Have Faith, He Saith

As a complex, unpredictable pontiff, Jude Law asks viewers of his HBO mini to feel loathing and elation.

Paula Chin
  • Gavin Bond/August

In HBO’s The Young Pope, newly elected Pius XIII, the former New York city archbishop Lenny Belardo, does which of the following?

1. Crawls out from under a pile of naked babies

2. Stares down a live kangaroo, a gift from down under

3. Dons his splendid papal robes while LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” plays on the soundtrack

4. All of the above and much, much more

Did you choose “4”? Anoint yourself.

Outrageous? Absolutely. But Jude Law, who plays the pontiff, is non-plussed. “I don’t think it’s over the top,” he says. “I see the show and the character as unpredictable. And I’m intrigued and curious about him.”

The 10-part limited series, which has been renewed for a second season, defies easy categorization.

An American cardinal unexpectedly becomes pope and turns out to be a disruptive, arch-conservative wild card. Blackmail, seduction and scandalous secrets are just some of the back-door machinations at the Vatican. Oh, and by the way, Pius, who loves himself more than his neighbor — and God — smokes cigarettes and guzzles Cherry Coke Zero.

“He’s full of contradictions, as I believe we all are,” Law says. “At the same time, he doesn’t lie. He is full of conviction and dogmatic with his approach to his faith, but he’s also open and has a changeable heart and mind.” As profound as it is playful, the show is a serious meditation on power, loneliness and faith.

Lenny, who was abandoned by his hippie parents as a child and placed in a Catholic orphanage, has an emptiness that can’t be filled, even after he ascends to the papacy. “He feels truly unloved in the deepest, most fundamental way,” Law says. “And he feels ignored by the one person that matters most — his God.”

By turns charming and compassionate, venomous and vindictive, the Pope deserves both sympathy and scorn. Law adds: “I want audiences to feel hatred for him, but at the same time be moved and inspired by him. My job is to ground the character in reality, to add complexity and layers, and make him believable. That’s what I find so interesting about the role.”

The actor relies on creator–executive producer–director Paolo Sorrentino (known for films such as The Great Beauty and Youth) to keep him from venturing too far over to the dark side. “I have the greatest faith in his writing, the story and the world he creates. There are elements of wit, satire and absurdity. But the show is poetic and interpretive as well. Like any good piece of art, it leaves a lot for people to feel and think for themselves.”

After spending more than two decades on screen and stage, Law was eager to give TV a go. “I was curious to try 10 hours instead of the usual two with movies and plays. This seemed like the obvious project to embrace in this new era when content is more important than the medium.”

And he couldn’t be more impressed with how spectacular the show looks. “One of the most exciting elements is how Paolo constructs those wonderful shots and visual motifs in the moment. None of it is planned. It’s all spontaneous.” The Young Pope is mostly filmed at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, where the Vatican interiors were re-created.

The international cast includes Diane Keaton as Sister Mary, the nun who raised Belardo in the orphanage and becomes personal secretary to Pius. James Cromwell (American Horror Story, Six Feet Under) plays Cardinal Spencer, Lenny’s mentor, who is angered by his loss in the papal election.

Law says the cast is “incredibly collaborative and warm — and a lot of fun. Diane brought great heart and humor to the set. Most of the time she didn’t call me Jude — she called me ‘Your Eminence,’ which helped keep me in character. That, and the clothes.”

“In truth, I don’t like Cherry Coke. I don’t smoke. And I don’t consider myself religious,” Law says. “Lenny and I are quite different.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2017