Interview: Jude Law – Henry V, and the price of fame

16th November 2013

On my way to meet Jude Law I pass him twice. I first spot him on a massive poster on the tube platform, showing him as a geezer, selling his latest film Dom Hemingway, in which he plays a south London safe-breaker. Up the escalator, there he is on another poster. This time it’s a low-key shot of him doubtfully holding a crown and promoting Henry V, in which he’ll take the lead.

Opening within a fortnight of each other, these unrelated ventures form a striking advertisement for the 40-year-old actor’s versatility. From early on in his career he has been a star of stage and screen but the parts reconfirm his box-office prowess on both fronts. Coming on the back of shape-shifting film performances — as the cuckolded husband in Anna Karenina, a meddling psychiatrist in Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects and Watson in Sherlock Holmes – they provide further illustration of his chameleon powers.

“I’ve always been curious about changing direction and trying parts I’ve never tried before,” Law says as we settle at the back of a café for a coffee. “As soon as I’ve felt I was getting shepherded into a corner, I’ve wanted to come out and show another side. In this industry, people can think you’re only suitable for one type. I’ve wanted to show that they were wrong.”

He looks as you might expect these days. No longer the golden boy blessed with angelic features, much swooned over in The Talented Mr Ripley which, along with his bewitching turn as Lord Alfred Douglas in Wilde, was a crucial cinematic breakthrough. He’s more furrowed, baggier under the eyes, and his hairline is receding (“Tell me about it!” he laughs as I indicate my own balding bonce in sympathy); middle-age is coming knocking.

Does he care much? “It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “I’m not fresh-faced. I’m not up for the part of 20-year-olds, thank God. That’d be embarrassing. What I can do now is play some interesting 40-year-olds. Vanity has to be out of the way otherwise you’re only half doing it.”

Yet he is undeniably still handsome and photos barely catch the way he lights up a room. As soon as we move inside, heads turn. He’s in a black suit and tie — having just attended a funeral nearby — but hetalks animatedly from the moment we shake hands. A couple of women at another table ask if they can take a photo but he politely refuses. “Really sorry, I’m working,” he says, his voice husky. He exudes an aura of charm.

That’s pretty essential if you’re going to tackle Henry V, which forms the final play in Michael Grandage’s remarkable West End season. As Grandage, who directed him to acclaim in his Shakespearean debut as a hauntingly febrile Hamlet four years ago, observes: “One of the things a good Henry needs to have is the ability to show the men around him that he can pull it all together even if the odds are heavily stacked against them. In the middle of that mix is charisma. And Jude naturally brings that to the role.”

He also brings a passion for hard graft that is second to none. Law is single these days — though his three kids (Rafferty, Iris and Rudy) by his ex-wife Sadie Frost are living with him . “I’m in an 18-hour-a-day relationship with Henry,” he says, with a laugh. Over the past year he has read widely, watched the films of Olivier and Branagh in the role, and even consulted the former English rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio for a session in testosterone-charged leadership skills — “very useful”.

All this aims to make sense of a man who — despite the fact that Grandage will give his production a theatrical framing-device that allows the play to speak to the present while re-enacting the past — hails from a medieval world of divine right and a fledgling British state.

“There was a little part of me – and I’d be a liar if I didn’t say this — that thought ‘Well, I gave Hamlet a good stab, I can go into Henry with a little bit of confidence.’ Of course what you forget is that it’s a completely different part, completely different demands, you’re starting from scratch again — none of that held water whatsoever. Prior to rehearsals, I was thinking I was going to “find” a character — who he was. And it has become apparent that, similarly to Hamlet, he has to be you. You’ve got to find that man in you, be truthful in the moment, and allow those moments to culminate into an arc.”

If he can do that, he thinks the verse will come alive. It’s when productions don’t come from a place of emotional clarity that he believes Shakespeare sounds dated and difficult. Which is not to say they’re spelling anything out. “We don’t tell you whether to trust, admire, like or judge Henry – the choice is yours.” Does he find that flux daunting? “I assumed 10 years ago that things would get easier but it gets harder. You get more scared and more self-doubting.”

When asked, Law concedes that his fame and its downsides, have proved an invaluable route into the cares of kingship. “We made a quip early on that you could replace the word “ceremony” with celebrity,” he explains. “Henry says of ceremony that it causes people to drop in awe and fear — “wherein thou art less happy being fear’d than they in fearing”.”

He wept reading about the king. “I found it incredibly moving that this man looks around and thinks: ‘All this is on my shoulders and no one else is aware of that’. I didn’t read the part and think ‘My God he’s me’ but there’s an element of that.”

As he moved from Lewisham boy to Hollywood A-lister, Law has faced his own obstacles. In the Noughties, during his marriage to Frost, and then during his relationship with Sienna Miller, he was the subject of intrusive press coverage, including phone-hacking.

“No aspect of my private life was safe from intrusion by News Group newspapers, including the lives of my children and the people who work for me,” he said at the time he received damages at the start of 2012. “I made a conscious decision when I was young not to move to the States,” he says, looking back. “It has worked, staying in London, but it came at a price. The years that have been under discussion and have taken a few people into the courts of law were hard work. They were painful.”

Standing his ground, though, was a “wonderful lesson in the end. You realise we’re incredibly good at surviving. If you keep your head on your shoulders, and stay calm, it all blows over eventually.”

Currently, he is relishing the “life-affirming” stress and slog of a West End schedule. “It’s a wonderful way to spend a few months, it really is. I love film but ultimately in my heart I’m a theatre actor. I’m tentatively optimistic about it.”

After this — what? He’s a young writer in the forthcoming Wes Anderson film The Grand Budapest Hotel and a submarine commander in Kevin Macdonald’s next film Black Sea. As for theatre, he’d love a crack at some more Eugene O’Neill (his powerhouse turn in Anna Christie at the Donmar felt like a new departure), Chekhov and even some comedy.

As we part, he points me in the direction of Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech . “He talks about going down through history, how if they get through this they’ll be remembered. That’s all anyone wants, isn’t it? You want someone to talk well about you. For someone to say: “Oh I remember that bloke, he was a good man”. Or of an actor – ‘I saw him on stage once and he was magnificent!’”

First published in the Daily Telegraph, Nov 16, 2013


This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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