Megastar, pretty boy, tabloid villain; how much do we really know about Jude Law? ShortList’s Andrew Dickens shares a late breakfast with the reinvigorated actor
Jude Law says he’s never used moisturiser. As I sit, looking – OK, staring – at his annoyingly youthful, tanned and handsome face, I find this hard to believe. There are no blemishes, no notable lines, no spots, no lice, no unseemly birthmarks in the shape of a goat. The man is 40 years old with four children; he has no right to look this good.
I swallow my envy, along with a muesli-based smoothie that’s finally reached my mouth, five minutes after I started sucking on the straw with Dyson-esque force. Law laughs at the strain on my face (not the way to an ageless complexion) while I ask him how his fifth decade is treating him.
“How do I answer that without a mid-life crisis cliché?” he replies. “I’m probably a lot calmer, I hope. I’m probably a bit clearer in what I want to do, and why I can and can’t do it. I’m still very hungry. It’s not just work, but in my private life, too. There are lots of skills I want to learn. I got into rock-climbing about four years ago, so I really want to improve that. I also want to try to improve my backhand at tennis. My oldest son [16-year-old Rafferty] is much better than me, so I’ve got some lessons lined up. Instruments, things like that. All that stuff I’ve been saying I’m going to do – I’d better start doing it.”
It’s probably a bit early, or indeed misplaced, for Law to have a mid-life crisis. If life begins at 40, then judging by his ‘pre-natal’ experiences, he’s in for a hell of a ride; his latest film, Side Effects, is the 40th of a career that has seen him work with the likes of Scorsese, Spielberg and now, to complete the hat-trick of great directors whose surnames begin with ‘S’, Steven Soderbergh.
He’s definitely maturing, though, off the screen and on it. His recent roles, in films such as Anna Karenina and Hugo, are definitely more ‘Dad’ than ‘Jack The Lad’. Not that he was ever a one-trick pony. It’s a common misconception that Law spent the majority of his twenties and early thirties playing the heartthrob or cheeky ladies’ man.
The reality is he was appearing in films such as The Talented Mr Ripley, AI Artificial Intelligence and Cold Mountain; efforts that earned him three Golden Globe nominations, two Oscar nominations and a Bafta. He also played a genetically-perfect human in Gattaca, which perhaps explains his face. Rom-coms hardly got a look in.
“You’ve got to hold out a little more in your twenties for character-driven, richer roles as opposed to the ones you get offered most often, that of the dashing leading man,” he reasons. “I fought too hard at times. I felt like I was in a one-man war against being typecast. As you get older, if you prove your versatility, your parts tend to be more complex and varied. As a fan, I look at people’s careers and it’s in their forties when something really great gets delivered, so I’m quite excited about the next 10 or 20 years.“
Side Effects is a very good start. It’s almost impossible to describe the film without giving away important plot twists, so I’ll stick to the basics. Law plays a British psychiatrist in New York, who’s visited by a deeply-depressed patient (the outstanding Rooney Mara). When he prescribes her an anti-depressant recommended to him by Mara’s previous shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the side effects of the drug go beyond its immediate recipient. And that’s all you’re getting.
The film is a rare recent example of a Hitchcockian character-led thriller; the kind of film that constantly shifts your opinions of people and plot. There’s no crime syndicate after Law, no black-ops government agency hunting him down; there’s not even a shark.
“It’s my job to say that it’s a film that looks at our relationship with prescription drugs,” says Law, “but Soderbergh used that as a Trojan Horse to deliver a really exciting thriller. There’s a lot of wondering. Who’s sane and who isn’t sane? There is a biting point where you think, ‘Is he mad?’ That’s very Hitchcockian. My first question to Soderbergh was, ‘Do you want me to be the good guy or the bad guy? I can’t get it from the script.’ He said, ‘That’s what I want. I don’t know and I don’t know if I’ll ever know.’”
When you talk to Law about acting, his eyes light up. He’s a film addict, despite owning an “embarrassingly small” television, and it’s the big screen with which he’s most associated. However, his professional roots lie on stage.
Growing up in Lee Green in south-east London, the son of two comprehensive school teachers, his mother regularly took him to both cinemas and theatres. Believing Hollywood to be unreachable, Law started taking part in youth theatre before doing regular stage work and even earning a year with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“I suppose you drive into London and there’s the National Theatre,” he says. “You think ‘I want to work here’ and there’s a building, there’s a way in, there’s a door and maybe if you knock on it you might get in. But film, where’s that? That’s in Hollywood! Where’s that?”
Stage acting is something he’s never stopped doing. Though, in the words of Michael Caine (two of whose roles, in Alfie and Sleuth, Law has reprised), not a lot of people know that.
