Jude Law: 'I'm clear about the things I don't want to repeat and those I do'
Actor Jude Law addresses a press conference for the film Side Effects at the 63rd Berlin International Film Festival in Berlin on February 12th. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Once almost cloned in suave cad roles, Jude Law has gone a little edgier for Steven Soderbergh’s latest and perhaps last film – is he finally ageing gracefully, asks TARA BRADY
Where are we with Jude Law? In the middle of the last decade, the English actor – now sleekly 40 – was close to unavoidable. In 2006 he was, according to industry yardstick the Ulmer Scale, one of Hollywood’s top 10 most bankable stars. There was so much Law about that Chris Rock, hosting the 2005 Oscars, constructed a joke around the star’s dazzling ubiquity. Musing on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Alfie, Closer, The Aviator and I (Heart) Huckabees, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were cloning the poor fellow.
Then it all went a wee bit sour. The word went out that we could only take so many suave cads. Law was out. As he reaches his 40s, however, he now begins to seem a little like a treasure. He speaks carefully but appears comfortable in his well-preserved skin. It’s a treat to see him being figuratively torn apart in Steven Soderbergh’s breathless Hitchcockian melodrama Side Effects.
Did turning 40 change him? “Surprisingly quickly,” he says with a twinkle. “I mean I was amazed by the sudden change in myself. I felt calmer. Nothing rattles me any more. I feel like the pressure is off. I feel clearer about the things I don’t want to repeat and the things I do. Long may it last.”
Damn it anyway. You probably want to be told that Law comes across as a bit of a lounge lizard. In fact, he could hardly be more winning and down to earth. He seems genuinely shocked at the notion that an underling might operate the air-conditioning on his behalf. He answers the trickier questions with modest enthusiasm.
If we believe Soderbergh, Side Effects is to be the director’s final film for theatrical distribution. It’s an odd, intriguing piece of work. Law stars as a psychiatrist who, while caring for the disturbed Rooney Mara, finds his life rapidly disintegrating into all kinds of chaos. Part analysis of corruption in the pharmaceutical industry, part plot-hungry psycho-thriller, it bears all the signs of that director’s restless attitude to genre.
“He’s very intelligent, astute, mischievous, dark sometimes,” Law says. “He’s intriguing as a director because he operates the camera. He lights. He edits. The focus is very much on him. I don’t mean that in any kind of egotistical way. I just mean that the energy of the piece is all about him. He makes a lot of decisions then and there. He’s a master of the indie way.”
Law knows a bit about directors. He worked with Steven Spielberg on AI. He appeared in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. He’s also been on the other side of the megaphone from Wong Kar-wai, Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols.
“Yes, I’m very lucky,” he says. “I haven’t worked with anyone who is crap.” It all began in less-than-glamorous Lewisham. His parents, originally teachers, had a great interest in theatre and now run a drama school in France. One could argue that they gave David Jude Law a good start by granting him that nicely hip middle name. It is said it was selected partly in honour of a certain Beatles song and partly in tribute to Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure. Very stage friendly, sir.
“My parents will love you when I tell them that,” he says. “It was my mum’s idea. On my passport I have a different first name. Same with my sister.
“I’m called David after my father’s best friend, but I’ve only ever been called Jude at home. It’s just some weird thing my mum and dad did. I blame them for the acting. They were the instigators. They always loved film and theatre. They were always involved in amateur dramatics. They’ve since set up a professional company. They always knew I had a desire to get involved. So they let me get on with it when it happened. And the name helped.”
Law had barely reached his teens when he began taking roles at the National Youth Theatre. In 1990 (offering a gift to later “when they were young” TV clip shows) he secured a regular role on the ITV daytime soap opera Families. There was the occasional slow period. But it doesn’t look as if he was ever in danger of having to find a proper job.
“I don’t remember deciding to become an actor,” he says. “It’s been in my life as something I enjoy for as long as I can remember. I remember, as a kid, putting together stories for assembly and loving the comfort of it. I think also, when you’re a kid, when you’re told you’re good at something, you want to keep doing it.”
If we must name a breakout film then Brian Gilbert’s Wilde, released in 1997, will do as well as any other. Stephen Fry was just a little too over-excited as the titular Oscar. But Law was quite brilliantly horrible as the snobbish, petty, childish Lord Alfred Douglas. Suddenly, Law found himself trading in the era’s most saleable posh totty. He did period sleek in The Talented Mr Ripley. He did robot sleek in AI. Along the way, he secured two Oscar nominations: for Ripley and for Cold Mountain.
“Both years I was nominated I didn’t feel I had to get on some kind of Oscar wagon trail,” he says. “Maybe that’s because of who I was nominated against and they weren’t doing it either or maybe it just wasn’t done then. There were certain events you had to attend and things you had to be seen to be doing but now it’s a given that you’ll dedicate months of your life to this process.”
Culture of enthusiasm
In 1997, he married actor Sadie Frost and became one half of Cool Britannia’s most photographed couple. Alongside other gadflies such as Ewan McGregor, Sean Pertwee and Jonny Lee Miller, they formed a production company called Natural Nylon. There were good films such as eXistenZ. But there were more financial disappointments than hits. Indeed, the company turned into a bit of a punch bag for catty journalists.
“It did feel a little bit like that,” he says. “I think ambition and enthusiasm is embraced a lot more than it was then. I never thought I’d say this, but I think the culture of talent shows and reality shows has actually helped. I think all those endless searches for the best singer and the best chef and blah, blah, blah have encouraged that. The idea of getting out there and doing something doesn’t seem as ludicrous as it did 15 or 20 years ago.”
Somewhere around the Millennium’s turn, the home life of Frost and Law became a great British obsession. Divorce followed. In 2005, Law was forced to apologise to Sienna Miller, his then girlfriend, for that liaison with the nanny. Still, none of this justifies the level of intrusion that Law had endured. Both he and Miller were recently cited as victims of Fleet Street’s campaign of bugging and phone hacking. It must feel good having that particular hoopla behind him.
“Yes indeed,” he says in a resigned voice. “Although the scars from all that will be around forever. I suppose that’s what life does, doesn’t it? You move on, but you move on with that experience. Of course that experience has an effect. It’s altered me.”
He seems to be over it. One sensible strategy seems to have involved doing good work. The knives were sharpened when he took on the role of Hamlet at the Donmar theatre in 2009. The reviews were, however, largely ecstatic. His Dr Watson has helped Guy Ritchie’s steampunk Sherlock Holmes movies become sizable hits. He also seems to be getting on well with his four children.
“It’s extraordinary how many friends around my age are just embarking on the baby journey,” he laughs. “And I’m like: ‘I’m over guys. I’m done.’ I was 24 when I had my eldest. I’m glad I had all the energy of youth to do it. Getting up on Sunday mornings is hard. And it’s even harder now. I don’t know where you grew up in Ireland, but where I grew up having a kid young meant having a kid aged 16. At 24, well, at least I had a job and I could pay my own way.”
Have the youngest watched his films? Do they have any idea what he does? “They’ve watched AI and Sky Captain,” he says. “My young son really wants to see Enemy at the Gates because he heard it’s really good. But I’d feel a bit embarrassed sitting my children down to watch one of my films. I’d like it if one day, when I’m long gone, they’ll think ‘what did daddy do anyway?’ ” He beams. “They’ll see me as a young 22-year-old running around and say: ‘He looked alright once upon a time.’ ”
Side Effects opens Friday