Law of Desire

by Sean M. Smith

Photography by Matthew Rolston

Besides perfect bone structure, The Talented Mr. Ripley's Jude Law possesses two things that will secure his film future: Intellect and knowing how to use it.



Inside a crowded north London café, Jude Law assumes an effortless repose. He holds his cigarette low, his tea-cup high, and leans his lithe frame into a bistro table.

Facing him, a mirror as large as a plate glass window reflects his image to every corner of the room. He never looks at it, and neither does anyone else. Not the twinsetted women at the next table. Not the grizzled geezers behind him. And that's odd, because whether Law wants to or not, blending in isn't an option. "Well, this is my local café," he says, surveying the room, a smile spreading across his face. "I think half these people haven't seen any of my films." No matter. Seconds later, a tiny girl, dressed head-to-toe in pink, appears at his side, mesmerized. "Oh, hello," Law says cheerily. She's speechless. (Okay, so she hasn't learned to talk yet, but would that change anything?) She sways slightly, tentatively touching his fingers, her bright blue eyes never leaving his face. "Well, there you go," he says, after the child's mother has dragged her away. "It happened."

The rest of those self-absorbed café denizens are going to kick themselves later, because it is official: Law has Made It. With his portrayal of American golden boy Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the 27-year-old lanky lad from southeast London nabbed a Golden Globe nomination, stirred up serious Oscar buzz, and even got Rosie O'Donnell to stop obsessing about Tom Cruise long enough to gush, "You've got beautiful eyes!" He has, in Hollywood terms, broken through, which is to say that the industry is itching to anoint him as the next chiseled paragon of sexual fantasy. The Next Cary Grant. The Next Errol Flynn. You know, the Next Star, baby.

That could happen. And, for the record, Law doesn't necessarily think it would suck if it did. But it's not likely to occur in typical Tom Cruise-Harrison Ford fashion, because Jude Law's sexual vibe is, in fact, too cerebral, too darkly sensual for him to play a standard save-the-girl stud. "There's a combination of grace and danger about him," says Ripley director Anthony Minghella. "In all his beauty and charisma, there's something metallic, something slightly disconcerting. There's a hint that there's some cruelty there."

Law's résumé teems with bitter, baleful, but always beautiful men. He made his American film debut in 1997 with Andrew Niccol's Gattaca, in which he played a member of the genetic elite who's crippled by an accident and sells his identity to Ethan Hawke's DNA-impaired character. That same year, he became a trashy gay hustler in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and destroyed Oscar Wilde's life as the playwright's spoiled, petulant lover, in Wilde. In short, as diverse as his characters have been, Law has often played an object of desire whose pretty surface masks an ugly interior. But that's not exactly by design. "When you start out acting, you're just grateful to get employed," he says, laughing. "But if you get to the point where people are applauding you for playing the object of desire, you think, 'Oh, not him again. Not that sod!'"

As if to avoid that fate, Law allegedly turned down a role in Shakespeare in Love and starred opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, a near-future existential thriller (yes, really), about a virtual-reality game creator (Leigh) and the nervous Luddite (Law) who must protect her from assassins. And when Minghella offered him the role of Dickie Greenleaf, whose persona is so seductive it actually gets him killed, Law almost said no. "At the time, just hearing the story, I thought it would be very hard to add a human, vulnerable element to Dickie," Law says. "I didn't want to play somebody who's just like, 'Hey, look at me!' I've always resisted that, because I think everyone has demons."

Everyone, it seems, except Law himself. "He's kind of a puppy who falls over his own legs," David Cronenberg says, chuckling. "It comes out of his naïveté, and you're never sure whether it's accidental or if he intends it."

Sitting in the café, a red fleece sweatshirt snuggled up to his chin, it's clear that the metallic quality Minghella speaks of is an onscreen entity only. In the flesh, Law is warm, ebullient-a man who carries bliss in his back pocket. At the moment, he has struck upon the word jazz, and as the word leaps from his lips, his palms fan out from his face, like a curtain being drawn open, and his eyebrows arc upward in discovery. He's been talking about his research for Ripley-learning to sail and to play the saxophone-but this has led him (as almost any subject does) to bigger themes, toward a deeper shade of philosophy.

"The second half of the 1950s was a time of having to fight to be different, having to fight to be free," he says, his soft baritone gathering speed. "And there was something more than that, that kind of '50s lifestyle where you sent away for the perfect fridge and the perfect wife. And then, suddenly, this . . . jazz!" And here, right here, is the secret to Law's charm: He is so engaged in the world of ideas, so flat-out in love with life, that his physical attributes seem secondary.

"He has the enthusiasm of a six-year-old boy the night before Christmas pretty much every day," Jennifer Jason Leigh says. "He has an ease about him, and he's so unbelievably attractive without paying it any attention at all."

