"Jude Law: 'I was a great champion of the human spirit. I lost that for a time'
Jude Law has been one of Britain's foremost actors. But with fame came intense press scrutiny of his private life. Now, at 38, he says he is looking forward to his 'most productive decade' – starting with a West End play
Jude Law: ‘I am in some sort of bracket with people who have won reality shows and chefs and socialites, and it’s just not something I see myself as’. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer
Jude Law can't speak about phone hacking. I'm told this by his publicist before the interview. And when I bring it up during our chat – it's the day after the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks have given testimonies to the Commons committee – Law smiles and makes a zipping action with his finger across his lips. "I just can't because I'm in legal proceedings and it's in various stages with various people, and part of that is classified, and they've promised to keep it quiet if I keep it quiet, so I've got to be really careful. But believe me, there's an awful lot I want to say, though. An awful lot."
But then he can't not speak about it either, because he's right at the very heart of it all. The peak phone-hacking years coincided with the peak Jude Law tabloid-mania years and he has not one case pending against News International but three. It's a very big deal, not just to him – his relationship with the tabloid press, and particularly News International, has both defined and circumscribed his life for much of the past decade – but a big deal, too, in terms of what will happen to Rupert Murdoch's media empire. His cases are the very crux of the story.
We're in an empty meeting room at the Jerwood Space in south London, where Law is in the thick of rehearsals for his new play, an Eugene O'Neill revival, Anna Christie. It starts at the Donmar Warehouse this week, and his head is full of it: it's a gritty love story set in 1920 between a prostitute and a ship's stoker. "I've got really sucked into the world of the play," he says. "So it's very much get up, go to rehearse, go home, learn lines, go to bed." And watch the news. He's right in the middle of one drama – he plays the ship's stoker, Mat Burke – but, of course, he can't help but be compelled by the other thrilling spectacle playing itself out on the television news. "I mean, of course I'm watching it," he says. "Who isn't?"
It's just so dramatic, I say, isn't it?
"It's a movie. It's a scene from a movie."
And you've already got your role sorted, I say, meaning that, of course, if it ever was a film, he could simply play himself. But he doesn't catch my drift.
"James, you mean?" And then realises his mistake. "Oh! You mean myself? Oh dear. I can't believe I said that." But, of course, he'd be brilliant as James Murdoch. I'm not sure why I didn't think of it before. He's specialised in characters who have an edge, a slightly slippery elusiveness, and there are obvious overtones of what is still, perhaps, his most famous role – the role that saw him burst into public consciousness in Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley in 1999: the heir to a shipping fortune, Dickie Greenleaf. There really is more than a touch of Dickie Greenleaf to James Murdoch, isn't there, I say.
"Oh dear," he says. "I've got to be really careful what I say here."
He's obviously itching to speak about it. Phone hacking, privacy, press intrusion – these are matters that he has thought long and hard about, but because he can't go into detail, he ends up delivering slightly gnomic one-liners. "The thing is," he says, "it involves us all." What do you mean? "It involves us all. All of us. That's the closest I can come to talking about it. We're all involved. We're all complicit. On some level, if you think about what has happened and what will come out in the end. I think it's easy to think that things are mending if we think, 'Oh things are over now.' Or: 'It's their fault.' But we're all complicit."
Do you think it's just the beginning, I say. "I hope it's just the beginning." And he makes the zipping action across his lips again. "I don't want to quote myself so I'm going to quote someone else. There was an interesting Thought for the Day on Radio 4 yesterday. I came in halfway through so I don't know who it was, but he was talking about Murdoch being sorry. No, not being sorry, he was saying that he was asking for atonement. He was asking for forgiveness. And the guy said, he hasn't been judged yet. He hasn't any right to ask for that yet because we still have to judge him. And judgment is what this whole thing is about. They judge people. Those papers have judged people. I have been judged. They have yet to all be judged, and I hope they are ready for it."
He's referring, of course, to the time when, for a while, he was one half of the most glamorous couple on earth, the Jude Law-Sienna Miller coupling, a gift to tabloid editors and celebrity magazines everywhere. He was the Oscar-nominated, chisel-jawed actor (he was shortlisted for his part in The Talented Mr Ripley and Minghella's next film, Cold Mountain), and Miller, whose face launched a million boho skirts, was his golden-haired consort. They seemed to embody beauty and talent and a certain slightly louche London-LA lifestyle at the heart of the Primrose Hill-Hollywood Hills nexus, right up until the News of the World printed a story which detailed how Law had had an affair with his children's nanny and all tabloid hell broke loose. Miller left. Law made a public apology. Soap opera ensued. And then just as that was dying down, in 2009, another story in the News of the World detailed he'd had a fling with an American model, Samantha Burke, who was subsequently carrying his child.
