So far, 2004 has been a very good year for David Jude Law. He spent much of February showing up at glittering award galas, basking in praise for his chunkiest role yet as moody Confederate deserter Inman in Cold Mountain. First came the BAFTAs, where he guffawed gamely when Stephen Fry teased his Wilde co-star about having Jude Law fantasies. Two weeks later, it was the Academy Awards, where he was up for his first ever Best Actor Oscar, and looked more ecstatic than Sean Penn when his Mystic River rival was announced as the winner. That he walked away empty-handed both times didn't really matter: the nominations, and the global tribute they delivered, served up decisive proof that Jude Law is no longer The British Actor Most Likely To… He's a fully-fledged member of the elite club of Hollywood Leading Men.
Looking enviously tanned, happy and relaxed as Total Film meets up with him on a sunny September afternoon, Law has spent the past few months as a man of leisure, taking his three kids (with ex Sadie Frost) camping in France, hanging out with his pals and romancing Sienna Miller. He stopped working in April, halting an 18-month run of films that, by a strange quirk of actorly fate, have stacked up like London buses and are due to hit our screens in swift succession. "It was the first time I had ever gone back-to-back on jobs," says the 31-year-old Lewisham lad of his six-movie streak. "Before, I'd always enjoyed doing one and then taking the rest of the year off."
Out of the blocks already is the Law-produced Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, in which Jude battles giant robots, bluescreen acting and hazardous dialogue. As revolutionary as its visuals are, Total Film suspects it'll end up the runt of the litter when stacked against the rest: David O Russell's I Heart Huckabees, Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events, Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and Mike Nichols' partner-swapping drama Closer (see page 61).
But foremost amongst the oncoming Law deluge is Alfie. The first studio movie resting wholly on his shoulders (putting that newfound leading-man status on the line), Charles Shyer's 21st-century remoulding of the Michael Caine classic would have sent lesser stars running away in fright. "I am very nervous for all the obvious reasons," Law admits, "but I am proud of the film." He's entitled to be: it's a stylish update of the 1966 original, and Law is terrific in it - callous and roguish like Caine in the original, but displaying more charm and vulnerability as well.
With all the lousy remakes of British films in recent years, what made you confident that Alfie wouldn't end up on that underachieving slagheap?
It's such a loved classic. And I imagine, like everyone else, I was never a great fan of remakes. But I realised we weren't just remaking it for the hell of it, we were actually trying to reinvestigate its essence, to look into the inner workings of the sexual terrain - which is something that's always relevant - and at how little that has changed since the '60s and how much it has changed. People never question when they remake Hamlet or Macbeth, and in a way Alfie is an iconic figure.
I was cynical about it, but it was the fear factor that provoked me to do it in the end. I always like the idea of being scared before I do a project because what's the point in doing something straightforward and easy?
Your Alfie is still pretty much a bastard but he's a modern bastard - he's cast in a slightly less misogynistic mould than Michael Caine's callous incarnation...
Yes, but you can see how little we had to change and then by changing so little, how much changed around him. What's interesting is how shocking he still is. We all know that people think like that - women think like that too - but people are still shocked by those thoughts. That's quite surprising. So many of the women on set were like, "Oh my Gawd, I can't believe it…"
Was there anything in the script that worried you, in terms of making him too reprehensible?
I was constantly trying to drag him into the mire. I'm always a bit scared of crystal-clean, candy-smile characters, but Charles [Shyer, director] pushed me to embellish that side of the performance rather than play it down. And I was like, "No! Let's play it really fucked up!" In the end it came out as quite a nice balance between the two.
He's not exactly the edgiest director in Hollywood. Was it a hard decision to say yes to him?
It was. You have to go into those situations thinking, "Is this someone I want to spend four months of my life with? Will we end up hating each other?" There is no point doing something, however good or legendary a director may be, if you're going to have a miserable time. The audition ends up being like a mutual flirtation. You talk in code: "What kind of film is this? What are your influences? Are we on the same page?" But that's the way I've always been. It's crazy not to go into a film wondering how a director is going to handle you, or whether or not he'll push you.
