There is a scene in The Young Pope, about halfway through the series, in which we watch Jude Law’s character get dressed in his formal papal costume—gold embroidered robes, jeweled rings over red velvet gloves, the tiered papal tiara—to the groin-thrusting soundtrack of “Sexy and I Know It,” by LMFAO.
Girl look at that body (Jude Law shirtless…)
Girl look at that body (Jude Law mid-swaddle in ancient finery…)
I work out (Jude Law grim-faced, tiara descending upon his head…)
I have no evidence to support this conjecture, but I would bet the elements of this scene were among the granules of Paolo Sorrentino’s (Youth, The Great Beauty) inspiration for The Young Pope, his brilliant 10-episode miniseries, which debuts January 15 on HBO. There is something disconcerting—if not downright disturbing—about the idea of a sexy pope. “Made in God’s image” or not, Jude Law’s face between the ears of his holiness should fill any sensible viewer with foreboding.
These thoughts trickled through the slow-drip of my brain the morning before Christmas Eve as I sat in my family’s “library”—read: TV room, pet quarantine, present-wrapping station and space where books also happen to be shelved—in North Carolina, waiting for Law’s publicist to connect me to him in London. A wreath twinkled over the fireplace mantle, and I debated flipping on the television, placing mental wagers on the chances of finding Law’s visage there, taking his turn as dewy-eyed widower opposite Cameron Diaz’s dry-eyed Angelino in The Holiday.
“They do churn that one out this time of year…” Law says, when we finally connect, and I lie-joke that he’s blubbering on the screen before my very eyes. He laughs with the kind but weary patience of a man who has died, gone to heaven, returned to tell the tale, and keeps getting asked whether they have McDonald’s up there. Fine, no more on The Holiday. Back to heaven—The Young Pope.
Except, that’s just where the trouble lies when it comes to Law’s character, Lenny Belardo, or “Pope Pius XIII,” a (highly fictional) young American pope who has ascended to the papacy rather unexpectedly. He hasn’t seen heaven, or talked with God, and he’s reached a career juncture where that’s causing something of a crisis in confidence.
“The dilemma Lenny is in is that he’s gotten to a certain point where he supposedly has this direct access to God,” Law says, “and yet, he hasn’t been given any answers, so what is there for him to do but doubt? And because he feels no one is more devout than him, he questions everyone else’s devotion, thinking, well wait a minute, if I’m not getting answers, then other people must be doing this wrong too.”
Lenny’s response to his insecurities—like many a young man’s—is to go to extremes. The bigger surprise for everyone is that his extremism turns out to be of the conservative variety. The young pope delivers a scathing rebuke to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, refuses to have his image distributed to the public (naming Banksy and Daft Punk among the greatest artists of our time), and suggests a gay witch-hunt in the Vatican. In his much-awaited first address to the cardinals, he declares with a maniacal glint in his eye, “Knock, knock… tolerance doesn’t live here any more.”
I ask Law whether religion, or faith, is something he’s ever sought out in his own life. “Privately, I mean, it’s interesting,” he says. “I wasn’t brought up in a religious family, but I’ve always been curious about my faith and what faith is. In my 40-odd years I’ve done some exploring. At the moment I’m more interested in a natural order, as opposed to an imagined order. I’ve just read a wonderful book about animism, which is a more pagan faith, and I found that really rewarding. But I think understanding and having a relationship with your faith—whatever that faith may be—is kind of an integral part of growing up and being at peace with yourself.”
This does feel like a grown up role for Law, who—while having always oscillated between lighter and more serious projects, and having received Oscar nominations for both The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain—has long been dogged by his playboy good looks. His blessed genetics have, no doubt, goaded the British tabloids’ dedicated reportage on his complicated familial affairs. With five children, ranging in age from one to twenty years old, a big part of Law’s life these days is fatherhood, and this would seem a boon when playing a role as the ultimate Father. Lenny Belardo is the young pope, but in reality he is a middle-aged man in a world of old men, and Law, at 44, settles deeply into the role—allowing his softening chin to fold comfortably over his clerical collar in moments of repose.
Around that moment in the conversation, the door to the library flew open and my family’s dog rushed in victorious, tail aplomb. My younger sister, who seemed to have been lingering in suspiciously close proximity to the door, scurried in after him. Unable to extricate myself from the sinkhole of a lazy boy I’d chosen as my temporary office, I watched her chase the dog around the room and mouthed atrocities at them. Meanwhile, Law embarked on a happy ode to Diane Keaton.
“She just brought a wonderfully warm and mischievous quality to set,” he was saying. “And I don’t know that she always knew why she was there. Maybe she was just being really humble, but she was always saying, ‘I don’t know why I’m cast in this role!’ Of course, she was the only one who couldn’t see it was brilliant casting. She brings such heart to everything she does.”
In The Young Pope, Keaton plays Sister Mary, the pope’s mother figure and right-hand confidante, a nun who raised Lenny after his parents abandoned him at her convent when he was a boy. Keaton, in top form, brings a breath of levity and goodness—she sleeps in a t-shirt that reads, “I’m a virgin… but this is an old shirt”—not to mention femaleness, to the ensemble of characters inside the Vatican. In truth, while Lenny has instants of seemingly transcendent judgment, or unlikely compassion, it is Sister Mary’s unwavering belief in him that allows viewers to suspend their judgments on Lenny’s character, and continue to give him a chance.
In watching the show, there are certain elements that seem entirely relevant now—a resurgent fanatic conservatism, a churlish man-child leader estranged from the people he represents—but Law is cautious to make blanket statements of comparison, and reminds me that the show was made a year ago. A lot has happened in the last year, after all. “So there wasn’t any direct—I believe—reference,” he says. “That said, like any great writer or filmmaker, Paolo is someone who can read the climate, the ether, and create a dramatic world that is open always to reference or comparison with what’s going on. You know, history is filled with leaders of countries and institutions and faiths who are seemingly inappropriate or larger than life or maniacal or despotic. I wouldn’t compliment Mr. Trump by saying he’s unique; I think he just joins a long list of bizarre individuals who have managed to make it to head of state.”
Law’s character in The Young Pope may be one such bizarre individual, but he’s no simple villain. “I will say, the rivers run deep in Lenny Belardo,” Law says. “The journey with his faith and doubt is absolutely the heart of the piece. And ultimately, I think asking questions is only ever a healthy thing. Don’t be scared of questioning or doubt if it leads to some kind of investigation or analysis.”
These seem like words to live by as we set out into the fog of the New Year. And since we’re on the subject, I ask, has Law made any other resolutions for 2017?
“Yes!” He says. “I’m going to learn to play the card game bridge. There are a couple things I want to learn, actually. I’ve started taking piano lessons so I’m going to carry on with that—work hard at my piano. I’ve just always wanted to play it, and I had a little time this year so I decided to start.”
Will he be accompanying his piano with a little singing, perchance? A serenade or two?
“No,” he says firmly, he will not. Not even a stripped down rendition of “Sexy and I Know It.”
For that, apparently, you’ll have to go to church.
Image Credit: Tom Craig / Trunk Archive