They're obviously not incidents that Law is particularly proud of, but they're also not incidents which have got anything to do with his day job – acting – and what the phone-hacking case seems to have done, I say, is to throw open the whole concept of privacy. Of precisely who is entitled to a private life and what that means. "Well, again I use this word judgment. It's someone thinking that they have the right to have a moral judgment when a) there is no recourse. I'm not going to be able to morally judge them back and say, 'Well, let me look at your life.' And b) is that healthy? For everyone reading that… what about the person reading that who's done a similar thing. You know it's part of life. Don't make moral judgments, just give me some information. Give me some facts. Get off my page."
Jude Law shot at the Jerwood Space in London. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer
The new play, Anna Christie, is part of the final season of the Donmar's artistic director, Michael Grandage, who in 2009 directed Law in Hamlet, a role that saw him feted by the critics and nominated for an Olivier award. He started out in the theatre and was a successful stage actor long before he was an international film star: he was nominated for his first Olivier (best newcomer) for his first West End play, Les Parents Terribles.
I wonder if he's nostalgic for that period of his life: when he had success without this all-encompassing fame. "I don't really look back, if I'm honest. I've always been someone who's really tried to live in the here and now. My memory isn't very good so maybe that's why, but it just seems like I've been living this life, my current chapter, for a really long time and I don't really remember what it was like before. It's just been sort of ingrained in me. What I deal with day to day."
He has a whole slew of new films coming out later in the year, but he was also determined to go back to the theatre.
"I was still very excited by my experience of playing Hamlet and was keen to keep the relationship with the theatre up. I'd really dropped the baton and had a gap of about seven years and I didn't want that to happen again."
So he's back and while Hamlet was a great triumph, it was overshadowed in some ways by the Samantha Burke episode ("Jude knows he's been a Bard boy" was one of the headlines), and this time around, it's inevitable that phone hacking will also cast a certain light. But then the play, he says, and his character in particular, is about youth and experience, and loss of innocence, and the gaining of knowledge, themes which are close to his heart too, and which have preoccupied him for much of the last few years.
His 30s (he's 38 now) have been, at best, a mixed time. "I think everyone goes through chapters in their life and there was a time when I wasn't feeling terribly positive about what I was contributing to film, or wasn't feeling as if I was going in the direction I wanted and I re-evaluated what I was doing. I've never been a fan of just doing. I like to do things for a reason."
As a young man, he was a self-described idealist. "I was an optimist, a great champion of the human spirit. And I lost that for a time. I feel like I've regained a bit of that in the last few years but there was a period of my life in which I had a very low opinion of people in general."
What, I say? Everybody? The entire human race?
"Well, yeah. I just felt a little bit down on what people seemed to be interested in. And down on what the general consensus of what the interesting things were. It was just so far away from what I found interesting and what I was interested in and what I found fascinating about people. It just felt like this slurry pit."
And at the heart of the slurry pit was the tabloid press. It's hard to overstate how profoundly his experience of the press seems to have affected his life. And how profoundly, potentially, his life could now influence the press. Because the three cases he is bringing against News International are some of the most crucial, and possibly damaging, of them all. The first accuses the News of the World of tapping his and his assistant's phone in New York in 2003: the first case to be brought that is alleged to have happened on US soil and which opens the way for News International to be prosecuted in the US, potentially jeopardising Murdoch's entire American news operation. Another is against the Sunfor allegedly hacking into his phone in 2005 and 2006 – when Rebekah Brooks was editor – and which suggests the problem went much wider than just the News of the World. And the third is against the News of the World which has been selected to be a test case in a civil litigation action brought by 30 public figures. His case was selected to determine how far up the chain of command the decision went: Law's QC alleges it was a "very senior News of the World executive" who authorised Law's phone to be hacked.
But it goes even deeper than that. When looking through old cuttings, I find an interview that Jude Law did with the Observer in 2003 before any of this came to light, in which he talked about two instances in which he called the police to the house he was then sharing with his wife, Sadie Frost, and their children, and which subsequently ended up in the newspapers. And another instance in which his decree nisi was sent directly from the high court to a British tabloid "before it was sent to me". It was, he claimed, "the high court and then the police selling stories, so how are you going to live in the country and feel safe?"
I read back his quotes to him and he nods. "That's right, yeah. That's where I've been. That's where a lot of people in this country have been living for years."
