The Guardian-Steve Rose
‘It took me a long time to realise it was OK to think bigger’ … Law. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
In Sean Durkin’s new film The Nest, Law plays an 80s broker whose financial deals destroy his marriage. He and the director talk about making his character likable – and how US can-do culture changed class-ridden Britain
For a few months in 2000, Jude Law’s working week consisted of shooting the war epic Enemy at the Gates in Berlin from Monday to Friday, before hopping on Concorde on Friday eveningto fly to New York to rehearse for AI with Steven Spielberg for the weekend. On Sunday night he was back on Concorde to Berlin. “I was quite new to movie acting back then,” he says. “I just assumed that was what it was like all the time.”
It wasn’t. Not even for an actor like Law, who has been in healthy demand on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. But it was one of the first times that the US felt like a real place to him, rather than a distant fantasy. “The memory as a kid was always, we were waiting for what happened in America,” says Law. “So, you know, films were always shown in America first. I remember hearing about Indiana Jones or the next Star Wars, and you’d see pictures on the news of people queuing for the cinema in the States and you’d think: ‘Well, when are we gonna get it?’ There was always this sense of it being ahead. They did a phenomenal job of selling us this lifestyle that just seemed so other and glamorous and cool.”
Transatlantic issues are very much to the fore in Law’s new film, The Nest, written and directed by Sean Durkin. It is an elegant, nuanced portrait of the crumbling marriage of Law’s character Rory, a cocky British financial trader, and his level-headed American wife Allison (Carrie Coon), who trains horses. The opening shot of the couple’s parked cars – his a new silver Mercedes; hers an old brown Jeep – says it all. At the beginning of the story, the couple and their two children are comfortably established in Upstate New York. They seem to be doing pretty well, but Rory sees a business opportunity back in London. “Things over here have dried up for me,” he explains to Allison. So the family relocates to a gloomy, cavernous old country pile in Surrey. It promises to be less a fresh start than the beginning of the end. “In many ways, it’s about a marriage shifting just an inch as opposed to a mile,” Law says. “But in that inch, everything happens.”
The Nest takes place at a critical juncture in transatlantic terms: it is 1986, the height of the Reagan-Thatcher love-in, and just before the financial deregulation of the so-called Big Bang, which would draw American and British money cultures together. So as well as a personal drama, this is a clash of national characters: the stuffy, slow, tradition-loving British mentality versus a more efficient, pragmatic American one. The American dream of economic wealth versus a more class-based British idea of social mobility. “In America, everyone believes they can be anything; here you’re supposed to settle for the station you’re born into,” Rory tells his colleagues back in London. As a transatlantic operator, he seeks to combine the two: “Exactly the right blend of old British and new American,” as his boss puts it. As with the financial markets, though, much of Rory’s success really comes down to confidence and bluster, which only gets him so far with the sceptical Brits. “A lot of what he says is probably spot on,” says Law of his character. “Maybe he’s two years ahead of his time, but the fact is, he would have probably made an awful lot of money. But knocking down that wall of ‘No, this is how we do things’, as we all know, can be very, very hard.”
Law recognises that stuffy old British mindset all too well. “I certainly have memories as a child, not from my own family but people around me, of being given that appalling piece of British advice: ‘Don’t get above yourself’,” he says. “You know: ‘Don’t be too enthusiastic. You might actually be seen to be liking this.’ Which, for someone who is a born enthusiast, someone who’s constantly thinking: ‘How can we do this bigger and better?’ was quite crushing.”
Law would have been 13 years old in 1986, growing up in Blackheath in south London. The Nest doesn’t try to recreate the 1980s too heavily – a Bang & Olufsen phone here, a Cure poster there – but certain details took Law right back to his youth. “Like the make of the loafer that they got me to wear. Just the name Bass Weejuns.” These were the must-have penny loafers of the era, as worn by Michael Jackson in the Thriller video. “I remember seeing them advertised at the time. That created more of a sort of emotional transplant back to then than anything.”
It was Durkin’s own transatlantic perspective that inspired The Nest, although the story is not at all autobiographical, he stresses. His father’s side of the family is from Bradford, he says. He was born in Canada (in 1981, too young to remember the era first-hand), then spent his childhood in London and Surrey before moving to New York aged 11. Like Law, he found coming to the US a huge culture shock. “When I moved to New York in 1993, a little later than in the movie, it was just like a different world. I don’t quite know how or why but there was just a totally different energy and it felt like a different mentality. It was so stark and so immediate.”
This is Durkin’s first feature since 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, the story of a young woman escaping from a cult that won the top dramatic prize at Sundance and made a star of Elizabeth Olsen. In the interim, he has produced films by others (he runs a production company with fellow directors Antonio Campos and Josh Mond), and he returned to the UK in 2012 to direct the acclaimed Channel Four drama Southcliffe, a four-part, ensemble examination of a shooting in a small Kent town, loosely based on the Hungerford massacre.
