JUDE LAW is looking at art. I am looking at Jude Law.
He walks deliberately and unhurriedly through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as though he’s doling out each step as a treat for the early risers this November morning. When he squints to examine a work, a fine spray of crow’s-feet sprouts alongside his temples. His hair, a fading blond, has grown sparse along his widow’s peak—a testament that no man can survive the erosion of time.
But I think he would agree it’s all for the best, his handsome looks still intact but honeyed with age and freed from the burden of perfection. At 47, Law can now be mortal, a far more interesting place to be as an actor. “People talk about getting into your mid-40s as a turning point, and I really felt it—this sort of ahhh, ability to breathe,” he says. “It’s not about proving; it’s not about feeling like you need to be cutting edge. You take your time a little more and perhaps feel a little more confident in your own skin and your own little journey, as opposed to the impact you’re gonna make.”
How ironic, then, that his role as the charismatic, imperious American pontiff, Lenny Belardo, in HBO’s 2016 series The Young Pope and its sequel, The New Pope, leans into his beauty to the point of the absurd. Paolo Sorrentino envisioned an unlikely scenario for the show: The seat of political power in the Catholic Church, a space traditionally for the stooped and gray, would be filled by someone undeniably good-looking. This would be beauty as divine right, a blessing from the heavens that makes the pope float above the mortal coil. Sorrentino imagined an actor like Paul Newman; his wife suggested Law.
“Jude doesn’t like the fact that, for the world, he’s a sex symbol,” says Sorrentino. “I like to be provocative with him and say, ‘I have an idea about the fact that you are a beautiful man.’ He would love to kill me. But then he says, ‘Yes, I’ll do that.’ ” In Sorrentino’s hands, Law’s own persona becomes an added layer of significance, another opportunity for play. In a teaser for The New Pope, Law struts down the Lido wearing an ecclesiastical-white Speedo, prompting a collective call for smelling salts (and poppers) on the internet. The opening scene goes further: A comatose Lenny lies on a bed, completely naked save for a serviette covering his genitals like a fig leaf, as a nun sponges him down. Overcome by the sight, she masturbates on the couch.
It’s objectification with a smirk, the Holy Father as the ultimate unfulfillable fantasy. Law gamely embraces the part with a verve reminiscent of his youth. “What does that [boldness] come with?,” he says, laughing, as he recalls filming the scene with the teeny napkin. He pulls out his phone and shows me a photo of Sorrentino cheekily holding up his costume for the day. “With knowing that you’re getting older and you might as well make the most of it while you can, before bits fall off and you get gray and saggy, which is the way of all.” He goes on, “Living with those perceptions means that you’re playing with it, too.”
In Law’s youth, his beauty was blinding. His face had the kind of golden symmetry the ancient Greeks would have gilded with praise, a pulchritude that could inspire you to risk your life. It became a recurring theme in the roles he played, particularly in the late ’90s. In 1997’s Wilde, the titular writer (played by Stephen Fry) goes to prison for his affair with Law’s picturesque but talentless Bosie. In that same year’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, he plays an erratic, tempestuous prostitute whose murder sets the stage for the rest of the film. In Gattaca, also in 1997, he is a genetically ideal man; a suave, dancing robot gigolo in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001); and a Dorian Gray–like vampire in Immortality (1998).
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