One Cool Jude

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Jude Law stars with Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain

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Law has been that serious about his acting since he was a little lad in a working-class part of London, says his mother Maggie. From her, he inherited his green eyes, a penchant for tattoos (she has one on her back; he has several on his arms) and a love of the stage. She left a job teaching children when she was 40 to study and teach drama. "I don't know how he does it," she says, teary-eyed after seeing Cold Mountain. "I can't see the acting at all." While still in school, young Jude did lots of extracurricular theater, and his parents weren't surprised when he dropped out at 17 to take a role on the British TV soap Families.

It has taken a while for Law to get from soap dish to plat du jour, but that has been deliberate. "I've always desperately wanted to be taken seriously as an actor," he says. Minghella, who directed Law in Ripley and operates as something of a rabbi for him, feels the actor has moved beyond that: "I think he has accepted that he can carry a movie." And having assumed the mantle of chief romantic interest, Law is opening the floodgates. In quick succession after completing Mountain, he made his first comedy (David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabee's), his first biopic (The Aviator) and his first remake (Charles Shyer's Alfie). He also took on a parody of his newly minted hero persona, the role of Sky Captain, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, in the retro futurist The World of Tomorrow. Next up is Mike Nichols' Closer, the children's-book author Lemony Snicket and Tulip Fever, a love story set in 17th century Amsterdam, from a script by Tom Stoppard. None of these roles will involve too much wetwork, as they say in the hit-man business. But Law's dark side isn't totally banished. "Sometimes on Alfie Charlie said to me, Where the f___ are you going with this scene?" says the actor. "You're trying to get her into bed, not murder her."

Law seems to have understood, instinctively (or just by dumb luck), that sex-symboldom, like deity, is not just about desire and admiration. It's also about fear. All the bullies Law has played have been instructive, since heroes are just bullies with a cause and a love interest. Interestingly, it wasn't until Law's charmed life began to develop cracks that he started playing happy roles. "It is weird that after the year I've had, I'm now playing three really chirpy chaps," he says. Sometimes even the most desirable among us want to be someone else.

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