“I still do it because it’s terrifying, gives an incredible sense of achievement – when it works – and you get a great relationship with an audience,” Law explains. “I always say, and it’s probably very cheesy, that film is a director’s medium and theatre is an actor’s medium. The rehearsal process is amazing and then there’s this adrenaline from doing it every night.
“And there are some f*cking brilliant parts. I’m about to do Henry V and I keep going, ‘Is that my speech?’ You find that in a lot of theatre. There are some pretty good roles out there, so you can get a very full satisfaction [from playing them]. Like music, it’s a completely different dynamic when you see an act live. It’s the same kind of relationship. It’s quite addictive.”
There’s a period of silence while I battle the smoothie and he munches on scrambled egg and toast. I use it to ponder the man next to me. I’ve never met Law before but – like most people – I had an image in my head. It’s unavoidable, thanks to his relationship with the press.
His occasionally stormy marriage to Sadie Frost – the mother to three of his children – a high-profile relationship with Sienna Miller and an affair with his children’s nanny (for which he publicly apologised to Miller) brought him the reputation of philanderer extraordinaire and made him the British paparazzi’s No1 target in the early Noughties. The light that had appeared in Law’s eyes when we talked about treading the boards is extinguished when I mention that period.
“I don’t really want to get into this,” he says, “but in this country certain parts of the media have written things, sometimes true, mostly untrue, about me that have portrayed me in a certain way. People assume that I’ll be like that. You have to separate it and say, ‘Well I know it’s not me’. You learn to live with this dichotomy of who you are and who they’re saying you are. But that period was horrible. It was just boring. Boring, shallow and infuriating, because I couldn’t get my revenge.”
Does he think his celebrity ever overshadowed his work?
“I think it managed to for a little while, unfortunately. I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the swamp, the mire. To me it’s the shallowest form of judgement and analysis. I’m not interested in gutter-sniping; there’s too much good stuff going on. I was hoping to contribute to the good stuff and I felt as though I was suddenly pulled into this level of nonsense. I realised quickly I’d have to keep my head down and hope that the work would win out. It seems to have so far.”
He’s sat with his back to the café. Whether that’s a remnant of once-necessary behaviour or not, I have no idea, but he seems pretty relaxed. And if his star status has been clocked by anyone in the room, they’re not showing it. Nobody approaches him, nobody takes pictures, nobody points and giggles. One waitress even tries to take his scrambled eggs away before he’s finished. I mean, doesn’t she know who he is?
I’m beginning to wonder if anyone does. That public Jude Law, who some probably imagined jumping half-dressed out of a married woman’s bedroom window before running off to shoot a rom-com with Jennifer Aniston, has never existed. He’s polite (as that waitress will attest), humble and enthusiastic. He loves his family and loves acting, but he’s no raging thespian. His south London accent is ordinary, his attitude is ordinary. It’s just his life and face that aren’t.
He admits that things are easier now, but he’s clearly still wary of the press. I bring up his work with the Peace One Day movement in Afghanistan, where he made a film with the charity’s founder, Jeremy Gilley in 2007. He describes the inspiration, hope and devastation he witnessed there, but when I ask if he thinks famous people have a responsibility to highlight good causes, there is a note of caution, maybe even resentment.
“No, I don’t,” he says. “You can argue that, behind the scenes, there’s a responsibility to shine a light on areas that you really believe in, but I think you have to be careful because the media is a multi-headed monster. You can think you’re doing something really positive and be accused of abusing your celebrity, and I think that happened to me. So I see no obligation.”
I’m beginning to feel sorry for Jude Law. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Obviously it’s qualified; his life is pretty incredible; and I’m sure he doesn’t want my sympathy. But here’s a man who has a public image that’s as much the result of people’s appetite for gossip as his body of work; a man whose family was legally stalked for years. Now he even thinks twice about doing charity work for fear of the reaction.
That said, he’s not exhibiting fear when it comes to the future. Besides the plans for tennis and rock-climbing lessons, he has his own production company, which is working on two films and a television project, and says he’d like to transfer to the other side of the camera to direct.
“I think you have to know that you’ve found something that you can both do and live with for a good few years,” he says. “It’s a much longer experience than just turning up and playing a role. It might be one of those things that I’m developing now if things align. I’m certainly not developing stuff I’m going to be in – I can’t be in two of them because there are no parts – but I’d love to direct. Directing is a privilege and one of the last positive roles of a dictator. ‘Bring me 400 horses!’”
I mention the fact that he speaks French in Side Effects, and that his parents live there, and I ask if he’d be prepared to leave the comfort zone of his mother tongue.
“I’d be very keen to act a foreign language film, especially French,” he replies. The light in his eyes is back. “I like Jacques Audiard – especially Rust And Bone and A Prophet – and Michael Haneke, to me, is probably the great director of the moment. His last four or five films have been pretty much faultless. I’d learn Congolese for him.”
That’s some way to tackle a mid-life crisis. I think I’ll stick to buying a leather jacket.
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