You really felt like the establishment wasn't working? That it was corrupt?
"Yes. Truly. That's certainly how I felt. I was aware back then that certain avenues, even the most official ones, would ultimately lead to media exposure so you were left with a situation where you don't know quite where to go. I've been in scenarios, several times, often involved in being chased, often involved being stalked, having my privacy infringed upon, and not been able to go to the police because having done it in the past I knew that those stories would then end up being leaked.
"Having said that, I've also been treated really well by the police where they've been really respectful and really helpful, so it's clearly individuals."
But it's a fundamental pillar of democracy, I say, to have a police force that you can trust…
"Apparently, yes. It's funny, isn't it? It does come down to fundamentals. I still believe in the democracy of our parliament. Even though none of it has clearly been working. But I still believe in it, I have to. I also, for the first time for a long time, wouldn't want to live anywhere else, even though it seems like the pillars of our institutions are crumbling. I went through a long period of feeling really uncomfortable in this country, in this town in particular, just feeling really harassed and chased, and really hating it.
"And I couldn't move because my children are growing up here, and their mum lives here, and we've got a really good setup where we have a very healthy 50-50 custody arrangement and we live close by, so moving abroad was just impossible. But I came back in 2009 from New York – I'd been living there for three months with the kids – and I completely fell in love with London again."
What he's done, he says, is to "work out a way around the system". There's been a process of renegotiation, of finding a way of being in the city with his children – Rafferty, 14, Iris, 10, and Rudy, eight (he's also supporting Sophia, 22 months, his daughter born to Samantha Burke in the US). "I've created a haven that works for me and my family that hasn't necessarily involved the law. That's just my way of doing things. Having said that, it's not like I've been a prisoner in my home. I don't want some sort of sob story. I still enjoy a very normal life with my kids. We use trains and buses and that's often the best way. If you build up some sort of psychological bubble around you, I think you're asking for trouble."
In some ways, it sounds as if Law has got his midlife crisis out of the way early. But then he's done everything early. Growing up in Blackheath, south-east London, with his teacher parents and an older sister, he joined his first theatre at 12 – the National Youth Music Theatre – left school at 17 to film his first television series, Families, and had his first child by the age of 23.
"People often say that to me [that he did things early]. Especially about being a father, but it was just the way I did it. It never felt like an issue at the time… But I really feel that the years between 40 and 50 are going to be the 10 most productive years of my life. It's just a great age to be an actor. It's a bit of a minefield being 20 because you've got all these aspirations and ideals. Well, I had. I had all these aspirations and artistic ideas that I wanted to fulfil. And then you get cynical. And for me, my 30s have been about re-evaluating what I'm doing. And my 40s and 50s, I think, will be a really interesting time. I want to get back into production, which I've done a bit of, and I've always been interested in directing and my kids are all at an age where I don't have to be tied to London necessarily."
He wasn't even sure, for a time, if he wanted to carry on being an actor. "But I'm a father and I have to provide and that's my job." He was named after Jude the Obscure ("my mum just liked the book") and what he wanted more than anything was to be recognised by the world "but I don't know if I do any more. I did and I think any performer who claims not to have, at some point in their career, is probably telling a fib. But there's part of you, or at least part of me, where you think, 'Oh God. What will people make of this?' But it doesn't have a bearing on why you're doing it. It certainly didn't when I was doing Hamlet.
"It was the doing it which was the achievement. It was a very inner experience."
As a younger man, Law struggled against being defined by his looks. At 38, even heavily muffled by the beard he's been growing for Anna Christie, he's still an undeniably handsome man. But there's a wider range of roles available to him now: he had the looks of a romantic lead, but always hankered after the character roles. "I just think that I felt a bit disappointed that that's what people wanted me to be, whereas I felt that I had lots of things to offer so I wanted to choose roles that went against it."
Growing older has possibly come as something of a relief. His new films due out later this year include Anna Karenina, with a new script by Tom Stoppard, in which he plays not dashing Vronsky, but cuckolded Karenin opposite Keira Knightley. He is also reunited with two of the cast of The Talented Mr Ripley – Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow – in a hotly anticipated Steven Soderbergh thriller about a killer virus, Contagion.
And his role in Anna Christie has made him think about ageing too. "I guess part of it is simply wising up. Growing up. There's an interesting scene in the play where my character criticises his father, Chris, because he blames the sea for making his life a misery, whereas Mat loves the sea, the sea is everything. You rove the earth, he says, and you don't give a damn for landlubbers, and yet what you're actually hearing is the innocence of youth. And what's happened to Chris is that life has happened to him. He's lost his wife, he's lost his brothers, he's lost his father… life has an effect on us all. It's why we don't look younger as we get older."
