't particularly trust - I won't say who - and you find yourself thinking, 'Oh God, I don't want to put that in your hands because I don't know how you'll use it.' So I've said no. And not just to nudity, also to taking a character or scene to a certain extreme. But providing the trust is there, I feel an actor should be brave."

Jude Law in The Young Pope. Photo / HBO.
Jude Law in The Young Pope. Photo / HBO.

Easy to say now. Law's 30s were treacherous: after his Best Actor Oscar nomination in 2004 for Cold Mountain, there was a career slump so steep that he became the butt of a joke in the following year's ceremony and enough scandals in his private life, including that notorious affair with the nanny, to pull focus from the roles that did work. But these days, settled with his girlfriend of four years, psychologist Phillipa Coan, and bouncing between blockbuster juggernauts and art-house gems, he radiates mid-life insouciance and pluck.

As a milestone in the Re-Jude-venation, Law's role last year, in Vox Lux, is a good case-in-point. The film is effectively A Star Is Born's evil twin, in which Law is a knockout as the bedraggled, battle-scarred manager of Natalie Portman's glitter-pop diva. It is a thrillingly ambitious film, to which Law pledged his allegiance for more than a year until its 30-year-old director, the former child actor Brady Corbet, could get his ducks lined up.

Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, and Natalie Portman. Photo / Getty Images.
Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, and Natalie Portman. Photo / Getty Images.

He shot it in two weeks between his stints as young Dumbledore in Fantastic Beasts 2 and Brie Larson's dastardly mentor in Captain Marvel. After that, he skedaddled to the Toronto set of Sean Durkin's forthcoming psychological thriller, The Nest. He also grinningly confirms he's had two meetings with Francis Ford Coppola about the 80-year-old master's long-delayed science-fiction epic, Megalopolis, for the lead of which he is thought to be first choice. Law says he feels like he's currently riding some cosmic upswing, and recalls a conversation he had over dinner with the late Mike Nichols many years ago, after the pair made Closer (also with Portman).

"I was a bit low, feeling like I wasn't getting the parts I wanted. And he told me, 'Just know if you're here, you're soon going to feel yourself swinging the other way."' This proved sound advice. "You've got to have faith in the pendulum."
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Law was the Southeast London lad who'd grown up obsessed with cinema and the theatre, who became British acting's golden boy overnight at 21, thanks to an award-winning turn in the National Theatre's 1994 revival of Jean Cocteau's Les Parents terribles, which featured a nude scene that makes The New Pope look prudish.

From there, it was a debonair skip and jump into the Primrose Hill Set, a glamorous, hard-partying clique of actors and artists who made the North London neighbourhood their home in the mid-90s. Law's future wife, Sadie Frost, was a fellow member: they met on the 1994 crime drama Shopping and married in 1997, four months to the day after Tony Blair moved into Downing St. At the time, the demi-monde shenanigans in NW3 felt like Britain's own Hollywood Babylon moment.

A young Sadie Frost and Jude Law. Photo / Getty Images.
A young Sadie Frost and Jude Law. Photo / Getty Images.

What Law remembers most is the "great sense of hope. Culturally, with everything from Trainspotting to Britpop and trip-hop, we were bursting at the seams. We had a prime minister who was inviting rock stars and film-makers into Number 10 and saying, 'What do you want me to do?' Suddenly it seemed like anything was possible, which I guess was how the UK felt as a whole."

Not that the wider resonance troubled him unduly at the time. "I was in my 20s so, like anyone that age, I was enjoying life. I was a father by the time I was 24, I had a lot of work, I was in love and suddenly I had cash in my pocket."

Everything seemed to go right at once. His eldest son, Rafferty, who is now 22, celebrated his first birthday on the set of The Talented Mr Ripley in Ischia, while his father filmed the role that would make him a star. Law twice turned down the part of the conceited golden boy Dickie Greenleaf, for fear he'd be typecast as a matinee idol, until the film's director, the late Anthony Minghella, ordered him to reconsider.

"When Anthony offered it to me for a third time, I said it didn't fit my career path and he told me, 'You don't have a career. So why don't you just do this and then you can play Quasimodo for the rest of your life, you idiot?' And I was like, 'Okay, fair enough.'"

It was Minghella who would later describe Law as "a true character actor struggling to get out of a beautiful body". Does he think that was rooted in Ripley? "I think what Anthony recognised was how I approached parts," he says.

"There's not a lot of me in any of the roles I play. I try to approach it from the outside - create a separate background, a childhood, a sense of self. As if it's me in a parallel universe."

Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley
Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley

Law compliments his 17-year-old Vox Lux co-star, the young British actress Raffey Cassidy, on her smart career path and looks back on some of his own early decisions with dismay.

"In truth, I'm amazed at how wide-eyed I was," he says. "All I knew when I started was that I really wanted to act." He found it impossible to tell the difference between good roles and bad. "You're thinking, 'They're going to pay me? Oh my God, I'll do it!' And there's always a sense - I mean, I still have it - that it could all stop at any minute. So the idea of saying no to something that's right in front of you seems like madness."

I ask him if he can pin the start of his own downswing on a particular role or career move: instead, he traces it to the end of his marriage to Frost, in 2003.

"We look back on it as very successful - we had three beautiful kids, we'd been together for a long time," he says. "But we were very different people in our 30s than our early 20s. The fact we're still bringing up our kids together almost 20 years later is testament to the fact we're still a family." (In addition to the couple's three children, Rafferty, Iris and Rudy, Law has two younger daughters, 9-year-old Sofia and 4-year-old Ada, with former partners.)

"But that was a turning point. It suddenly felt like the people who were peeking into my life were peeking in because I was having a bad day. And that's when it started to sour. You suddenly feel, like, well, 'Hang on. I didn't invite you to this party. When do I get to ask you to leave?'"

A formal opportunity came in 2014 when Law gave evidence at the News of the World phone-hacking trial, after it was discovered his voicemail messages had been infiltrated by the now-defunct tabloid. The hacking had peaked during Law's engagement to the actress Sienna Miller, which ended in 2005, after the nanny story broke. The tale had an irresistible Carry On quality that turned Law into a punchline, and the subject of a one-liner in Sex and the City 2 that always struck me as queasily gratuitous. (Samantha: "There ought to be a law against hiring a nanny who looks like that." Carrie: "Yeah, the Jude Law.")

He hasn't seen the film, but heard about the joke from his girlfriend at the time. "She said she saw it and was, like, 'Whaaat?"' he remembers.

Back then, he says, "Little things like that used to freeze my blood. I would be left absolutely crippled. But nowadays it just bounces off. I'm like, 'Is that all you've got?' I mean, I'm doing the thing I love, I have a happy home life, I'm very proud of my children, and I'm healthy, thank goodness. So if people are still throwing paper darts at me ... I mean, Christ! If that's what rocks their boat, let 'em do it."

Nevertheless, the one piece of advice he'd give his younger self is that it's important to "keep a large part of yourself private and let people fill in the gaps. Especially as an actor. I still don't feel like people really know me. And, you know, I don't want them to. That's something I say to my kids all the time. It's why I don't have Twitter, or an Instagram, or anything. Because I value that little bit that I've got left. I always say to my kids there are two of me. There's Jude who lives at home, then there's this other character who has accumulated all this stuff over the years."

He departs with a winning smile and a warm, two-handed shake. I'm still not entirely sure which Jude Law I met.

The Daily Telegraph

ROLE CALL
1994 The Talented Mr Ripley
1999 AI
2001 Cold Mountain
2003 Closer
2004 Sherlock Holmes
2009 Anna Karenina
2018 Captain Marvel