Be honest: You'd like to be Jude Law. Onscreen, Matt Damon and Ethan Hawke have gone to dire extremes for the trappings of his identity - a bag of his piss. Stephen Fry and Kevin Spacey have gone to prison for him. There are many things about the 27-year-old British actor that inspire a fraught mix of envy, desire and awe that can easily turn sour. Start with his looks, which require no description except to note that they're even better in person. Then add his scene-stealing talent, which brings depth, fire and charisma to even the most loathsome characters. Tack on the beautiful, successful wife and famous friends, and finish it off with the fact that he's disarmingly nice, a well-mannered gentleman who blushes whenever he makes a joke. You can love him or hate him for the exact same reasons, as Americans are learning with the release of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

In the highly anticipated film, Law plays Dickie Greenleaf, an American golden boy whose lust for life and the means for devouring it - all jazz, Vespas and villas in 50's Italy - is so envied by poor pianist Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) that when he can't have Dickie, he becomes him instead. As Dickie's girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) says, when you're in his favor, "you feel like the sun is shining on you." Indeed, when Dickie disappears, the rest of the movie is lonely without him.

"Without sounding too nauseating, making Ripley was incredibly easy, incredibly challenging and incredibly fun," a hoarse Law says at breakfast the morning after the film's New York premiere. He stands out among the St. Regis Hotel's clientele in his black turtleneck sweater, stiff cuffed jeans and Prada loafers worn sockless, his hair a mess of sleep and styling goo.
For Law, the challenge of Ripley was maintaining Dickie's intense, physical, almost childlike charisma. "I've never played someone so extroverted before," he says, "so it was really about keeping the energy out and up and positive. I've always played people who are so negative." These include a psychotic hustler who drives a millionaire (Kevin Spacey) to murder in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a narcissistic, destructive lord who destroys the great Oscar in Wilde and a madman who sleeps with his sister before killing the cast in a recent London stage revival of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. "All the traits that are Dickie's - all the trappings and the world he lives in - have been written and have nothing to do with me."

He stops for a moment, head cocked. "I can hear my son's voice - Raff-Raff!" he yells before bounding over to Rafferty, his three-and-a-half-year-old son with actress Sadie Frost, whom he met when they filmed the ill-fated Shopping in the early 90's. He picks up the beatific wild child - his white-blond curls swirling in all directions - and goes over the day they have planned: ice-skating at Rockefeller Center, the Christmas extravaganza at Radio City Music Hall and, to top it off, Toy Story 2. Rafferty dances off with his nanny and Law returns to the table, where a stream of producers soon drop by to pay their respects. When Law is finally able to return to the conversation, he continues: "What I loved about Dickie was his energy and bravado. It was a great excuse to indulge in someone who has those traits we all desire."

Jude Law's flesh and blood were his most desirable traits in his 1997 U.S. film debut, Gattaca. In a future where people are judged by their genes, Law's character, Jerome, is a perfect specimen. But when an "accident" leaves him unable to work, he sells his body - skin, hair, eyelashes, blood, urine - to the DNA-deficient Ethan Hawke ("You could go anywhere with that guy's helix under your arm," the black-market identity coordinator says of Jerome). Hawke must learn to be Law and - just like Damon in Ripley - practices forging his signature.
But Law sees the roles as different. "One is about the blood - what's in the veins. The other is about this assumed veneer," he says. "The important theme about Ripley that makes the film so relevant is that we have this tendency to project perfection onto people - desirability, beauty, success and what we think that means. But both Dickie and Jerome are actually far from happy, far from perfect or complete, yet society puts this image upon them. In that way, I saw in both of them the tragedy, the less-than-perfect side. They're both in their kind of perfect hell." He takes a moment to think. "There's a great quote I read in this book by Calvin Trillin, Remembering Denny,that we read for Ripley. It was about a Princetonian, all-American golden boy. It says, 'Sometimes you can be a ticket that has been stamped so many times, there's nothing left.' They've both been stamped to the point of disappearing."

Though many have put their stamp on Law in his 13-year career, he says with the friendliness and careful humility that he uses to disarm mortals, "Raff, he's my reality. He doesn't see me as anything other than a playmate and a father. A lot of it has to do with assumption, and in England, they don't necessarily make it a good ride. 'Jude Law, too good-looking for his own good. Who does he think he is?'"

He apparently won't let the hype-makers decide. "I'm an actor and a father," he asserts. "And those are the things that last longer than It magazine articles." A woman who recognizes him asks him for a light. "It's gonna be one of those," he laughs as he gets up to help her. Asked when all this attention began, he jokes, "'Bout half an hour ago."

Law has been a name in Britain since the late 80's. He left school at 17 to appear on the cheesy prime-time soap Families, which he followed with four years on the London stage. His role in Broadway's Indiscretions earned him a Tony nomination for outstanding supporting actor (or best naked newcomer, as others preferred). While in New York for the play - living in a railroad apartment on Avenue A - his London roommates Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller were working on a film called Trainspotting. Asked why he wasn't in it, he thinks for a moment. Then it dawns on him: "I wasn't...I wasn't sent Trainspotting!"

The threesome - along with Frost (Bram Stoker's Dracula) - formed the production company Natural Nylon. "It started five years ago as a group of friends who were working actors but not getting the stuff we wanted to do. We all wanted the chance to work together. Then the company went into this perverse period where it had to start working. Then we slipped into development hell. Now we're in the nice position where it's always going to be purely about the work." Law, who writes and produces for the company, is working on several projects, including a biopic about Brian Epstein, the Beatles' manager. Law said he was first introduced to multitasking while in Indiscretions: "New York kind of set a new agenda for me. I was like, 'I'm really tired: I'm doing this play.' And people would say [blasé American accent], 'Oh my God, I'm doing this play, I'm writing a movie, directing a movie, I've got a fashion line, I'm DJing at night.' And I'm like, fucking hell! I went home, and that's when Nylon started for me - there's a lot to be done."

