Jude Law: From boyish leading man to character actor

Jude Law. Picture: Getty
Jude Law. Picture: Getty
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Jude Law impressed Steven Soderbergh with his stoicism, so has the eternally boyish star grown up? By Claire Black

People are talking about Jude Law’s breakthrough performance. Not the one that’s going to launch his career, that happened a long time ago – perhaps not quite when he was 12 and joined the National Youth Music Theatre, nor when he landed his first TV series, Families, aged 17, but certainly since he became a bona fide movie star in his early twenties. Law was Oscar-nominated twice before he turned 30. He’s only 40 now.

No, the breakthrough they’re talking about is the one in which Law is transformed from leading man to character actor, from decorous bauble to dramatic heavyweight. Depending on whether you’re a devotee of theatre or film, you will either think this is his appearance as Mat in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, for which he grew a beard as thick as his Irish accent, or his hairline-shaven Karenin, cuckold to Aaron Johnson’s poodleish Vronsky in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.

Either way, as Law enters his fourth decade, if he’s not quite breaking through into anything, he does seem to be ready for something a little different. In Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, a twisting, turning slightly incredible, thriller, he does and doesn’t get it.

Law plays Dr Jonathan Banks, an English psychiatrist in New York who I can only imagine would have a litany of patients dealing with erotic transference issues. Can you imagine breaking down into a snot-covered, emotional mess in front of Jude Law? Nope, me neither.

It’s not his fault, but Law remains a ridiculously handsome man. The blue eyes still twinkle. Yes, there are (tiny) bags beneath them now, but it makes no difference. That’s not to say Law isn’t compelling, though. For my money, he puts in the best performance of the movie, as Banks’s perfect life unravels. Law’s speciality is playing the smug, smart, full-of-himself sort just ripe for losing everything.

He was the shallow business executive on the cusp of a breakdown in I ♥ Huckabees. And, as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley he was a saxophone-playing, pork-pie-hat wearing dilettante who was so stupendously smug, I could, for at least a moment, understand why Tom Ripley whacked him on the head with an oar.

“People read Banks differently,” Law says. “I like that. When I read it on the page I wasn’t sure if he was the good guy or the bad guy. There’s an ambiguity to the moral stance of the film as a whole which is what I call generous filmmaking – not telling you what to think or feel but just offering the conversation to start.”

Soderbergh directed Law in Contagion, saying of him then that he was the least complaining actor he’d worked with. It may make him sound annoyingly saintly, but I’m interested in whether it indicates that Law remains enamoured with acting and the process of filmmaking?

“I am, yes,” he says instantly. “I mean there is always something to complain about because film sets can be incredibly boring as well as being the most exciting places on the planet. I also have to say that I don’t think I’ve worked with many people who do complain, so it’s not like everyone else is moaning around me and I sit like a little angel in the corner eating biccies and meditating. But I feel a sort of contentment. I like the process.

“People like to picture acting as a super-glamourous kind of job and it can be. It can also be hard work. It can be gruelling and the hours are long. But if you know that what’s the point of moaning about it? You know why you’re there and there are a lot harder jobs.”

That said, it’s not always been easy. On the personal side, Law has been a tabloid favourite for years. He may have behaved in ways that kept them busy with scoops and scandals, but the damages paid to him by News Corp for the repeated hacking of his phone over a period of three years signal that Law wasn’t his own worst enemy. On the professional side, it’s clear he’s not always been thrilled with the projects he’s been involved with either, although he’s far too discreet to name them.

“I have a weird relationship with this job where I sometimes don’t feel that I’m doing what I want to be doing,” he says. “I don’t always feel fulfilled and you don’t know why. Sometimes you’ve got to strip it down and ask why do I want to be doing this? It’s a job that you’re very fortunate to be doing so if you don’t love it then why do it?”

It seems he’s decided that, for now, he does love it and as well as the films already in pre-production - Dom Hemingway, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert – there are projects that Law can’t talk about because the ink’s not quite dry on the contracts. Taking to the stage as the king in Henry V under the direction of Michael Grandage later this year isn’t one of them, though.

Grandage directed Law as Hamlet back in 2009 and it’s clear that Law is up for a return to both Shakespeare and the stage. And surely he deserves plaudits for taking on something that has to be at least a little risky? He bats away any attempt to compliment him.

“I’m sure there are those out there who look at my work and say, ‘Hmm, he doesn’t take any risks,’ and then others who, I hope, think that I do. The risk is always personal. I hope what I’m always doing is trying different things which I do because I’m curious to see what I can find in myself and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of that.”