"He's terrific, isn't he?" asks Ripley star Matt Damon. "He's got tremendous energy, and it's infectious. You know, you can end up dragging yourself to work in the morning, but if his is the first face you see, suddenly the whole day takes on new meaning."

"It's disgusting," David Cronenberg says, laughing. "It's 'Oh my God, there's Jude again, having a great time.' I've got cold sores. I'm tired. I'm depressed, and there's Jude. Beaming."

Law's untethered passion for his work is even more remarkable when you consider that he has been acting for more than half his life. Reared by parents who were school teachers, he joined Britain's National Youth and Music Theatre at the age of 13. There he met Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting), who has been his best friend ever since. At 17, Law left school to join the cast of the extra-sudsy British soap opera Families. Along the way he befriended Ewan McGregor, and in 1994, he made his film debut, in the British joyriding flop Shopping. Not a great cinematic start but a significant romantic one. His costar in the film, Sadie Frost (Bram Stoker's Dracula), became his wife.

Today, the couple have a three-year-old son, Rafferty, and help raise Frost's nine-year-old son from her previous marriage, to Gary Kemp, of the '80s band Spandau Ballet. What's more, he and Frost, along with Miller, McGregor, and actor Sean Pertwee (Shopping), have founded their own production company, Natural Nylon. Their first project to hit the screen was last year's eXistenZ, which they coproduced. Mention it, and Law flashes a smile so wide it borders on goofy.

"It's so bizarre!" he says. "I love it! I love David [Cronenberg]! Now there's someone who really plays with things that are seemingly desirable and essential to our lifestyle-technology, self-mutilation, self-gratification-and mixes and hybrids the whole cocktail of our society in a way that makes you go, 'Ooh, God. We're really sick!' " Law launches into a deconstruction of the film that lasts another 15 minutes, grinning constantly. It's oddly discomforting. He's often at his cheeriest when discussing the darkest elements of human nature. "Everybody is made up of black and white, the shadows and the sun," he says, by way of explanation. "People don't become mesmerized by individuals, by characters, simply because of how they look. It's the tragedies of people that make them attractive."

In fact, those interwoven themes of tragedy and attraction underpin most of Law's work, beginning with the performance that first brought him to America's attention. In 1995, he scored a Tony nomination for his role opposite Kathleen Turner in the Broadway play Indiscretions. Portraying a young man entangled in an incestuous relationship with his mother, Law emerged naked from a bathtub onstage. Suffice it to say, no one complained. Since then, he's done two nude scenes on film, both frontal: in Wilde and in Ripley, in which, coincidentally, he emerges-albeit briefly-from a bathtub. "You always regret it a little bit because you've bared yourself to a degree," he says. "But as long as it's having the effect it's meant to have, because it surprises or shocks people, that's good." So he never looks at the screen and thinks, "My ass looks fat"? "Nah," Law deadpans. "I've got a tiny ass." He laughs before adding, emphatically, "I'm joking."

That he can joke about it at all is significant, however, because it crystallizes a charming and rare quality for an actor with both artistic ambition and movie-star bone structure: Unlike some of his peers (say, Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt), he doesn't routinely destroy the way he looks in an attempt to be taken seriously. This topic, of course, makes him uncomfortable. "You feel like, by talking about it, you're confirming that you believe you're good-looking," he says. "You're in big trouble if you wake up every morning and think, 'God, I'm beautiful!' " Getting the rest of the world to ignore that fact may prove more difficult.

Ten days later, at the L.A. premiere of Ripley, Law is under siege. He stands in the courtyard of a museum amid bistro tables and the clink and bustle of sequined guests. A jazz band plays, but it's doubtful Law can hear it. A continuous throng of men and women approach and cluster around him, touching him, staring at him like members of a religious cult. For more than an hour, he is unable to move.

"He's not of his own time, I don't think," Gattaca director Andrew Niccol says. "He reminds me of Dirk Bogarde, a sort of screen idol of the '40s or '50s." And his appeal is undeniably polysexual. "There will probably be a whole slew of heterosexual men in love with Jude Law," Jennifer Jason Leigh says. "Because he's the man most men, I think, would like to be."

Law's take on the gathering storm of praise and hype isn't so much denial as deliberate innocence. "I can't begin to think about it," he says with a shrug. "I love to tell stories that deal with big, transcendent issues-life, death, love, hate, sex-the things that we all deal with. As long as I can get on with doing good parts that are moving on from what I've done already, then I'll be happy. Anything that gets in the way of that is a problem."

Tonight, across the room, Anthony Minghella stands apart from the madding crowd, watching. Law catches his eye from inside the circle of fans and mouths what looks like a plea for help. In response, the director simply smiles and blows him a kiss. "I think the marvelous actor in him is struggling to get out of that body," Minghella says, laughing. "And I'll take it. He can send it over to me."

Staff writer Sean M. Smith wrote about The Breakfast Club and The Insider in the December issue.