Jude Law turns the tables on his sexy, dangerous film persona in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. He plays a repressed, rigid and half alive bureaucrat whose wife’s affair sends her down the road to madness. His madness is clear too. He lives in an inhuman trap of control, surface and appearances. We spoke with Law in Toronto.
I knew Karenin was trouble the way he took the lid off the box so precisely.He’s not a man who is in touch with his humanness. It’s the most sexless sex scene or build up to a sex scene I’d ever seen, we wanted to play with that, that even the sex in the marriage had become ritualistic. Where he is extraordinary and where we hoped to make him more sympathetic than usual. Sometimes he’s conveniently portrayed as the bad guy, the loveless cuckold husband. For him the marriage is under God and his devout belief in his religion that that’s it. The marriage is blessed and it doesn’t have to exist in the heart and body, it’s not a lustful thing. He loves his wife, he doesn’t show it, but he loves her, he provides for her, he doesn’t beat her, which happened back then. He lets her look after the house, all those boxes are ticked, and the idea that he’s suddenly going to give more... Also I liked the idea this is my reading between the lines, that’s probably exactly what his parents were like. His son comes in and he doesn't know what to do, “Hello young man”. He probably wasn’t hugged and kissed and bitten and adored but going back to his faith, because it’s under the eye of God eh at least tries, he’s not going anywhere, he can’t be broken. He has to try to understand her. And that effort is extraordinary, to see a man forgiving, I don’t know it would be quite hard to forgive. It’s very hard to forgive not just her but the other man, Vronsky. It was quite a moment.
His look was extremely severe, was that odd for you?It wasn’t over thought. Film is such a visual medium and you can have a great effect in what you can look like. I like to tweak it losing or gaining hair, weight, little nuances audiences don’t pick up on that you feel shift or shake you and with this particular part it was clear from what was on the page that there was an opportunity to do something bold and different for me there were so many elements to his character that I didn't feel were investigated before. There was a stillness, severity and soberness to him, and introspection and we talked about his faith and we liked the idea that you look always at his head. His head, his pate is where he lived, in his brain, a man of the bureaucracy and straight lines and he saw life as an equation as opposed to an emotive force. If anything his journey is from his head to his heart, so the idea the idea of raising my fringe line came about and its worked we shaved and plucked so there were some strands left and pallor of the skin was the idea as opposed to Levin in the film whose life is lived he’s what Russians were doing inside, the bureaucracy of Russia. The bureaucrats were obsessed with their nails and didn’t want to be seen without them done. I grew them and got them manicured every day, little tweaks the film is rich with. There is a lot of work that went into it, not all of which is in there as its been pared down, but you get those subtle moments which I think highlight the period, the Russianness of the film and the intricacies of these very human people, these multisided characters.
Jude Law the cuckold, that’s quite a change given your film image as a rake.
I’ve played a few cads and a few love interests and so on; I don’t feel like I have hung my coat on it. It feel like it’s a variety and I think of myself doing a lot of theatre. Perhaps it’s the way the press has tended to talk about me and in that case, yeah, and all the more reasons to relish playing this part because I’ve always enjoyed this career because of the acting. I love the challenge to put on my audience and proud to be in something this bold and bracing and challenging.
Was there anything in the book or script that you kept coming back to, a passage or line or chapter?
There was a description of Tom who describes him as “clockwork" the way he relates to his son and the tussle between loving this boy and not knowing how to express it physically or in any way really was a real key for me. Also I felt the summation that Tom expressed through the last shot of him in the field with the two children with a soft hat and white shirt was my aim. Tom and I spoke early on about Karenin not showing his hand too son and that’s where I had to get to. If you get there with the audience they will think maybe he was true all that time, his loyalty and capacity to forgive was the noblest aspect of this tortured triptych. That was key to me and that was interesting because we didn’t film it till. We wrapped in December and we didn’t shoot that till June because we were waiting for the sun to come out for a meadow to grow in London. Ironically it rained all day, we had the worst June in history in England so I was so excited to get that shot in the film because as he said to me it was the final note of Karenin.
And that cracking of the knuckles!That was in the script and in the book. It was funny how to do that and having that detail onto the physicality. We wanted him to be still, still waters running deep and the voice too hushed and reedy. And the idea that there is just one expression of annoyance or discomfort is what’s going on down here, it’s not here (his heart) it’s hidden away down there, you can heard it. It’s funny that it infuriates her; she knows exactly what it means.
It frightened me because it seemed to me like he was preparing to make a fist.Of that’s interesting, it is a kind of restrained violence on oneself, I think of that when people crack their necks. I go “Oooof, what are you doing?” Yuck.
I thought he was going to become violent.
Fortunately not, he has my respect in that he would never ever go there. It’s not that it’s not the right thing to do, he just wouldn't boil over enough, and he wouldn’t have the anger to raise a hand to anyone. Somehow he knows how to compute things to deal with them here as opposed to having that be his first reaction.
When there is so much effort and work put into a role, and you have to say goodbye until he press tour, how do you do that?
I guess you just get used to it I’ve been doing it a while now. The film belongs to the directors so you have to give over your part for them to play with. Theatre is much more the actors’ medium and you feel more in control, you own it. It’s just part of the relationship you have with film and I don’t expect any more. And where it’s fun is that you suddenly re-engage with a project and you see what a director has done and say "Oh, oh that’s interesting" – or not – sometimes, but with a piece like this it’s so beautiful and bold and it’s both a celebrations of films of a bygone age and very inventive and modern and bringing a film like that to a festival and talk about it is a real treat.