Bow down and humble yourself before Jude Law. Taking on the full weight of papal regalia as Pope Pius XIII (né Lenny Berardo) in HBO’s limited series The Young Pope, the Oscar-nominated actor delivers one of the most memorable performances of his career.
In the first television series from acclaimed Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino—a six-time Palme d’Or nominee—Law dives deep into the “deeply knotted,” contradictory Belardo, who is simultaneously one of the most complex, compelling and deeply unlikeable characters on television this year.
What was it that you responded to when approached for The Young Pope?
To be honest, I was really hooked simply by Paolo Sorrentino, as a writer and director. I loved his worked, and he was someone I’d talked about with anyone who would listen, really. It felt like a kind of gag that somebody suddenly wrote to me out of the blue saying, “Oh, Paolo has this piece he wants to talk to you about.”
As you can imagine, at that stage it was a kind of two-page document, and it was just full of mystery and curiosity. Then, I sat with him and we talked further, and I was sort of in from that, really. Then obviously, you have to follow the procedure, and slowly the episodes start to arrive.
Because I knew his previous work, I knew that it would be visually sumptuous. I knew there would be a certain amount of ambiguity and poetry to his storytelling. I knew that there would be humor and drama. I knew that there would be great music. As scripts started to arrive, what was really interesting to me was how much of that detail was in the scripts. How specific he is, both in what you’re looking at when you’re reading it, but also what you’re listening to, he references all in there.
As you rightly pointed out, what became apparent was this great character. Lenny unfolded as this extraordinary, contradictory, deeply knotted and complex human, with an incredible backstory, but also a present life that required all sorts of understanding. Being a part of the evolution of it was truly one of the best work experiences I’ve had.
Amazingly, none of the series was actually filmed in Vatican City. What was it like to be dropped into a world of finery, and the full regalia of the pope?
When you’re wearing very recognizable, ornate, and ritualistically historical garb, it helps hugely to try and get your head into a person you’re playing. There was always this rather healthy kind of push-pull of the human drama of the piece and the splendor of the outfits, and the palazzos that we were filming in.
We weren’t in the official Vatican City, because getting that kind of access would’ve taken way too long, and would’ve been far too complex. The Vatican owns a huge amount of Rome, so we did have access to some pretty special and private rooms around the city, and gardens that have otherwise never been filmed in before. Rome is itself an open museum; it’s a spectacular place to live and be able to film.
The settings, the rooms, the sets were built to capture and copy precise parts of the Vatican, and the costumes were a huge help to creating the scale of the drama. Interestingly, what Paolo always talked about was playing the humans. It was always about the people within these great, great luscious scenarios.
You played another self-involved American in Italy in Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-nominated The Talented Mr. Ripley. Did you see any parallels, either between these characters or experiences in production?
I suppose you could draw a few sketchy connections between those characters. I didn’t really think about Dickie [Greenleaf] when I was constructing Lenny.
Other than two very happy experiences living in Italy—it’s a great country to live in and work in—I didn’t really draw any parallels. That’s the kind of interpretation I quite like audiences to make.
What were the aspects of Lenny that spoke to you? He’s quite a complex character and a real antihero in the beginning.
When you’re in good hands, and you know that the writing and the piece as a whole is a piece of generosity in itself, then I feel emboldened to take on a character like him.
I think something at the heart that I like is that whilst he was contradictory, he was never a liar. There was always an element of truth—he had conviction, even if he changed his mind, or seemed to contradict himself.
I also think that he was, therefore, able to learn his lesson—the biggest one was his recognition and embrace of homosexuality. Early on, he is staunchly homophobic because he doesn’t find the answer for it in the dogma. By the end, through his friendship with Gutierrez, he recognizes that it’s something he has learned, and opens his mind.
Just little shifts like that, but given the climate that we were making it in, and given the world we live in, I think it’s really important to show that people with an open mind can learn to open their hearts, too.
What was it like working with screen legends Diane Keaton and James Cromwell, in addition to an exceptional ensemble of Italian actors?
In this case, in particular, it was a very harmonious and close group of people. Paolo has worked with the same crew for the last ten years or so, so he has a wonderful family atmosphere on set. His team is devoted to him and loves him because he’s a true leader and a great artist.
When you’re playing a part like Lenny, and you’re in pretty much every day, and therefore very much part of the heartbeat of the shoot, it’s really rewarding when you have different people with different approaches and different spirits coming on every day, and giving you a little lift here, a little push there.
With someone like Diane Keaton, who is mischievous, and inspired, and incredibly warm, for her to come on every other week is a great injection of energy and the same with James Cromwell. James, I had never met before, and he’s a dear, dear man. I learned a lot from working with him—as I did with everyone, to be honest.
You always hear actors gushing about, “Oh, I had the best time,” but truly this was a real ensemble and everyone was very happy to be there. You know, who wouldn’t be? We were in Rome; it was beautiful. [laughs]
It was also fun to have a truly international cast. We had a Chilean actor, a South African actor, we had a French actress, obviously people from Italy, from Spain. That was really exciting. As is in the Vatican, we had an international team.
The Young Pope has something interesting to say in regard to the way in which religion can be commodified—to paraphrase, Lenny is told, “Mystery is a serious matter. It’s not a marketing strategy.”
It’s a big subject, and it’s a great line that you plucked out of the piece. There are two ways to look at that, aren’t there? Again, that’s the contradiction of Lenny Belardo.
I think one way [to look at it] is, is Lenny truly believing in the mystery of the miracles of the church, and having faith in that mystery, and having faith in the unknown? Having faith in the leap of faith. There are questions to which we have no answer, but we are expected to show our devotion. And it’s the devotion that he always said he would respond to—he wanted to see devotion, he wanted people to worship as he did, and then he would give them his loving.
But then, there’s also a cynical side. As you rightly said, there’s a commodified side to mystery—there’s a way of using mystery and “less is more” as an advertising blueprint. I think the fact that you’ve raised that is smart because that is perhaps what Paolo was trying to make us all think about at the heart of the piece.
Did you view Lenny as a kind of actor, himself? You always get the sense that he’s performing, or putting on airs.
Yes, I think there are parallels. I always felt like I was playing two roles—I was playing Lenny Belardo, and then I was playing Lenny Belardo, playing Pope Pius the XIII. There were parallels there with him as an actor, performing.
What was your favorite scene in The Young Pope, or the scene that challenged you the most?
Physically, the most challenging was probably the first speech to the cardinals, and that was simply because the medieval papal outfit I was wearing was literally two gold-embroidered carpets, wrapped around with metal, with a giant metal crown on my head.
I could barely move, and I have no idea how a 70- or 80-year-old chap does that, because I’m a quite healthy 44-year-old, and it was really uncomfortable. [laughs]
Physically, just trying to convey the necessary focus and intention whilst keeping almost completely still, because of the weight of everything on me, was really tricky.
For me as an actor, it was a real pleasure, almost every day, going in. Paolo really emphasized each scene on dialogue and interaction. Every day I had something. I thought the speeches were particularly well written, and I built a lot of the performance on five long speeches throughout the piece.