For his part as Pius XIII in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope, Jude Law revels in the duplicitous nature of his character.

The Young Pope

Like many young actors who emerge from a UK stage-school background (in his case with the National Youth Music Theatre), Jude Law honed his craft across stage and minor TV roles before bursting onto the UK film scene in the mid-1990s. And once the actor began building a successful film trajectory, including Oscar-nominated roles in two Anthony Minghella-directed period dramas, The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain, the small screen did not hold much attraction. It took a filmmaker of Paolo Sorrentino’s international stature and acclaim to finally lure Law into a 10-episode commitment to The Young Pope.

“When I was first approached, the thing that hooked me was Paolo,” says the 44-year-old actor about the Italian writer-director of Il Divo, The Great Beauty and Youth. “Then, when I met him, he described it not so much as a series but more as a film of 10 hours. It made it a medium I was familiar with, but also one that I’d never tackled at such length.”

In The Young Pope, Law portrays Lenny Belardo who, under the name Pius XIII, becomes both the youngest and the first US pope - a chain-smoking, irrational figure intent on upsetting the Vatican apple cart. Cerebral and often surreal, the show is Sorrentino’s vision through and through - although he entrusted two episodes each to writers Tony Grisoni, Stefano Rulli and Umberto Contarello, his collaborator on The Great Beauty and This Must Be The Place.

Paolo Sorrentino on the set of The Young Pope

Co-financed by HBO, Canal Plus and Sky, The Young Pope cost an estimated $45m, making it the most expensive Italian TV series ever. It was produced by Italy’s Wildside, with Haut et Court and Mediapro as co-producers and FremantleMedia handling international sales (the show has sold to 110 territories).

“For me, it’s always about who’s directing something,” says Law. “It’s true to say that getting films of a certain content made for theatrical release is getting harder and harder, so television has become a real home and a place of nurture for those types of work. There is some TV that’s stretching the idea of the medium.”

Character study

While Law is not averse to deep preparation for his roles, he did not find immersing himself in the minutiae of papal and Vatican history particularly useful. “I started researching while Paolo was still writing, but I said to him quite early on that it wasn’t really helping me,” he admits. So the pair tried a different approach, concentrating their efforts on building a back story for Lenny.

“For Paolo, it was always a piece about this man, not about the pope,” continues the actor. “A lot of our efforts went into writing a precise, detailed study of who Lenny was, and those details helped me put together a rulebook on how he treated people and how he managed to get to that position of power so young.”

The series shot for eight months in Rome, including at Cinecitta Studios, as well as in Venice. Having the opportunity to live in Italy fed into Law’s performance. “Living in Rome feels like you’re in a Fellini movie; lunch out feels like being in La Dolce Vita,” he muses. “Because of Paolo’s notoriety and the budget, we were given the keys to certain parts of the city that otherwise we wouldn’t have been allowed into. We were never given access to the Vatican, but the Vatican owns an awful lot of Rome and they gave us access to other parts of the city, including private gardens. It’s one of those pieces of drama where the costumes and the setting created a wonderful place to leap off from as an actor.”

The length of The Young Pope shoot and the fact it was filmed out of sequence did prove something of a challenge for the UK actor. “We never discussed it but when we were about three months in, which is normally when you’d be finishing a film, Paolo and I looked at each other and we were aware we still had another five months to go,” grimaces Law. “It was physically testing.” As for shooting out of sequence, Law devised an “emotional map with all of the other characters alongside and how each one evolved in his inner or outer circle”.

These include Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised him who becomes his chief adviser; Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando); and Lenny’s jealous mentor Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell). All are slippery in their own ways but none prove a match for Lenny, whose medieval politics and frequently contradictory reactions make him an intriguing if ambiguous protagonist. “He is hard to pin down,” reflects Law. “People have been confused by their own feelings about him. They like him one minute and dislike him the next, are shocked by him one minute and attracted to him the next. He’s very complicated, but most good characters are.

Jude Law in The Young Pope

“Paolo was very clear throughout,” he continues, “encouraging me not to give too much away at any given time, to keep my cards to my chest. Over 10 hours, there’s always the desire to fill in the gaps but I’m glad we managed to keep everyone at bay a little bit.”

After the first two episodes screened out of competition at Venice in September 2016, The Young Pope rolled out across Europe in late October, shortly before the election of Donald Trump (the show followed in the US on HBO in January). Critics cited the series’ prescience in light of the rise of another rule-breaking anti-establishment reactionary, and Law is appreciative of that reading. “Paolo would argue that if you look back at the patterns of reactionary politics in history, there is a pendulum effect that seems to lurch through the social conscious,” he says. “But he saw something that he thought might happen and [then] it occurred. It fell into our lap.”

Future plans

Having recently appeared on stage at London’s Barbican in a four-week run of the Ivo van Hove-directed Obsession, Law has a multitude of film projects on the horizon, including a third outing as Dr Watson in Warner Bros’ big-screen Sherlock Holmes franchise and Albus Dumbledore in the sequel to Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. For now, he has no further TV projects planned, even though Sorrentino has committed to a second limited follow-on series for HBO called The New Pope (in spite of the first series’ lacklustre ratings — the average audience for the US run on HBO was 585,000, while on Sky Atlantic viewership hovered around the 100,000 mark).

While The Young Pope leaves Lenny’s fate open-ended, Sorrentino and production partners HBO and Sky have yet to reveal many details of The New Pope and what — if any — role Law will play in the series, which is not planned for production until late 2018.

Speaking to Screen International shortly before The New Pope was confirmed, Law expressed himself open to participating in a second season so long as Sorrentino remains involved. “I’ve had several conversations with Paolo and I know that he is writing at the moment. If we do something again, I don’t know quite what it will be. The Young Pope wasn’t conventional and I don’t think it will be more of the same. It will be something in Paolo’s extraordinary world. I’m waiting to hear from him.”