He's a well-known movie star who's fodder for the tabloids, but Jude Law wants you to think of him — for the next few months, at least — as the Prince of Denmark. And as Law prepares for his Broadway opening in a much-anticipated production of Hamlet, director Michael Grandage says that shouldn't be too much of a stretch. Audiences in England, says Grandage, already think of Law as more than just a pretty face.
"He's known for somebody who enjoys taking on great classical texts and interpreting them in a fresh and alive way," Grandage says. "And, eventually, when you do that for quite a bit of your life and you go into your 30s, Hamlet eventually looms up in front of you as something to be tackled before you go on much longer. And so it was with Jude."
Law's Hamlet opened in London's West End to great excitement and acclaim last spring; now the production has made the trip to West 44th Street. And while Shakespeare's famous character may be haunted by the ghost of his father, Law says he wasn't haunted by the daunting roll call of great actors who've played the role, from Richard Burbage (the original, 400 years ago) to Richard Burton.
"I think what's key about this part and what we discovered very quickly is that there's no definitive Hamlet," Law says. "Hamlet shifts in the skin. ... He has the capability — and the play has the capability — to morph with the times."
Law says he discovered almost immediately that despite the accumulated tonnage of Hamlet scholarship and tradition, the character "had to come from inside me — so the idea of carrying this mantle sort of disappeared immediately."
Not that Law avoided outside research. He says he spent a year reading everything he could about the play, its history and its various interpretations, before he began rehearsals. Then he and Grandage spent time alone working on the part.
"We started a week before everyone else, and we started on the soliloquies," Law says. "And there are no stupid questions, he always says. Everyone's allowed to be an idiot and say, 'What the hell does that word mean?' And, 'What am I saying here?' And, 'Do we all get this?' And so you start by pulling it apart, line for line, word for word."
Grandage's direction is all about clarity. The set is spare, and the director says he wanted to present a "timeless" modern production of Hamlet — contemporary dress, yes; BlackBerrys, no — so audiences could relate more directly to the characters and the situations.
"We also knew, because Jude Law was playing Hamlet, that we would hopefully be engaging with a lot of young people," Grandage says. "And I didn't want their first experience in the theater, let alone their first experience with Shakespeare, to be something that alienated them in any way. I wanted it to be as fresh and as modern as it could be."
Keeping Hamlet fresh is part of Law's approach. Geraldine James, who plays Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, says she's constantly surprised by the range Law displays from night to night.
"I never know what Jude's gonna do, and it's often different and always amazing," says James, who'll be familiar to Broadway audiences who saw her play Portia — alongside Dustin Hoffman's Shylock — in a celebrated Merchant of Venice a decade ago.
"Sometimes, it's very, very, very emotional. Sometimes it's less emotional," she says of Law's Prince Hamlet. "Sometimes it gets more angry. Sometimes it's more frightening."
Law says quicksilver changes are all part of the role — Hamlet can go from high to low, from tragedy to comedy, in the space of a few lines. And even as he faces the turmoil of a father murdered, a mother marrying the murderer, and eventually committing murder himself, Hamlet is always the smartest guy in the room; his key characteristic, the actor says, is a wit "that doesn't rely on falsehood or anger or anything other than a sharp, fast mind and an equally matched tongue."
Law says it's his job to bring all the aspects of this tragic role to life for the audience. He's always mindful of how this prince, destined to be king, has been violently thwarted.
"Every night I want to try and fulfill the possibility that he would've 'been most royal, had he been put on,' " the actor says, quoting another character's assessment of Hamlet in the play's closing scene. "He actually had the possibility of being a great king and a great man. ... To me, one of the elements of the tragedy is that you see a positive human become sort of hardened and tarnished, being a murderer. And it's simply through him trying to cope with the world."