The Young Pope’s Jude Law: “I’m sure someone is going to be offended – but that’s what storytelling’s about”

The actor plays a chain-smoking, Cherry Coke-drinking American pope in Sky Atlantic's new drama – what could possibly go wrong?

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He may be the head of the Roman Catholic Church, with 1.2 billion faithful followers to minister to seven days a week, 365 days a year (high days and holidays no exception) but it is without doubt easier to get an audience with the Pope than it is with Jude Law.

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You simply book a place and turn up. Which is, as I’m about to find out, not the case with Lewisham’s most famous son. He is, after all, a man who once said: “My only obligation is to keep myself and other people guessing.”

When Radio Times sets out on a pilgrimage (of sorts) to interview Law about his latest starring role in Sky Atlantic’s devilishly good new blockbuster, The Young Pope, he is holed up at the Venice film festival, hiding behind the velvet ropes on the Lido, his people only granting access to the lucky, glossy few. Meanwhile the real thing, Pope Francis I, is busy pursuing his apostolic mission to the world by proclaiming Mother Teresa a saint in Rome.

After much to-ing and fro-ing and a great deal of petitioning, RT is about to be granted 15 minutes of Law’s time. But before being ushered into his presence I am asked perfectly pleasantly, if a little surprisingly, not to embarrass anyone by asking for a “selfie”. I have embarrassed myself many times in my life, but have yet to do so by asking a film star (or indeed anyone) for a selfie. Still, seeing no point in prolonging the agony, I swiftly agree.

On screen Law plays Lenny Belardo – a young, good-looking, Cherry Coke Zero-drinking, smoking cardinal who finds himself thrust onto the throne of Saint Peter at the behest of scheming cardinals. Smart, lush, funny, occasionally surreal and a satire not so much of the Catholic Church as of power and politics, it has been dubbed “House of Cardinals”, a nod to Kevin Spacey’s reinvention of the BBC classic of Machiavellian manoeuvring, House of Cards.

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Except Lenny isn’t Frank Underwood – he’s much more complicated than that. Initially it seems the cardinals think a cool young American pope could be just what the papal brand needs to modernise its image. But when Lenny adopts the name Pius XIII – one freighted with history since Pius XI accommodated Mussolini and Pius XII is sometimes damned as “Hitler’s pope” – and reveals himself to be an arch conservative (anti-gay, anti-divorce, anti-abortion) it becomes apparent that they have made an unholy error. With entertaining and absorbing results, if the first two hours of this ten-part cinematic extravaganza are anything to go by.

Law is not religious, that much becomes clear almost immediately. Dressed in the kind of garb that only those blessed with film-star good looks can make look smart – T-shirt, baggy trousers, suede shoes, no socks – he is every inch the Hollywood demi-god, more well built than you imagine, although smaller too. But he does not do God – at least not yet.

“I’ve never been a great believer,” he says. “I’m a great believer in parameters, I’m not a great believer in rules and I would say that I am a believer in the natural order as opposed to imagined order. But it is an evolving thing for me, not something that has a lid on it.”

Certainly he has never lived by the rule book, with five children by three different mothers and a personal life once so gripping the tabloids pursued him using all sorts of underhand methods, including phone-hacking, as his one-time girlfriend Sienna Miller testified to the Leveson Inquiry. These days life has quietened down, and the 43-year-old, who grew up the son of school teachers in Lewisham, south-east London, is happily settled with his girlfriend, psychologist Phillipa Coan.

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But he has no faith? “I have faith in all sorts of things. I wasn’t brought up in a particularly religious house but I reached out to all sorts of literature when I was a kid and continue to, whether it’s Buddhist, Catholic or Islamic. I would say I was more polytheist than monotheist.”

Which sounds like “Not really”. Having said that, he was prepared to do his homework for this role. “I went back to the Bible, which I had only ever read as a schoolboy, but it didn’t really feel I was learning anything that was going to help me play the part.” What? He could find nothing in the Bible to help him channel the Pope? “I suppose in a way my relationship with the Bible reflects my relationship with Catholicism. There are moments of incredible clarity and inspiration and other moments of incredible frustration and fury!”

