Jude Law: ‘The Young Pope’s Protagonist Is Unpredictable

The Young Pope - Jude Law
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Some things are best described by what they aren’t. A straight line isn’t curved. A dry floor isn’t wet. And HBO’s The Young Pope isn’t like any other series on TV. Unless you know of another religious drama that opens with its movie-star lead (Jude Law, as the newly minted Pope Pious XIII) arising from a mountain of nude babies in St. Mark’s Square.

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Masterpiece: Vatican, this isn’t. The Young Pope—which was conceived by Oscar-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentinocombines the surrealism of Twin Peaks, the anxiety of The Walking Dead and the grandeur of Game of Thrones. Law’s Pope Pious—formerly Cardinal Lenny Belardo from Brooklyn—isn’t a fresh-faced pontiff with liberal ideas poised to shake up a tight-arsed old guard. He’s conservative as hell. He’s also cruel, deceptive, and doubts the existence of God. And that’s just the start of his complexities. Plus, he’s on HBO: So prepare to see the Pope’s butt. We talked to Law about stepping into the red papal slippers.

Lenny is a hard Pope to pin down.
Trying to figure him out is a big mistake. I’ll say this much: He has contradictions, but he’s a honest man. He never lies. He speaks his mind, but he holds the right to change it, sometimes at the toss of a coin. Still he’s not a riddle. You have to just watch him and let him impress upon you.

The show caused an uproar when it aired in Italy and the UK. Lenny chains smokes inside the Vatican, for St. Peter’s sake! Do you think the series can be seen as offensive? Or is it just challenging?
I think sometimes people can confuse the two. We certainly didn’t go out of our way to offend or make a shock piece. To me, The Young Pope is more challenging than controversial, but I accept that it might be both to others.

What was it like working with Diane Keaton, who plays Lenny’s surrogate mother, Sister Mary?
She teased me a lot! I don’t think she ever called me “Jude.” She always called me “Your Holiness.” She’s extraordinary. I hope she doesn’t mind me saying this, but she still has that incredibly youthful Annie Hall sparkle that just lights up a room.

The Young Pope

The Young Pope, Jude Law

Now that you’ve filmed both The Young Pope and The Talented Mr. Ripley at Rome’s Cinecittà studios, how’s your Italian?
I always swear I’m going to take classes when I’m in Italy. Unfortunately, when you’re filming, your hours are usually eaten up working. Most of what I’ve learned is just from listening to the Italian crew and cast. I’d say I’m pretty good at ordering good food and I’m okay at asking where to go, but I don’t know that I could discuss Dostoevsky with anyone just yet.

Lenny’s conservatism and the hints that he may have won the papal election under murky circumstances are going to make it hard not to draw a connection between him and President-elect Donald Trump.
It’s all just American politics imitating art. But everyone has to realize that what happened in the United States, and in the United Kingdom with Brexit, has been in the zeitgeist for a long time. It’s not a surprise that someone like Paolo would pick up on it. But obviously, any comparison is just luck.