Jude Law stars in HBO’s new drama The Young Pope playing Lenny Belando, aka Pius XIII, the first American Pope in history.
His election seems to be the result of a media strategy on the part of the College of Cardinals. But they soon discover that the controversial Lenny, now the leader of the billion-member congregation, is shrewd and naïve, doubting and resolute, melancholy and ruthless.
The series is funny, dramatic and surreal. Jude Law came by the TV Critics tour to discuss his role and his admiration for the series’ creator and director, Paolo Sorrentino.
The Young Pope – Lenny Belando, aka Pius XIII (Jude Law) ©2017 HBO

Was playing the Pope transformative for you in any way? What did you take away from it?

Transformative? Yes, I think it was. But I think the thing I took away that really stands out was the experience of working with Paolo.

It was really eye-opening to work with someone who had such clarity of vision and contributed such an extraordinary signature and heightened, every day in every way, what we were all doing as a cast and as a team.

I wasn’t brought up in a particularly religious household, but I’ve always been curious about faith and one’s personal relationship with faith. And I suppose it encouraged me to question and look at that a little more.

What kind of questions did you have for Paolo?

My questions were always, “How do I find this man?’ I think I started looking initially in the wrong place.

And Paolo directed me to create Lenny and not to worry so much about playing a pope, I felt pretty clear as to what I wanted to do.

It seemed to me that Lenny was a man who had constructed a rule book, a list of rules by which he steered himself, both in the political world of the Church, but also privately. And it’s what enabled him to achieve so much so young but is also what’s alienated him. Constructing that rule book is what made it possible, personally.

The Young Pope – Lenny Belando, aka Pius XIII (Jude Law) ©2017 HBO

Did the idea of the Pope smoking come from you?

It was scripted, and I believe it was inspired by (Pope) Benedict, who apparently liked a cigarette after mass.

It was a wonderful kind of detail of character that Paolo included. His scripts are rich with detail of both musical and character reference. And for an actor, that’s joyful, you sink your teeth into those.

Did the costumes help you to get into the role?

I think 20-something years ago when I was starting out, I underestimated the power of costume as an actor. And in this role, whether it was his daily white robes or whether it was the more formal robes of ritual, it had a great impact and was incredibly helpful, although, at times, very uncomfortable.

I’m glad I played it in my 40s and not in my 70s because I don’t know how those guys carry that stuff when they’re that old. Obviously, a huge amount of reveling and feeling the status of someone in that position is helped by the reaction of others. And when you’re being carried in by 12 men on a golden throne with robes, bejeweled robes, it helps a lot.

The Young Pope – Esther (Ludivine Sagnier) and Lenny Belando, aka Pius XIII (Jude Law) ©2017 HBO

Who is Lenny?

He’s not a liar. He’s full of contradictions, which I believe we all are, but he’s particularly contradictory, but he doesn’t lie. A man of conviction from his own standpoint.

He’s trying to understand his heart. He’s trying to understand his faith, which I think you’ll see is ultimately what he’s always been doing, but now the spotlight’s really on him.

I think he imagined, getting the top job, that he would have a direct line to the person who’s guided him and seen him through a lonely existence. And that’s God. And the line is busy, and so he has to work out how to answer these questions for himself.

Can you talk more about Lenny’s vulnerabilities and more human side, assuming there is one?

Sure. And there is. One of the reasons I love Paolo’s work is that he can take epic themes and operatic scale and make it very human. When I was preparing for this part, I initially started, probably understandably, thinking, “Gosh, I need to educate myself on papal history, on Catholic history, on life in the Vatican.”

I didn’t really find any answers as to who this character was. And Paolo kept reminding me that really I had to concentrate on who Lenny Belardo was. Lenny is an orphan, and really, at his heart, he is trying to understand this sense of lack of love. A lot of the part he plays as Pope Pius is trying to understand that and, if you like, understand his sense of solitude through his power.

But the vulnerabilities are there and, I hope, slowly unpeeled if you stick with the ten hours.

The Young Pope – Lenny Belando, aka Pius XIII (Jude Law) ©2017 HBO, photo by Gianni Fiorito

Are there times when you went, ‘Hey, that’s too much’ or ‘Can I do that?’

If I’m honest, I think I underestimated the brutality of Lenny. I always think, as an actor, you have to be your character’s best friend and biggest supporter, because you have to be on his or her side.

Just as in real life, the bad guy doesn’t think he’s the bad guy; he thinks he’s the good guy, right? Well, maybe not always. But in the case of Lenny, looking back, I underestimated how brutal he was in some moments of the piece. But in the moment, I was just reveling in it, if I’m honest. Sometimes it’s a wonderful excuse to behave badly.

I think it’s in the first episode where Lenny says, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ and then he says, ‘I’m joking.’ Did you think he was joking?

I don’t want to give too much away. (He pauses) No, he’s not joking.

The Young Pope Jude Law Soundbyte

Jude was asked what it was like working with Diane Keaton. She plays Sister Mary, an American nun who lives in the Vatican. Did she lay down the (Jude) Law? Or does she get his blessing?

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane