To say that Jude Law is director Guy Ritchie’s muse might be an overstatement, but the pair have worked together on three feature films (plus a Dior Homme ad campaign) in just the last eight years.
“He’s sort of my go-to guy,” said Ritchie. “I adore him as an actor.”
So when it came time to cast “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” an epic reimagining of the Arthurian tale, he thought of Law right away.
“I was confident I could do something with Jude,” he said. “We have a shorthand with one another, and it just works.”
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That shorthand came in handy while filming the $100-million production in which Law plays the villainous Vortigern opposite Charlie Hunnam’s Arthur, a drastic departure in tone from the stalwart Dr. Watson whom Law portrayed in Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” franchise.
“The last time I worked with Jude, I had him playing a goodie,” Ritchie said. “(This time), I fancied him playing a baddie.”
Vortigern — whom Law plays with the calculated, charismatic complexity he refined as Pope Pius XIII for HBO’s “The Young Pope” — seizes the crown after staging a coup against Arthur’s father and his own brother, King Uther Pendragon (played by Eric Bana).
“He’s somebody who’s drunk on power,” Law said of his character. “He’s lost in attaining a higher position of dominance at the cost of anything. I enjoy working with (Guy) in this sort of action-adventure genre. He’s very collaborative and spontaneous. And I’ve always been curious to see how he brings his own style to these quite legend and established settings.”
The setting in this case is medieval Europe, all gleaming armor and sumptuous furs, which Law found thrilling despite its over-the-top elements.
“Sometimes it’s very humorous and camp and silly,” he said. “Strutting around in leather and furs and huge metal helmets and what have you. Other days it’s exciting. It’s exciting because it somehow harks back to Old Hollywood and the idea of being in something immense and epic.”
And is it ever epic. Swordplay and raging battles take up a good portion of screen time, including a scene where Arthur single-handedly takes down dozens of Vortigern’s soldiers. Ritchie’s signature visual punch reigns over the mayhem.
“To a degree, you’ve got to be consistent,” said Ritchie. “There’s certain tropes that that genre demands and then from that you take sojourns off into what is hopefully fresh territory.”
One of the artistic liberties Ritchie took with this film was including a diverse cast of actors, something missing in many big-screen period dramas.
“What I was going for was an idea of what London would’ve been like post-Roman trading center,” the director said. “I wanted a culture that represented what felt to me both contemporary yet simultaneously antiquated. The extreme of multiculturalism post-Roman trades and the extreme of the multicultural center that London is now. It felt like there was a sort of similarity of identities going on there.”
For Law, a major artistic liberty was his decision to infuse Vortigern, the clear antagonist, with a depth that makes him compelling to watch even as you’re rooting against him. What he sacrifices to gain power clearly pains him but doesn’t stop him. “I’ve never been particularly interested in taking parts that are one or the other,” said Law. “You sort of take parts that have a complexity to them and you try to bring humanity to the villains and a sort of edge to the heroes and meet all of them somewhere in the middle.”
This dichotomy between good and bad is also present in Hunnam’s Arthur, as street-smart as his “Sons of Anarchy” character Jax Teller, yet simmering with signature heroic self-righteousness.
“Charlie Hunnam is spectacular,” said Ritchie. “Because he’s developed so much of his talent through TV, he’s a very technical actor. He understands the pace that I move, he’s there before anyone else and he leaves after everyone else. It’s a relief to find an actor that understands exactly what we’re doing.”
Still, Hunnam had to win over the director the hard way before being awarded the part.
“Charlie insisted that he was going to get the role,” recalled Ritchie. “He went through a long and painful process of screen tests, which he was incredibly elegant about and simply wore down the competition. So he earned it on his own merits.”