Jude Law reaches his 40th birthday Dec. 29, after nearly two decades as one of Britain’s biggest movie stars. By coincidence, he’s also just finished shooting his 40th film, the London gangster drama “Dom Hemingway.”
It’s been a remarkably prolific run for an actor — imminent recipient of the Variety Award at the British Independent Film Awards — who first emerged in the early 1990s with roles in low-budget indie pics such as “Shopping” and “Wilde.” His killer combination of precocious talent, gilded looks, easy charm and sharp intelligence quickly caught the eye of Hollywood, and won him legions of loyal fans, many of them female.
But his evolution can be seen in his latest role, that of the middle-age cuckold in “Anna Karenina,” a part that required an actor not clinging to youth or physical vanity. It was a bold choice, which paid off with strong reviews for his self-effacing performance.
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“In recent years I’ve found a process and a rhythm that works for me,” Law says. “I like the fear factor, that feeling a couple of months into pre-production of going too far, which probably signals that you’re doing something brave.”
Law’s star quality has attracted such great directors as Clint Eastwood (“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”), David Cronenberg (“Existenz”), Steven Spielberg (“A.I.”), Sam Mendes (“The Road to Perdition”), Martin Scorsese (“The Aviator” and “Hugo”) and Steven Soderbergh (“Contagion” and “Side Effects”). But his most significant mentor was the late Anthony Minghella, for whom Law made “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain” and “Breaking and Entering” before Minghella’s untimely death in 2008.
“The three films I made with Anthony were very important, very different stepping stones in my life and career,” Law says. “It was a very special relationship, which I hoped would go on longer. Because of his passing away, it makes that feel all the more cherished.”
Playing opposite recent Oscar winners Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow in “Ripley,” Law was acutely aware of stepping into the big league.
“It was the first time I had been asked to take part in what felt like a big film,” he recalls. “It felt like a very heavyweight company.”
Yet Law more than held his own in the role of golden boy Dickie Greenleaf, winning a BAFTA and his first Oscar nomination. It was a part few could have pulled off, since it demanded a subtle actor who was convincingly more beautiful than Damon — and there aren’t many of those.
On “Cold Mountain,” Minghella entrusted Law with a bigger responsibility.
“I remember Anthony educating me, not just as an actor in playing the leading role, but also in how to host a set as a leading man,” Law says. “On a big day, with thousands of extras rolling around in the mud and rain, he showed me how to make sure their work was appreciated. That left a real mark on me, which I have tried to carry on in every film.”
Often, however, Law has seemed more comfortable as part of an ensemble, or in hiding his looks under a physical disguise, than in playing the conventional starring role. He’s been described as a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man, which arguably comes from his roots in theater.
Although his stardom is clear to anyone who has stood near him on a red carpet and heard the crowds scream his name, he doesn’t guard this status jealously on screen. He’s willing, even eager, to play bit parts, supporting roles and cameos for filmmakers he admires.
It’s a work ethic driven by a deep love of acting and a curiosity to explore new experiences.
“It’s all about taking risks,” he says. “If the director is interesting and there’s a good group of people, sometimes those small parts are just as challenging for an actor. In ‘Road to Perdition,’ I was only in four scenes, but it was a chance to play a memorable character in a remarkable ensemble.”
In the past, Law has reached the brink of overexposure, as happened in 2004 when he had six films released — “I Heart Huckabees,” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Alfie,” “Closer,” “The Aviator” and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” — to mixed results. He laughs ruefully at the memory.
“There are many actors who have years when they appear in a lot of stuff, but perhaps it doesn’t get noticed because the films don’t all get seen,” he says. “But if Martin Scorsese calls and asks you to play Errol Flynn, you aren’t going to say no, are you?
“Other people may choose their roles from a different point of view and a different aspiration about what this craft can offer, but that’s just the way I see things. I’m curious, and I like the job, and as much as the media love to talk about big paydays, sometimes I just need the work.”
Law is relishing the challenges ahead, as he enters the next phase of his career. He’s enjoying his bromance with Robert Downey in the “Sherlock Holmes” franchise and continues to switch back and forth between leading and supporting roles.
“When you get to 40, the roles do tend to get a little more meaty in their complexity,” he notes. “The door to playing character roles is more ajar, so I’m looking forward to the next 10 years.”
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