Venice: Jude Law on Playing Contradictory, Manipulative and Conniving 'Young Pope'

The Young Pope -Jude Law-Still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Gianni Fiorito/Fremantle Media

Director Paolo Sorrentino also explains how the ultra-conservative pope is a reminder that the real-life Vatican leader may not always be so open.

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope has finally arrived. Premiering the first two episodes in Venice on Saturday, Jude Law plays Lenny Belardo turned leader of the Catholic Church. While early rumors on the show had him pegged as a politically manipulative, conservative pope, audiences had no idea just what they were in for. It’s safe to say he’s just about the complete opposite of the current Pope Francis, a more liberal, open-minded state figure.

Law’s Pope Pius XIII is a demanding, authoritarian figure who aims to put the fear of God back into the people while isolating all those around him. Diane Keaton plays his sometimes ally Sister Mary. And James Cromwell plays Cardinal Michael Spencer, who believes he should have been elevated to the papacy. But ultimately, Lenny knew how to play the game better than anyone. The first two episodes, out of 10, reveal potential for an incredibly strong season, as it begs to be seen if Lenny has what it takes to lead. There's also great potential for an ongoing serialized show.

Produced by HBO, Sky and Canal Plus, the series premieres in Europe in October. HBO has not yet set an American release date. FremantleMedia announced Saturday before the Venice launch that the show has sold globally.

At a press conference for Young Pope, director/creator Sorrentino insisted his show is not trying to stir up any problems with the Catholic Church.

“It’s a Vatican problem, not mine," he said. "And it’s not even a problem — if they’re patient enough to see it up to the end, they will understand that we simply tried to tackle with curiosity and with honesty, without taking a provocative stance, to investigate the contradictions and the difficulties and the fascinating aspects of priests and nuns, and one who’s somewhat different from the others: the pope.”

For Sorrentino, it also wasn't an accident that the character is so different from the current pope. “We depicted him very differently from the existing pope, but it’s something that might happen,” he explained. “It’s possible that after a very liberal pope, there is someone that might have very different ideas. I think it’s an illusion that the church has a long-term idea towards modernity.”

Law was immediately on board with the project and the opportunity to work with Sorrentino and his unique visual language, aided again here by the cinematography of his longtime partner Luca Bigazzi.

“To find myself as a color in his paint box and be on those wonderful sets," the actor said, "and in those beautiful compositions was just a joy."

But Law did worry about interpreting such a public role as that of the pope. “Paolo’s emphasis was always that this was about a man, Lenny Belardo, the orphan who happened to be a pope,” he said. “Once I started approaching it from that point of view and the history of this man and the relationships he has with all these people, it started to come together a lot more."

He continued: "It was almost as if the character Pope Pius XIII was a character that Lenny Belardo was playing. It was almost as if he was working out his own dilemmas and problems through his character. And it was only then that the pope I was playing started to make sense.”

And Law did find some similarities between himself and the papal character, who ultimately decides to build a rock star persona around himself: “I think anyone who finds themselves, either through choice or not, in some sort of public role has a dilemma between who they are in private and who they are supposed to represent in public, so of course there are elements that must run true to me."

As the season unfolds, it will clearly be a game of political maneuvering between the many Vatican characters involved. “I think really more than anything I am curious about the strategies that Lenny has acquired over the years to keep people at bay," Law said, "and which people to let in and which people to keep out and also how to maneuver and manipulate through people to get what he wants."

He added: “At the same time, he’s always been an honest man. I admired the way in which he could be incredibly contradictory. He could absolutely say one thing one minute and another thing the next and believe absolutely in both. That’s not something that’s familiar to me.” 

Watch the new trailer below.