Durkin and Law had no personal connection; Durkin just sent him the script in hope. “I’ve wanted to work with him as long as I’ve been watching him,” he says. “Rory makes some questionable decisions, but I knew that under that had to be heart and generosity, and Jude is that.” Law wasn’t immediately convinced: “When I first read it, I didn’t really like Rory very much!” he laughs. “And then realising that was my job: OK, I have to sell him. How do you make him appealing, even if sometimes his actions are misguided? It’s not often this kind of a part in this kind of a piece comes along.”
So are Law and Durkin the right blend of old British and new American? “I’m not that old!” Law retorts.
The Nest is already being hailed as one of the best performances of Law’s career. It could even be a turning point. Despite his undeniable looks, Law has never really gone for straightforward love-interest roles, though in his early career he often played off his natural charm: his cocky Dickie in The Talented Mr Ripley, for example (for which he received an Oscar nomination), his 2004 reboot of Alfie, or for that matter, his sculpted love android Gigolo Joe in AI: Artificial Intelligence. In recent years we have seen him transition into a character actor, via the stage (his Hamlet at the Donmar in 2009, for instance), and prestige series such as Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope. At the same time he has gravitated towards more non-romantic roles, often in big-budget special effects movies such as the younger Dumbledore in Fantastic Beasts and Dr Watson to Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes. He is currently working on new instalments of both, as well as playing Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan reboot.
Law is almost playing off his movie-star persona in The Nest. His character is keen to be seen as the “boy made good”, although Rory’s charm doesn’t quite work like it used to. That’s a brave thing to portray for an actor who is about to turn 50. Did he find it … exposing?
“I suppose, yes,” he says. “Exposing in that there are so many layers to play. And it’s structured in such a way that it doesn’t feel like it’s melodramatic. It’s a very natural sort of unpeeling of a man.” He deflects away from any commentary on his own persona, though. “It made me think of characters that someone like Robert Redford would play in the late 70s. I wanted him to feel dashing and attractive, for the journey to be therefore all the more interesting as he slowly unravels.”
Rory’s unraveller in chief is his wife, of course, magnificently played by Coon. The 1980s feels like a very different place in terms of gender roles as well. Despite being practical and independent minded, Coon’s Allison dutifully goes along with her husband’s London life change. “It’s not your job to worry, you leave that to your husband,” her mother tells her. She is a complex character, both powerful and disempowered. “I saw a lot of that growing up,” says Durkin. “Like, I had a lot of aunts, and they were these absolutely powerful, outspoken women, and then in these very strange, questionably abusive relationships. It just didn’t make sense. I wanted to explore that.”
Despite Rory’s attempts to placate her, it is eminently clear that life as an English country wife is not going to satisfy Allison. While he is off in the City, she rattles alone around their gloomy, empty, wood-panelled house like a character in a horror movie. Which is about right, says Durkin: “In Martha Marcy May Marlene I did a lot of research about people who escaped from cults, and the natural state of mind is that of a psychological thriller. Here, it’s a marriage drama, and she’s left isolated in this big house that creaks and makes noises; it’s scarier to be there in real life than in the movie. And so, psychologically, it is a haunting. It’s sort of the haunting of being with oneself in an uncomfortable space.”
You would hesitate to recommend The Nest as a date movie, in other words. But this marriage isn’t a complete horror show. As the relationship explodes into blazing rows and public humiliations, the couple at least arrive at a more truthful place where they finally see one another as they really are. “So much of the film is about communication,” says Durkin, “and about a time when people just didn’t communicate. We forget sometimes how we’re at a time now where we can all just communicate better.”
Could we say the same for Britain and the US? Has the transatlantic divide narrowed since the 1980s? Definitely, says Durkin: “When I went back to London for the first time in 20 years to make Southcliffe, I was like: ‘Oh, that gap isn’t that big any more.’ It just didn’t feel that different. I actually feel more British than anything.”
Law agrees. “The gap has definitely narrowed,” he says. “Let’s not forget, there are other elements that influenced that, like 24-hour news and communications, or in the last 15 years, the overuse of phones. Everyone is on the same timeline now. And so we’ve all sort of risen to this very familiar homogenous kind of cultural … soufflé, which is slowly sinking, spiritually.” Law laughs at his earnest turn of phrase. Maybe that’s his inner Brit checking his inner American.
Law has no more Concorde commutes, and he hasn’t actually left Britain at all for the past 18 months, but he is the epitome of the modern-day transatlantic actor. The British and American film industries have become difficult to separate, with so many Hollywood films being made in the UK. At least we get to see them at the same time as America these days. Nor, thankfully, would the idea of becoming an actor be dismissed out of hand in modern-day Britain. In fact, Law’s son Rafferty, the oldest of his six children, is also an actor. So he doesn’t miss that blinkered Britain of his youth, where elders such as his headmaster would ask what he was going to do for a real job. “It took me quite a long time to realise that actually, maybe they were in the wrong. It was all right to think bigger and brighter and better,” he says. “I hope he’s reading this.”
The Nest is released on 27 August