Who Are You Calling Pretty Boy | Jude Law
From T, The New York Times Style Magazine‘s Holiday
Of course it was now impossible to be cross at him, as he slipped into a seat at his neighborhood cafe and picked up a menu. More disorienting was the fact that he did not altogether look like himself, or at least not the himself that usually appears on screen. The familiarly firm-jawed, elegantly lean star with the piercing blue eyes and the almost unfair level of handsomeness had been replaced by someone else, Off-Duty Jude. This version was heftier, less gorgeous and had a beard, something Law tends to grow between roles since it is the only time he gets to pick what happens to his hair, but which has the negative effect of obscuring his face. Also, O.D.J. was wearing a pair of verging-on-sloppy sweatpants. There was a reason for that, too: after a summer of not exercising and gorging on fattening food in order to gain weight for his next movie role, Law could no longer fit into any of his regular pants.
He ordered a plate of scrambled eggs and a chocolate milkshake. He does not seem vain, although most people probably would be if they’d been cast, as he was, as a perfect physical specimen in the 1997 science-fiction movie “Gattaca.” In any case, this is a time of change for him. This month, Law turns the interesting age of 40, and in his most recent film, an adaptation of “Anna Karenina” directed by Joe Wright, he plays Karenin, Anna’s morally severe, emotionally barren, piously dutiful, highly controlling pain in the neck of a husband — all Old Testament, no sex appeal. A few years ago, Law would have been everyone’s choice as Vronsky, Anna’s lover, the story’s romantic hero and shallow eye candy, but those days have passed, he said, and good riddance to them.
“In a weird way, it’s kind of a relief to think, ‘Oh, I know I’m not that young sort of pretty thing anymore,’ ” he said. “It’s quite nice talking about what it was like to be the young pretty thing, rather than being it.”
Law feels he has come through a period, too, when he did not pick his roles as wisely as he should have, or pay as much attention to what he wanted from his career. He was working constantly, but not necessarily with care, in part because he had a family to support and financial demands to meet. He had started looking at acting as just a job.
“Without sounding too pretentious, it’s difficult to remember that it’s an art form and you are, maybe, an artist and you have to make decisions on that level,” he said. “I feel kind of more confident, more settled as a human being, more settled in my own skin.” When he was younger, he said, he longed to be taken seriously but found that some of his roles did not allow him to do that. Being older, “you are allowed to be an actor, and the parts you get are more interesting.”
Playing Karenin was a welcome challenge. “It seemed to go against everything I have done, and it was fun to investigate the sides of a man that I hadn’t done before in any way, shape or form,” Law said. But it did not mean he was playing against type, he said, “because I always play against type; I have never played anyone like me.”
Wright told me that he had to work with Law to downplay his natural charisma and good looks. “It was a matter of suggesting that he did less and not more,” Wright said. “I had to stop him doing his ‘handsome face’ ” — raised eyebrows, furrowed brow, wide-open eyes. “It was about working with the mouth, but not expressing too much.”
Law changed his physical appearance further still. Keira Knightley, who plays Anna in the film, said she was “surprised when he chose to actually cut his hair that way and not just wear a wig.” (Karenin has an extremely receding hairline; Law, it turns out, does not.)
We were in Maida Vale, an elegant enclave in West London. People are used to seeing Law here, or maybe they didn’t recognize him that day, but no one seemed perturbed by the celebrity in their midst. He lives around the corner, near his ex-wife, the actress and fashion designer Sadie Frost, and they share custody of their three children — one week at his place, one week at hers. “I would not have been able to have the usual kind of paternal-role situation of one weekend every two weeks,” he said. “I enjoy it too much.” Everyone gets along so well that they take vacations together. “We made a decision very early on that whatever our opinion of each other — which I have to say is a good one — we were going to maintain the function of the family,” Law said. (He also has a young daughter in New York, the result of a brief affair, with whom he is in regular contact.)
But we know all that already. We also know about Law’s rocky relationship — including a failed engagement — with the actress Sienna Miller, whom he met on the set of “Alfie.” We know that during that relationship he had an affair with his children’s nanny. We know intimate details of many conversations he had, private things that happened with Frost, things to do with his kids. We know far too much, in fact.
None of that is Law’s fault. For several years in the 2000s, Law was permanently shadowed by the paparazzi. Not just shadowed; sometimes he would get to places and they would already be there, waiting for him. Most of them worked for the low-rent tabloid News of the World, which for a time seemed to be channeling Law’s life directly into its pages.
Most of the stories weren’t wholly accurate, but all were based on nuggets of truth, and some of the quotes seemed plucked from actual conversations.
“You suddenly start to go, ‘What, what, wait a minute. How do they know this? Where are they piecing this together from?’ ” he said, recalling some of the details of his life he saw in the press.
It was clear something was going on, but Law did not know what. He became paranoid. He had his house swept for bugs and his car searched for tracking devices. He mistrusted acquaintances, even wondered about friends and family members. “The weird thing is that you start taking things for granted,” he said. “Like I thought, Maybe this is just heightened interest in what I’m doing. This is what my life has become. This is my lot and I’ve got to deal with it.”
