DuJour Navigation
Jude Law

Jude Law Fires Up

The actor dives into the role of Henry VIII in the buzzy summer film Firebrand

View the gallery

Jude Law earned his first Academy Award nomination for playing a character whose allure is so intoxicating that it gets him killed. His breakthrough role, as the tawny bachelor Dickie Greenleaf in the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley, is a far cry from the English actor’s latest turn in Firebrand—an odious and gout-ridden Henry VIII whose presence makes people tremble with fear and disgust.

Firebrand is named for the king’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, played by Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander. Directed by Karim Aïnouz, the film chronicles Parr’s perseverance as a Protestant sympathizer who survived her husband’s deadly Catholic regime. Law, in a near-monstrous supporting role, plays the king’s violent last gasp with sneering resentment and a secret sense of remorse.

“He’d been a highly attractive and sought-after golden boy,” says Law, 51. “He was a romantic in a way, believing each time that he’d found the right woman. The murder and the mayhem that ensued was part of his sense that they had let him down.” Lumbering around shadowy halls on swollen legs, Law’s Henry VIII is a sour and spiteful menace. “He’s full of regret, self-medicating with alcohol and trying to deal with intense pain and the madness that it brings on.”

Law says that his approach to a role depends on the project and the director. He’s worked with a legendary set of the latter, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson and Mike Nichols. Law’s wide-ranging body of work includes prestige period dramas like Road to Perdition, Cold Mountain (for which he landed his second Academy Award nomination in 2004), and The Aviator; sci-fi thrillers like Gattaca and A.I. Artificial Intelligence; and, more recently, major franchise installments like Fantastic Beasts (as the young wizard Dumbledore) and Captain Marvel.

For Firebrand, embracing the physical embodiment of Henry VIII and all that it entailed was essential to Law’s process. “It took so much time every morning to get into this huge, weighted costume and I would stay in it for the rest of the day,” Law says. “You could rehearse in jeans and a T-shirt, but then you would turn up in this enormous outfit and realize you’re going to knock everyone over. So you might as well maintain that sense of Henry’s shape and size.” That went for the king’s stench, too: Law collaborated with historians to conjure up a scent of bodily decay and wore it during the shoot inside a Derbyshire castle.

“It was so terrible that some days you couldn’t help but laugh,” Vikander says. “Jude was trying to make you go down a new path, try different things. What these characters went through was so tough, but we also had a lot of fun working together,” Vikander says. The Swedish actress recalls admiring Law during production on 2012’s Anna Karenina, her first English-language film, where “he proved the work ethic and kind personality you need to bring to set,” she says. “He’s the most humble and down-to-earth person, which makes working with him extremely joyful.”

Many of Law’s early, career-defining performances hinged on an inescapable charm—Alfie’s solipsistic womanizer, lovers with secrets behind their dazzling smiles in Closer and The Holiday—that hypnotized audiences and heroines alike. “I didn’t feel like I really ever leaned into playing handsome, but there were roles that required an attractive energy,” Law says. “I was trying to play against my looks in my early 20s, and now that I’m saggy and balding, I wish I had played it up.” He’s being at least somewhat facetious: A trailer for the 2020 HBO series The New Pope, for example, shows a taut, chiseled Law striding slow-motion across a beach in a white Speedo.

Still, parts have recently come the actor’s way that “have not leaned in to any sort of attraction,” he says. “It’s been satisfying not having to turn that switch on.” Law scowls over a thick mustache as Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan & Wendy;  later this year, he will star in Ron Howard’s Eden, based on the true story of a group of people who retreat to the Galápagos to flee facism, and as an Idaho FBI agent pursuing a white supremacist group in The Order.

Law is also stepping into another entertainment juggernaut, as a Jedi shepherding a band of kids through harrowing adventures in the Star Wars series Skeleton Crew. Law, who grew up admiring the original films but “wasn’t a Star Wars geek, or whatever the polite way to say it is,” describes his character as “contradictory, complicated, mischievous and at times heroic,” though not very paternal. “He has no time for someone crying because they’re 11 and really scared,” Law says, “He’s like, ‘Pull yourself together and get on with it.’”

Law’s own parents were teachers who retired young and pursued their dreams of founding a theater troupe that travels around Europe. “Their love of the arts—film, theater, dance, music—was hugely influential” on Law and his sister, the painter Natasha Law, he says.

A father of seven, Law describes himself as an “excessive” dad, “because I think about them all the time.” His wife, Phillipa Coan, and their two kids have been traveling with Law for the past couple of years, living in seven or eight countries, an itinerant period he calls “wonderful but hard.” “I’ve never been someone who’s comfortable going off to film for weeks on my own. Having the reality to return to makes you feel normal again before going back to playing someone like Henry VIII.”

Acting is proving to be a family trade: Law’s eldest son, Rafferty, with his first wife Sadie Frost, appears in the Apple TV+ series Masters of the Air, released earlier this year. “It’s complicated because I’m aware of how hard it is,” Law says of watching his son get into the industry. “When I came into this business, I didn’t have the comparison, but with him, people might always say, ‘Oh, you’re just like your dad.’ Which is nonsense; his career is his career.”

“I’m thrilled because we get to share our enthusiasm, and I get to give him advice if he wants to hear it,” Law continues. “I’m immensely proud that he’s put himself out there because he found something that he loves. He’s obviously seen the way I work, and it’s rubbed off on him.”