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.”