Did you ever discuss the remake with Michael Caine?
No, not really. I'd met him once and then I didn't see him again until I was already doing the film and we did a Vanity Fair photo shoot together. He's just an extraordinary man - so generous and gracious. He took it as a compliment that everyone wants to remake his films. He was also very respectful in that he didn't say, "Do it like this". I remember him doing a masterclass where they showed little bits from Alfie and he was talking about treating the camera as your friend - thinking of it like someone you could confide in. That's all Michael said to me: "Find a friend in the lens."
The remake is set in New York and all Alfie's women are American, so the American audience is vital. Will you be upset if UK audiences don't take to it?
Sure. But it used to mean more to me when I was starting out. This is my home and I feel a strange kinship with how a film does over here. But just for survival reasons, you have to ultimately look at what you got from it. It's not worth the emotional rollercoaster to pin those hopes on it, it's just pure survival: "I had a bloody good time making it. No one saw it and it made no money and I will never work again… But I had fun, while it lasted."
Producer Jon Avnet said that he was trying to cast against type when he cast you in Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow. Did you think that?
I don't know what my type is! But I always try and do stuff that's a bit different from the last thing, to keep myself interested and interesting. I knew exactly what Kerry [Conran, Sky Captain's helmer] wanted to create and I really loved the idea. It was all the inspirations that I loved as a kid: comic books, Saturday-morning serials, the simplicity of a swashbuckler, without guns and drugs and sex. I loved that he was a cut-out cartoon guy who wasn't recovering from this or overcoming that - he was just doing his job and saving the world. And I thought that Kerry was just this talent waiting to happen.
What about the challenge of acting against bluescreen? Isn't it one of the worst experiences for an actor?
There were days of mind-numbing annoyance, but in a weird way it freed us up. It was taking it back to the core of what acting is all about - make-believing as a kid in the playground or in the bedroom, or in a theatre with nothing but a black set. We tried to give Kerry more than he needed, rather than just shooting a list of shots that he could fill in around. He really let us loose with it.
Another director with a singular vision is David O Russell, who you worked with on I Heart Huckabees. How did you two hook up?
I had seen Three Kings and thought it was one of the most exciting and relevant films to come out after the first Gulf War. The first time we met, he told me this story about a documentary he was making. And then he called me the next day and said, "Everything I told you last night was a lie. I made it all up." And I thought, "What!!!?" I was bemused, but I loved that, like a child, he had gone with this impulse and then felt guilty enough to call me up. Then he wrote I Heart Huckabees, which I thought was beautiful and unique and hilarious, and I just wanted to work with him.
Huckabees contains what has to be the most disturbing scene in a film this year, featuring you in a blond wig breastfeeding Jason Schwartzman...
[Laughs loudly] Somewhere, in David's archives, there's footage of Dustin Hoffman breastfeeding me and Jason Schwartzman, which didn't make the final cut. Believe me, Jason, Dustin and I all had fake tits for this one day. It was very revealing and interesting to see the way people act in that sort of situation. They certainly didn't look at my face that day.
From the surreal to the sublime... How did you end up playing Errol Flynn for Martin Scorsese in The Aviator?
We met a couple of times to talk about it and I met with Leo DiCaprio. God, it was five days, one scene - don't go to the loo! It's Howard Hughes' first date with Katharine Hepburn in the Coconut Club and they bump into his PR agent, who's getting drunk with Errol Flynn. It was fun - an opportunity to work with Leo and watch Scorsese at work and to play Errol Flynn. What a laugh. And it's not Errol in tights - it's Errol being drunk and disorderly.
How was it working with Scorsese on your scene?