"I really whacked my eye last night," he says, tenderly patting the little red welt on his brow. "I think I remember hitting it on a door. I was sober, too. How frightening is that?" Back to Nylon: "It's funny. Doing the press line last night, people were saying, 'So now that you've done Ripley, you're not going to be able to do small stuff anymore.' And I was like, little do you know! That's why I spent five years with this company. I'm gonna be able to be out there doing exactly what I want to do. [Laughing] They think Brian Epstein is gonna be mainstream! Gay love in the 60's - oh, that's another one," he laughs, referring to the fact that he's already had two gay roles. Then he shrugs it off.

As for how he'd like to develop his American image - free of the sniping British press - what's most important is to "keep people guessing. I'd never want to be like, oh, it's another Jude Law film. Same type, different costume. I hate that." Law has noplans to "go Hollywood" per se, but he does enjoy moving between the British and American film industries. "I love changing environments. I like the changes in rules and approaches," he says. "People are quick to characterize the more cynical side of Hollywood, but there's a lot of enthusiasm and desire to make films. I've met a lot of creative people in London who don't make films. Go and fucking make something!" He continues, "I don't like saying I'm not a Hollywood actor, or I only do European films. It's fucking stupid. It's a universal business, and I'm an actor. I'll go anywhere - there's always work to be done."

Movie stardom will surely follow from Ripley, but Law says it's not his thing. Part of what taints its allure stems from the British fear of success. "I don't really feel like I have a cool movie star life," he says. "First of all, in London you can try to go there, but people will shoot you down. It's not really on the agenda. Also, I'm not really a movie star, I'm an actor. People might want to wrestle me into being one, but you can't alter the makeup of someone." Spoken like a perfect specimen. "If it becomes a reality, then I'll have to deal with it. I'm not going to live in denial. But if it starts to infiltrate me or become my agenda, then I guess I'm kinda screwed." Pause. "Being a movie star doesn't make you a better dad or your life any easier. I enjoy shopping for groceries and I like putting out the trash and I like puttering around the house." So stardom wasn't what lured Law into acting? "It was a language I kind of understood. I was in a play in school when I was 7. I remember really enjoying the idea of telling a story, suspending disbelief. I responded to it. I never really wanted to do anything else. God, I feel like that's such a bad quote! [Mocking himself] 'I'm not a movie star!' 'I like putting out the trash!' God help me!"

When he's not working, and even when he is, Law's day revolves around Rafferty. "I get up at 8, boil a couple of eggs for me and Raff, get him ready for school, make his pack lunch: two vegetarian sausages, a piece of cheese, a little piece of bread and hummus, couple of biscuits, drink, packet of chips, chocolate bars, an apple," he says as though seeing himself stuffing the Pokémon lunchbox. "Then I walk him to school, read the papers - read a bit during the day. To be honest, I like the rules of work because you've got an agenda and a pile of books to read. I don't know. What do I do? I'm a little vacant sometimes. My life's so much more interesting when I'm working," he laughs - this from the man who claims his best friends will tell you how "reaally boring" he is. "I feel like I'm not giving you a full answer," he says. "Have you gotten to know me? Have you? Have you found the window?" He cracks up.

Sadie and Rafferty are the window. Of his partner of seven years, who's upstairs "sleeping for me," he says, "She's my backbone, my roots. She doesn't let me get away with diddly-squat. For someone who seems to succeed at anything she chooses" - Frost French, a clothing line she recently started with a pal, has taken off, plus she has four films out in 2000 - "she's extremely sensitive, and that's what I love about her. She's a powerhouse with a soft, fudgy interior." He giggles. "She's my everything, and I hope I'm hers. I think I am," he laughs before finally letting the less-than-perfect side peek out: "The most important things we've done in the last few years, apart from make Raff, is continue to invent our relationship once we've been parents, because a lot of people - the first year at least - suddenly think, why are we together other than to bring up kids? You turn into this machine to entertain and feed and wipe bums.

We've really worked hard at that: Between work and Raff and my other son, Finn [Frost's son from a prior marriage], we've found so much more. If you throw in the towel in life. . . You are in charge of everything. You make life as easy or as hard as you want it to be. So we took the pressure of being parents and wanting to work - independently as well as together - and we've really kind of discovered stuff, like traveling together." They've explored Southeast Asia extensively during the last few years. "Every year we try to make sure we get a break. You have to. Mom and Dad need to go there to keep it. . .alive, and relish each other's company. And not do puppet shows!"

In talking about his son, it's clear that the only thing that could possibly keep Law from major success is his love for the reality of his home and family. "Fatherhood has changed me in every way possible," he says. "It makes work hard, because you've got to be away from him, but easier because you kind of only work because you have to." Law took most of last year off to be with Raff. "I lust for life now. It opens the door to a capacity of love you did not think you ever had. Eerie!" he says, his eyes widening with incredulity.
So if Jude Law could be anyone in the world, who would it be? "I'm embarrassed to say I'm quite happy being me," he says with a laugh, and thinks for a moment as a pack of producers circle on the landing above. "I'd love being my son."

Jude wears a military-issue undershirt from Canal Jeans Co. Scent: Live Jazz by Yves Saint Laurent. In hair: L'Oréal Studio Line FX Melting Gel.

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