In Law's case, getting older, has been accompanied by a rather enforced getting of wisdom. It's been a long, hard, public process, although I'd read one interview in which he'd described the washing of his dirty laundry in public as "liberating" in some ways. "Well, what else are you going to do? I mean, it's either going to force you into a hole and you're going to be a hermit and you're going to be in some sort of state of shame. Or you are going to go, oh well, all right, then. So what? Well, sorry. Am I saying sorry? I don't know. It also makes you look at things on a broader level. Don't tell me there isn't anyone who has done things they regret, or done things they shouldn't have. Or done things that are silly. Or said silly things. That's life, right? That's what's wonderful about life. We all do this stuff we shouldn't do. And then we say, I won't do that again. I mean, so be it."
The other effect of it has been that he's wary not just of the press, and interviews, but of talking about anything; his life, his work. "I just want to be seen doing my work and I'm just a bit tired of being talked about for what I'm wearing, or what I'm not wearing, or what my hairline is doing, or who I've been seen with. Any of that. Jesus. I don't want any of this. I don't even want to talk about my acting, because I think the acting should just talk for itself." He even doesn't really want to talk about the causes he supports.
I've met Law before, on two occasions, when he's come out to support the work of the Belarus Free Theatre and its artistic director, our mutual friend, the dynamic Natalia Kaliada. On both occasions, he was notably unstarry, simply turning up when asked and doing his best to be supportive in a commendably low-key way. He just doesn't seem to play the A-list celeb, but then he "hates the word celebrity… which means that I am in some sort of messy, mushy bracket with people who have won reality shows and chefs and socialites, and it's just not something I see myself as. I don't invite people into my home and I've never courted the press unless I'm talking to them about some work I'm doing. And I don't do that very much. I used to talk to the press about things like this and I even find that pretty hard now, because there's just been so much cynicism. Why are you banging your drum about this? Or why are you going on about that?"
His other big cause is Peace One Day, an organisation which is attempting to make 21 September recognised as a day of peace throughout the world. In many ways it's an outlandishly ambitious idea, dreamed up by an Englishman called Jeremy Gilley. Law agreed to make a video appeal for Gilley back in 2007 and ended up travelling out to Afghanistan with him to try and make the ceasefire actually happen. What's interesting to me about this is that for all Law's world-weariness, his talk of the "slurry pit" and the self-described "cynicism" that has marked his 30s, this is not the action of a cynic. Two weeks ago, at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, I heard Gilley talk about how he came to set up Peace One Day – a preposterous tale of how he'd had this idea "because basically I was really worried about humanity" and had tried to organise the whole thing from a bedroom in his mum's house. And how for a decade he struggled to get anyone to pay any attention to it at all, until, that is, he got Law involved.
Gilley is an idealist. A dreamer through and through. And to be sucked into his world, I say, it seems quite obvious to me, that you'd have to be something of a dreamer too. And in some ways, it seems as if the trip marked Law's return to himself. "It's interesting. Because I've never really put those pieces together like that," he says. "But yes." And he's rightly proud of the trip: in 2007, Peace One Day managed to broker a one-day ceasefire between the Taliban and UN forces and to arrange for 1.4 million children to be inoculated against polio on that day. A similar result was achieved in 2009 too.
But then he's wary again. "I have to be careful. I don't want to be too highfalutin. It's also been that working with people in my field has reignited the possibilities of what you can do in acting. I've just had this fantastic experience in Cannes, judging these incredible films from around the world. They were just great pieces of art and it really made me believe in the medium all over again."
If Afghanistan seems to have been one turning point in his life, the phone-hacking cases will almost certainly be another. "I think people in the public eye are often seen as cosseted and spoiled. This idea of what have you got to complain about? But when you come down to it, it's basic civil rights and basic demands of privacy. The argument that 'We write about you so we make you money' is just not true. And what blew this all open was the public outcry about the appalling abuse of people in heightened places of anguish. And yet in a way, people's privacy being invaded, whoever they are, is always the same issue. And if you turn it around and say, 'Well, would you like that done to you?', you really wouldn't. Because the bottom line is that it's your life being invaded, being used to make stories, not to report stories, but to make stories."
So, does it constitute a revolution, I ask him, as some people have suggested? "We'll have to wait and see, won't we? You never know when you're in the middle of something. You can only tell later." And the same probably applies to him too. It's yet to be seen what the net effect of this will be on his life. But he could be right – his 40s may well be his best years yet."