At the end of 2010, Law got a call from Scotland Yard. The police had uncovered thousands of pages of notes taken by an investigator hired by the News of the World to dig up dirt on public figures, they told him, and one of the names in the notes was Law’s.
“They just had piles of notes with my credit card details, phone numbers, contacts, friends’ contacts, parents’ phone numbers,” he said. They also had recordings of voicemail messages from and to him. “There was this awful afternoon when they came over with a tape recorder and said, ‘Could you verify that this is you?’ ”
None of this surprised him, really, but it made him feel less crazy. “To have other people go, ‘This is outrageous’ meant that I didn’t feel like this sort of mad, paranoid, dystopian lunatic saying, ‘the world’s following me — what’s going on?’ ” he recalled. “It felt, strangely, kind of justifying.”
Law sued the paper’s publisher, Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers. (The News of the World itself was shut down in disgrace by Murdoch in the summer of 2011.) Last January, Law settled for about $200,000, a settlement that included an abject apology from the company. Determined to bring that chapter of his life to a close, he decided not to testify at the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics, even though many fellow celebrities, including Hugh Grant, did. “I felt like this whole thing had been about trying to preserve and re-create some kind of privacy,” he said. “I didn’t want to be on TV talking about my life.”
Acting was in Law’s blood as a child in south London. (Students of British accents will notice that his is a notch or two less plummy than that of, say, Grant’s or Colin Firth’s.) His parents were teachers and members of a celebrated amateur drama company. “It was just a huge part of my childhood,” he said. “I would come down in the mornings, and half the furniture would be gone because they were using it as a set in a new play.” Becoming an actor was as natural as putting on a coat that had always been in his closet. “It wasn’t like I suddenly announced that I was going to do this. It was just what I always did, and what always felt kind of comfortable and familiar.”
Steven Soderbergh, who directed the forthcoming “Side Effects,” in which Law plays a psychiatrist caught up in a scandal involving prescription drugs, said that Law radiates a kind of calm, even after so many years in the business.
“We were halfway through ‘Side Effects’ when I realized that I have never heard him complain about any aspect of his life, any aspect of his work,” Soderbergh said. “He’s one of those people that kind of drains to an optimistic place in general, someone who’s very adept at adjusting his equilibrium so he can stay focused.”
Away from his job, Off-Duty Jude lives what seems to be a surprisingly normal life, based around family and a large network of friends. He is a hands-on dad. Recently, he said, he forbade his 16-year-old son to get a tattoo of what looked to be some song lyrics that might seem intense now but would not be so appealing in, say, 30 years. Law himself has tattoos, including one saying “Sexy Sadie,” from when he was with Frost, and another depicting a huddle of ants, an homage to the late Anthony Minghella, who directed him in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
“Well, you’ve got them,” Law recalled his son saying, to which he responded, “Yes, but you’ve got to know that what you get is going to be forever and I don’t think at 16 you know what forever is.”
He has been watching old movies with his son, who, Law said, is finally taking an interest in his father’s profession. (His children have not watched many of his movies.) He also collects art in what he described as a modest way, and this year is presenting the Turner Prize, given annually to a contemporary artist. He is active in Peace One Day, a campaign started by his friend Jeremy Gilley, and later that evening the three of us were driven together to a fund-raising auction for the group. Twenty-three artists, including Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley, had each been given an AK-47 and an assignment: Turn it into something that speaks to war and to peace.
In the car, Gilley was talking nonstop about Law; Law was talking nonstop about Gilley. (I was listening in the middle.) Peace One Day, Law explained, lobbied the United Nations until in 2001 it declared one day a year — Sept. 21 — a day of nonviolence and global cease-fire. In recent years Afghanistan agreed to mark it by laying down its weapons, an act that, for starters, has enabled relief organizations to enter war-torn territories and vaccinate millions of children.
Law speaks on behalf of the group, appears in its videos and has made several trips to Afghanistan and elsewhere with Gilley, lobbying N.G.O.’s, high-level United Nations officials and tribal leaders. “He understands every aspect of what Peace One Day does,” Gilley said. “Everyone we met had heard of him. It was a wonderful thing when negotiating, when trying to get the opportunity to show that peace was possible, to have Jude beside me. It’s opened a lot of doors.”
At the auction, Law talked to some of the artists, looked at some of the art and then made a few brief remarks about the group before fading anonymously into the crowd. The next day he was due to fly to the south of France for his next role, in “Dom Hemingway,” another out-of-character turn in which he was to put his new physique to good effect by playing a beefy, violent man with another bad haircut.
There was some media interest in Law at the auction, but it was respectful and not obnoxious, in keeping with the new phase of his life in which nobody is listening to his messages, nobody is following him around, and nobody is printing his every utterance in the tabloids.
“They had kind of stripped me and my relationships bare — there was nothing left to write,” Law said. “And there is only so much laundry one has, in the end, to be washed in public.”
How liberating, too, he said, to be that much older and not have to maintain an impossible image of perfection. Confronted with a rack of clothes at the photo shoot for this article, he told me his reaction had been, “Look, tell me what I’m wearing — I really don’t care.”
He added: “I don’t have a lot of time anymore for standing around choosing outfits. I’m too long in the tooth for that now.”