It was recently revealed that HBO/Sky and director Paolo Sorrentino will be offering up a follow-up to “The Young Pope” called “The New Pope,” which will move on from Jude Law’s character of Lenny Belardo, a conservative American pontiff. But the actor’s charismatic turn still puts him in the mix for possible Emmy recognition in the limited series category this year. Law recently spoke to Variety about building his character, luxuriating in Pope-wear and how the current political climate could fuel a second season.
The performance is so detailed I’ve been wondering if you modeled it on anyone in particular. Someone you might know or maybe someone you just observed.
The interesting thing about Lenny was he was a construct that came very much after I already had the job. I was just really excited at the prospect of working with Paolo. He pitched this rough idea and I was sort of in already. And then the scripts started to come through. So it wasn’t like he was there on the page and I had agreed to play this part. And obviously it wasn’t for a good month afterwards when I finally had all 10 hours in front of me that I realized what a character this was. It was one of those times where so much detail came from what other people said about him in the piece. It was just putting together a web, a network, that led him right back to his childhood for me, to kind of construct and understand who exactly he was. All those little nuances really came from that detail that was in the script writing. If I’m honest, now that I’m discussing it in hindsight, I think there are elements of him that were Paolo himself. He also just seemed to sort of alchemically appear out of conversations that Paolo and I had, and little studies that I did.
What can you tell me about how all those behavioral elements that started stacking up spoke to who the character is?
I had played a couple of kings both on stage and in film and was obsessed by this idea of power almost reducing people’s movements and mannerisms to the minimal. Because with great power, you don’t need to emphasize. You don’t need to raise your voice. The power is there. You’re not hysterical — then you’re anything but powerful. So there was always this idea of reducing physical movement and containment. And it was clear also from the page that he was a very contained, internal, combustive kind of inhuman anyway. And then the detail of the smoking was, again, in the script, and Paolo’s a great smoker himself. If you look at his work, a lot of his characters smoke. Observing passionate smokers in Italy is easy. You just have a coffee. Everyone smokes! So little details like that naturally came together, and I don’t say that like it was easy, because you’re right. I’ve often played parts and thought of friends or family immediately, or other people I’ve observed. You hook on to little details. But with Lenny, he just seemed to come off the page so quickly. A lot of our work was in really making sure we both agreed and knew about his childhood and who he was and why he was the way he was. And how he’d gotten so far so quickly. So I think a lot of that just poured into it.
What about the costume? When you donned the Pope-wear, was it just another costume or did you feel any kind of unique electricity?
I certainly did, and I’m not particularly religious. I have a great curious fascination with faith in my life but, you know, I had great respect for it but I wasn’t going to goof around. Do you know what I mean? Doing silly selfies. I felt like there was a certain reverence one has to give to it when you wore it. And also Paolo was really adamant that it should be pristine and so I had to be really careful where I sat and what I was eating and all of that stuff. Every single day it became a bit of a bore, actually. But equally, all that is contrary to the part. I always felt like I was playing a man playing a character. I was playing Lenny playing the Pope. It’s no chance in the first episode you see him naked in front of the white outfit. It’s like he takes his skin off and steps into the role of Pope Pius. And it has a great effect, you know, when you walk around in those outfits. On yourself and the way you carry yourself and also the way people treat you, especially in a very Catholic country like Italy. And then when you wear the big medieval ritualistic robes, I mean, they are extraordinary pieces. Each piece has to go on in a certain order and each piece is put on in a certain way representing something and a lot of those are very, very heavy and very uncomfortable. But they really add to a performance.
How did Paolo Sorrentino’s overall approach differ from every other experience you’ve had with a director?
Huge amounts of the work was already in the writing. His writing is very particular, very precise — the references of music, the references of mood. So you arrive with no rehearsal, but with a very clear sense of what he wants. He answers every question and any doubt, and we had long conversations by email prior to the filming. Then once we got there it was interesting to see how he, almost in an improvisational way, constructed these phenomenal shots. There was no storyboard or anything. He’d look at the scene. He’d let us act it out. He’d have ideas. We were both new to this medium and having so much time to tell a story that we recognized quite early on we were both hardwired to telling it over two hours or 90 minutes. And with this, even though we shot it like a movie, out of order, we were aware that we had a 10-hour period. So he was always very clear reining me back and saying, “Not yet. Not yet. Don’t show this. Don’t show that. Keep your guard.” And that was another layer to Lenny that became clear from the beginning, keeping the guard up and not letting people in until we really knew we’d earned it.
Did you wrap up the season assuming that you were done with this character?
It wasn’t that I wrapped it up assuming that I was done with it but I went in, we went in, to make a 10-hour film, and we did that. To say that there wasn’t room for more, I’d have been foolhardy. But it was clear from the get-go that we thought this is a great character and it’s a great world that he’s created here. But yeah, I didn’t go in thinking I’ll be doing this for the next 10 years.
Inevitably, parallels were drawn between this conservative character and a sort of backlash to liberalism around the world, and not least of all Donald Trump. What of the modern political climate could you see fueling a second season?
We were fortunate in that the election in America and the political climate internationally seemed to suddenly demonstrate what Paolo had speculated on through the drama. And you could argue it played to our favor. But I think clever writing and good writers have a finger on the pulse, or have their antennae to the world’s peculiar sort of pendulum swings in social movements anyway. I think it would be foolish and irresponsible not to push that a little further in the current climate. It was a “what if” and suddenly it became an, “Oh, this is it.”
You’re also in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” Perhaps I should have expected this but it was interesting to see Guy Ritchie turn that property into something like a bloke mobster film.
Only Guy, right? Only Guy. I find him a fascinating guy because he takes these — for want of a better word or description — tentpole, period movies, and really does have his own signature and style. And in places it works brilliantly. I also like the fact that it’s still got this sort of fairy tale quality. Rather than trying to root it solely in real English history heritage or British heritage, he’s really embraced the fairy tale quality.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the sequel to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” You’re going to be playing Albus Dumbledore. Did you have any trepidation in taking on a role in a property that massive?
I think I’d be foolish not to say it was a little daunting. Daunting only because, you know, he’s a beloved character and we’ve all sort of fallen for him in his old, old age. So to go back and give that due diligence and service is a responsibility to millions of fans, of whom I am one. I’m terribly excited. I really liked “Fantastic Beasts.” I’m very excited to step into that world. There’s loads there to mine and investigate as a character. So from just simply an acting point of view, I’m really excited. I just have to blot out the millions of expectations.
With something like that, would you go back and look at Michael Gambon and observe some of his nuances in the performance from the “Harry Potter” films?
I think it’s a great excuse! Yes, I will certainly, but it’s also just a great excuse to spend a weekend sitting on the sofa watching all those movies.