We rehearsed for a day just creating the atmosphere and feeling each other out. We improvised little bits and threw in things that we'd picked up. Then he screened a couple of movies of the period so that we got a sense of the banter and the speed of dialogue that he wanted to recreate. On the day, he was just incredibly delicate, respectful - like a masseur, tweaking things out of you.
Let's cast an eye back at your early career...
You seemed to mostly play characters who were either bitter, angry, cruel or all three. Were those the only kind of roles being offered to you? Are there links between the characters in Shopping, Gattaca, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil and Wilde?
Yeah, they were angry young men! It was never a conscious decision to link them up. It was just stuff that scared, challenged or provoked me; something that I would want to see. They were all angry young men. I guess I had something to sort out. Maybe I should send them all to an analyst and save myself the heartache of going myself.
The role that first put you in the spotlight was Shopping, which kind of launched your career but was also shredded by critics...
It didn't launch my career - it was just the first film I made. I had got into acting to be in the theatre, because, coming from southeast London, being in films didn't seem realistic. So auditioning for a film and then being in a film was an incredible thrill. Shopping was a sharp learning curve. It wasn't a film in the end that I wanted to be in. As a young guy, I didn't think about that - I was just happy to be asked. But it sent me back into the theatre for another three years, until I did Gattaca.
Did you feel scarred by the whole Shopping experience?
I was afraid. There is something very permanent about film. I had to be certain and I wasn't certain until I read Gattaca. I fought and fought to get an audition and get the part cos I thought it was an amazing, original piece of writing. I still think the film is amazing and timeless.
After you finished Gattaca, you came back to the UK to play Bosie in Wilde. Were you worried about playing such a reprehensible character?
That was the thrill. I was scared silly but in safe hands. Brian [Gilbert] is a very embracing, generous, intelligent director and I felt confident in him. I just felt like, "If I can do this one then I can do anything". You're always trying to prove to yourself that you can overcome your fears.
Was that how it felt with Cold Mountain?
Absolutely. The thing with that film was rather than putting on layers of a character, it was like peeling an onion and slowly getting down to the middle. Also relying more on silence than dialogue and pure physicality. For me, it was the first time I'd thought, "I am going to carry this film." I just felt so completely involved in it.
Inman and Alfie both seem to be the kind of more romantic roles you resisted earlier in your career...
I wasn't really resisting them. As a twentysomething actor I didn't feel moved to play those roles, I didn't find them interesting. I never had an appetite to go and see films about a 20 year old and his relationship problems. I wanted to flex other muscles. Having turned 30, I felt capable of playing an Alfie-type role and embracing it. I felt like I could bring more than just a young guy's charm and looks to it. Maybe I had just gone far enough one way and thought going against type is what would be most interesting and challenging.
What role has had the biggest impact on your career in terms of directors saying they wanted to work with you?
I think just because of the people involved, it was The Talented Mr Ripley. It had so much attention because Anthony Minghella's prior film [The English Patient] had been so celebrated and Matt [Damon] had won an Oscar and Gwyneth [Paltrow] was about to win her Oscar. I was really aware that suddenly I found myself playing to a much bigger audience.
And yet you almost turned Dickie Greenleaf down. What were you afraid of?
I think playing up to this blond Lothario thing. And that's probably the reason why it ended up being so positive… I really had to raise my game.
Now that you've had a few months off, are you ready to go back to work?
Definitely. I'm doing a film in December called All The King's Men with Sean Penn and Meryl Streep, which we're shooting in Louisiana.
What's happened to the remake of Sleuth you're developing? Is Michael Caine still going to be in it?
Harold Pinter is still writing it. Michael wants to play the role Olivier originally played and I will take the role he played. It's not imminent, but it's certainly along the way.
You're a huge fan of Alan Moore's Watchmen. Have you had any conversations with Darren Aronofsky, who's adapting it for the screen?
No, but I am a huge Watchmen fan - it was one of those classic stories that I always thought as a kid would make a fantastic film. And Aronofsky is a great director. I'm now doing very blatant advertising! Please call me, Darren!