“It’s Great Fun.” Jude Law on Being a Despicable Villain in ‘King Arthur’

Jude Law is no stranger to playing the role of Pompous Asshole (see Dom Hemingway or Contagion for good examples). In Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, however, he is straight-up evil as Vortigern. Flicks’ Matt Glasby joined Law around an English round table to find out more about being a villain, working with Ritchie, and the truth about magic. (Glasby also talked to Ritchie and star Charlie Hunnam.)

FLICKS: Is it fun playing a villain?

JUDE LAW: It is fun; course the villain doesn’t think he’s the villain necessarily. Having said that, in this case I think it’s fair to say Vortigen probably knows full well that he’s being led by a darker force, but as an actor, yeah, it’s great fun. Playing a villain, and one with immense power, is a kind of interesting marriage to delve into.

How would you deal with that kind of power yourself?

That’s a good question. Hopefully with a lot more diplomacy and open-mindedness and humanity than, er, Donald Tr… I mean Vortigen.

What’s it like working with Guy Ritchie?

This is my third film with him – obviously I did the two Sherlocks – so one of the big reasons I got involved is because he’s a friend, and I was curious to see what he would do. He’s one of the few directors who really has a signature style, and that can be divisive, but to me it also makes it very authentic. It’s an authentic Guy Ritchie-type movie. See what I mean?

I was intrigued when I got involved in Sherlock to see how that would apply to Victorian Holmesian-style whodunits, and with this I was intrigued to see how it would feed into a rollicking knights and wizards fairytale.

We see you 20 years younger at the beginning of the film. Which do you prefer: yourself today or back then?

I’m very happy in my skin now. I was quite pleased that I could play myself 20 years younger [laughs]; they didn’t bring in some other guy.


I think there might be a little bit going on [laughs]. Only in one of the shots. I was the first, believe me, to go, “What have they done? What have they done?” I’m very happy in my skin right now.

It’s funny, my son’s 20, so I’m very aware of what the twenties mean, the blind, staggering, “What’s going on? What do I have to do?” My memory of my twenties is always this sense of, “Am I in the right place or is there a better place over there? Is this right, is that right?” And it was full of excitement, and frenzy, and possibilities, but there was an awful lot of insecurity, an awful lot of uncertainty as well. And as we all know, as you get older you slowly become less bothered or slowly you feel more comfortable in your own skin, so I’m happy.

No, happy is not the right word. I’m content now.

You really rocked that black armour… what was the significance of the eagles?

There was obviously a lot of motifs from fascism, and fascists through history have had an extraordinary penchant for certain iconography. It lends itself to the demonstration of dominance and power, very masculine, animalistic imagery. One of the first things I said to Guy was, I don’t want to say much, because kings don’t have to say, “I’m really powerful,” other people say that, the king sits there and lets it be acknowledged. So a huge amount of my part was emphasised by Peter [Ferdinando], who plays Mercia, he’s the voice, like Squealer to my Napoleon, in Animal Farm.

I like the idea that I’m almost bored, you know, having to be in this council or listen to these people. So everything’s very minimal, so that [gestures with hand] could mean kill them all!

And the look was just a lot of fun. I like the idea of decadence, there are little hints of animal, they gave me leather then put all these interesting pleats up the back, that look like spines and weird knuckles, so he’s almost a bit like a reptile at times, like a bird or a dinosaur because he’s got all these claws and feathers. I mean he hasn’t got much.

I decided earlier on that after [Spoiler] he kills his wife [End of Spoiler] he’s not a king who’s whoring or got ten wives – he’s driven solely by this obsession with power. So I thought where else is he going to spend his money if not on his wardrobe. He eats really good food and he wears really great clothes [laughs].

How else did you build your character?

I did work with a very interesting woman on this, who I’ve worked with before a couple of times, she worked with some interesting other actors, she worked with Johnny Depp a couple of times and Helena Bonham Carter, she makes perfumes, scents. And you go to her, her name’s Azzi Glasser, you describe the character and she comes up with this amazing scent for Vortigen, one pre and one post the murder.

We wanted it to smell like death, but death covered in incense, so she put belladonna and all these weird base scents in it, and then layered it with all these incredibly floral incense and I covered myself with that every day. It was a kind of fantastic smell but it had a real effect on people. It’s very interesting when you smell a certain way, how people respond to you differently. Because it takes an awful lot of attitude to walk onto a set and dominate, to be all “I’m the king.” You can’t treat people like that, but you have to assume a certain amount of status and swagger, and it really helped.

There’s lots of magic in the film. Should we still believe in magic or is it bullshit?

Magic… there are different kinds of magic, aren’t there. There’s the kind of magic that we are enthralled and entertained by in shows or on TV, which can be exhilarating – and it can entertain an audience quicker and more profoundly than any actor or singer because it crosses continents, languages.

But I think the magic you’re talking about is more of a natural magic, which I find fascinating. I think there’s evidence certainly in our past, that people have the power to harness pineal power or collective power whether through mediation, concentration, and that’s an area that I don’t know enough about, but it’s an area that fascinates me. It’s an area that I’ve become more interested in since I’ve started studying mediation, and I think it’s an area where meditation is attached to that…

Is that related to your part in ‘The Young Pope’?

A little bit. I started it before but I got into when I was playing Lenny Belardo, yeah. I mean, anything I think that brings us together or into a state of communality or focus, I think is a positive thing. I’m just against division and fragmentation at the moment [laughs].

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens May 18