Fury might be a good word to describe the possible reaction among some Catholics to Law’s performance. Within minutes of the opening titles he is addressing the masses in Saint Peter’s Square in a dream sequence with the unforgettable line: “Have we forgotten how to masturbate?” He also disrobes before the first advert break to reveal a pert papal backside. So far, so outrageous. Yet elsewhere he seems the perfect antidote to the schemers and operators of the Vatican, asking continually, as if the voice of their conscience, “What have we forgotten?” It is, to say the least, a magnificently ambiguous performance.

Of course, in the real world the Pope is a 79-year-old bald Argentinian with a goofy smile, who only landed the job when the previous incumbent resigned. But with more than 30 million followers on his nine @Pontifex Twitter accounts, Pope Francis is proving way more popular than any pope in recent times.

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Clearly a smart operator of modern media, his status may also have something to do with his championing of the poor, the oppressed and the green movement, all the while making conciliatory noises about homosexuality, gender inequality and divorce.

But what will the faithful make of this fictitious pope in the home of the Catholic Church, Italy? The man who commissioned The Young Pope is Andrea Scrosati, head of Sky Italia.

“In this country we have had two shows about a pope every year for the past 30 years. They are all incredibly good popes that everybody loves, with nothing in their life to make them human,” says Scrosati. “But remember we live in an era when, for the first time in 500 years, a pope has resigned and we have two popes. If that doesn’t show you that popes have personal dilemmas too, what will?”

Though personal dilemmas and honest investigations of the human condition make for great drama, what about offending people just for the sake of it? “We all live in a world where any piece of art can be considered offensive by somebody,” says Scrosati, who admits he doesn’t have the “luxury” of being religious.

Does he worry about that? “The team who wrote this, a lot of them are Catholic and we had consultants from the Catholic Church. I don’t think they will find it offensive. They will find it challenging. Those who have the most sincere faith are the ones that constantly question… This is the story of the show.”

The Oscar-winning director who dreamt up the series, Paolo Sorrentino, is as shy about discussing his religion (or lack thereof) as everyone else involved in the drama. But it has been a lifelong project. “I had the idea as a boy many years ago,” says the 46-year-old Neopolitan, who won his Oscar for The Great Beauty in 2014. “It was an image that I didn’t actually use in the series about the pope dressed in white skiing down a mountain using crosses as ski poles.”

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Sorrentino receives his Oscar

He was inspired to write the screenplay after reading journals by various cardinals. Daily life in the Vatican intrigued him, even if he didn’t want to address the very real scandals that swirl around the Church, mainly involving financial malpractice and sexual abuse. “All the big scandals are not mentioned. I mean the Vatican was smart enough to discredit itself already.” No doubt he was pleased to discover the Vatican newspaper gave The Young Pope a glowing review after the screening in Venice.

It’s interesting that at a time when Pope Francis is busy rehabilitating the image of the papacy among the indifferent and the secular, creators of fiction have become fascinated by the dark side of the Holy See. In Robert Harris’s new best seller Conclave the pope has died and the cardinals gather to elect his successor, with the inevitable unravelling of careers and morals as power corrupts. Is it this that drew Law to take Holy Orders? “It’s not The West Wing in the Vatican,” the actor says firmly. “The themes are more about how an individual survives one’s relationship with faith as opposed to accurately portraying Vatican politics.”

Did he worry at all about causing offence? “Obviously I thought long and hard about that. But we are only investigating the conservative side of Catholicism. We’re not scandalising it. We’re not judging it. I’m sure someone somewhere is going to be offended by it but that’s what storytelling is about, opening discussion, openly, freely and diplomatically… I’m all for that.”

Christians, though, are a bit of a soft target. Sky’s impresarios wouldn’t, perhaps, have come to him with a television series about Islam’s upper echelons? “They probably wouldn’t. Sadly, in a way, because if done tastefully and delicately and intelligently, I think everything should be open for discussion.”

With that – bang on 15 minutes – our time is up. Meantime in Rome, Mother Teresa has been proclaimed a saint and Pope Francis is greeting the faithful. And I remember something Andrea Scrosati told me earlier. “I have met Pope Francis several times in public and in private. At the public events he will stay for hours doing selfies with people. That’s incredible, isn’t it?”

Yes, incredible. He’d never make it as an actor.

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The Young Pope begins tonight at 9pm on Sky Atlantic