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The Stars Appear to Be Aligning for Jude Law

NEWSDAY

The French film director sat in a restaurant in London’s Soho district waiting for a young actor who had just wrapped a picture called “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Jean-Jacques Annaud had read 100 of England’s ablest up-and-comers for the heroic lead in his World War II Russian military epic, “Enemy at the Gates,” and had come away empty-handed. The problem: He had cast Ed Harris as the protagonist’s chief opponent, a champion German sniper, and couldn’t find anyone who could measure up to Harris’ feral intensity.

“I was following the maitre d’ as he moved across the room,” recalls Annaud, “when I saw something in the distance looking at me. It looked like a cat at night when the lights of your car hit the eyes. And the more I closed in, the more I was intensely magnetized, riveted. It was like in French what they call a coup de foudre, where you suddenly feel he is so extremely right for the part, you just want to run downstairs, phone your partners and say, ‘I have the guy you’ve been looking for for six months.’

“And that was him.”

Annaud had just experienced the Jude Law frisson, a roguish charisma that effortlessly penetrates the clatter of a busy restaurant and enables him in “Enemy at the Gates” to arrest the viewer’s attention from the madhouse din of a battle scene. It is the frisky, keyed-up energy that allowed Law to upstage the award-caliber ensemble of “Ripley” (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman) with an Oscar-nominated performance of his own.

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“I would be seriously surprised,” Annaud adds without a trace of self-consciousness, “if he does not become one of the major, major male stars in the world.”

At 29, Jude Law is doing a few things that stars-on-the-verge are expected to be doing, and a few things they are not. The London-born actor was anointed as the cover story of last December’s Vanity Fair and completed a plum role in Steven Spielberg’s big summer-release opus, “AI,” from the first screenplay the director has written since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In a less flashy vein, Law has committed to starring on the London stage in a Young Vic production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” as part of an ambitious theater deal he has struck with his four film production partners, who include his actress wife, Sadie Frost, and actor chums Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller and Sean Pertwee.

For those who know Law as the ebullient American playboy Dickie Greenleaf in “Mr. Ripley” and the impish Michael in Broadway’s “Indiscretions” in 1995 (a role that earned him a Tony nomination), the relative earnestness of his “Enemy at the Gates” persona is disorienting. Even Law wasn’t convinced about portraying the real-life Russian hero sniper Vassili Zaitsev--his first starring role--till he reached the last page of the script.

“I read things very thoroughly,” says Law, who was in Manhattan recently promoting the film. A historical saga that kicks off with the bloody Battle of Stalingrad, it opened Friday. “The scale of the conflict really upset me. Here was this huge loss of life, this slaughter that I knew nothing about, the resonance of which only ended 10 years ago with the end of the Cold War.

“I loved the idea of a hero who is just an everyman. I had just come off playing all these men with a joie de vivre and confidence, or a spikiness like Bosie [Oscar Wilde’s lover, Alfred Douglas, in the 1995 biopic ‘Wilde’]. Here was someone who was self-doubting and simple, more rooted to the floor and salt of the earth. I thought, this is somewhere else to go, this is a new energy.”

Law’s cautiousness over career choices nearly got the better of him as he narrowly avoided turning down the picture that put him on the international map. He signed on for the ill-fated Dickie Greenleaf only after a pep talk from director Anthony Minghella.

“In the same way I suppose that Ginsberg encouraged Kerouac to stay in New York and publish his book rather than get back on the road and just keep being a beat, Anthony said, ‘C’mon, you deserve to get this part, you deserve to enjoy yourself.’ He challenged me by saying, ‘You need to perform an entire movie in half a movie.’ ”

Once Law agreed, he plunged into the role, whipping up “a tornado of masculinity” and a smooth breeze of aristocratic entitlement that stole the picture from his peers. “I went out every night and drank great wine, and just demanded that I was going to really enjoy myself, and not be scared of anyone.

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"[The cast’s prestige] was a little intimidating. I was a little nervous. But I thought, ‘Hang on, I’m going to walk in there as Dickie, I’m going to make them nervous of me.’

“It really was an enchanted company to be amongst, especially with Anthony there. Because he is a master conductor, a lover of actors, a lover of the written word, and somebody who liked working the same way I do: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, work, work, work, work, work, work.”

Name Partially Inspired by Famous Beatles Song

Law’s workhorse mentality may be the only legacy that he inherits from his Christian name, which his parents chose from two of the more freighted characters in English literature and pop music. The object of Paul McCartney’s advice in “Hey Jude” carries the world upon his shoulder. Thomas Hardy’s downtrodden stonemason in “Jude the Obscure” is so overwhelmed by toil and woe that his children commit suicide to lift some of the burden.

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“My mother gave me ‘Jude the Obscure’ to read at age 18, and I thought, blimey, what a character to be named after! Thank God it’s a good song. They used to sing it to me. Had it been some awful kind of schlocky ballad, it would have been a real gauntlet.”

The Law work ethic extends partly from advice given him by his father (both his parents were teachers), who once told him, “Be good at what you do. Respect your craft, respect your work, whatever it is.” But the utter thoroughness (Annaud claims that Law “knows every line, every indication of everything in the script by heart”) dates back to his career-turning stage performance at the Royal National Theater’s production of Jean Cocteau’s “Les Parents Terribles.” In a humbling turn of events for a 21-year-old, Law was the only member of the cast (with such heavyweights as Frances de la Tour, Alan Howard and Sheila Gish) chosen to repeat his performance for the Broadway production, which was renamed “Indiscretions” and starred Kathleen Turner, Eileen Atkins and Roger Rees.

“I was a bit shocked, a bit sensitive to that,” Law concedes with typical humility. He credits Sean Mathias, who directed the Cocteau play in both its West End and Broadway engagements, for steering him away from complacency. “He said, ‘OK, you’ve done that, don’t do it again.’ Sean taught me that just when you think you’ve taken a character all the way, you go even further. And I think that encouraged my appetite for constantly reading and studying for a part, and never thinking I’ve done enough. It was a very important part of my life.”

Law is trying his best to stay uncorrupted, even as he enters the top-bracket world of Spielberg movies. “Well, I still feel like I stayed true to my ideals in working with Steven, because it was a wonderful role, a really exciting project,” he explains, tiptoeing around details of the top-secret summer release. “It’s a really phenomenal combination of the seedy world of Kubrick and the fantastic fairy world of Spielberg.”

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Law also looks to his theater projects to stay true to his ideals and to his friends Miller and McGregor, with whom he and his wife formed the Natural Nylon production company (Nylon for New York and London). Law has known Miller (“Mansfield Park”) since he was 12, working for the National Music Theater, and he met McGregor when he was 18, starring in “The Fastest Clock in the Universe” for the Hampton Theater Group.

“My relationship with these guys is very important to me, because they are contemporaries with the same career as me. They really removed any sense of competition, because I love and respect them so much. There were times when we were all up for the same parts when we were younger, and one would get it and the other wouldn’t. And you realize, ‘Hang on, he’s completely different from me.’ It wasn’t always about ability and type; it was just about what someone wanted.

“I’m very grateful for that. I’ve managed to prolong a sense of ensemble rather than ‘I’ve gotta get this!’ I think that can be very destructive. It’s a business full of trip wires.”


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