From its opening frames there is something both brilliant and confounding about The Young Pope. Its star, Jude Law, plays a young American cardinal who is elevated to the highest office in the Catholic church.
Pushing aside the likelihood of an American pope – as opposed, say, to one from Latin America or even Africa – the series plays a little like a royal family biopic. The pomp and ceremony get it over the line, to some extent only just.
The series was pitched to HBO by writer Paolo Sorrentino as one which would “probe, with honesty and curiosity, the contradictions, the struggles, and the fascinating aspects of a man of the cloth who unexpectedly rises to lead a billion member congregation”.
Law holds high praise for Sorrentino. “It was really eye opening to work with someone who had such clarity of vision and contributed such an extraordinary signature and heightened, just every day, in every way, what we were all doing as a cast and as a team,” he says.
Not having been brought up in a religious home, Law says he had “always been curious about faith and one’s personal relationship with faith and I suppose it encouraged me to question and look at that a little more”.
The series does seem to play cleverly into a sort of global paradigm; a shift in religious conservatism, a rise in secular conservatism and a swing in politics to the right.
Whether The Young Pope is a reaction to that, or merely reflective of it, Law is unsure. He credits the show’s subtle sensitivity to the world around it to Sorrentino’s writing.
“Great writers and great creative minds, I think, have a natural antenna that reads what is in the ether, and I think I’m safe to say that perhaps some of this came from the religious terrain of the past,” Law says. “It also came from perhaps the Italian political terrain of the past.”
Clearly too, he adds, “there was a certain amount of preemptive registering of what was going on internationally. It just highlights how relevant sometimes this sort of reactionary voting or indeed, you know, the idea of voting in the unknown can lead you.”
Sorrentino’s writing, Law says, takes the character of Lenny Belardo and crowns him with this magnificent pontifical power but then explores him in a very ordinary human way.
“Paolo can take epic themes and operatic scale and make it very human,” Law says. “When I started I thought, I need to educate myself on papal history, on Catholic history, on life in the Vatican. But I didn’t really find any answers there as to who this character was.”
Sorrentino encouraged Law to focus more on the idea that Belardo is simply a man, orphaned at birth and “at his heart, he is trying to understand this sense of lack of love,” Law says. “A lot of the part he plays as Pope Pius is trying to understand that and, if you like, reflect his sense of solitude.”
Intriguingly, Law’s Pope – Lenny Belardo, later Pope Pius XIII – is a smoker, though the actor is quick to point out that he was written in Sorrentino’s script as a smoker, a character quirk which was borrowed from Pope Benedict.
“Benedict apparently liked a cigarette after mass, and it was I thought a wonderful kind of detail of character that Paolo included,” Law says. “His scripts are rich with detail of both musical reference and character reference and for an actor, that’s joyful. You sink your teeth into those.”
One of the most significant elements of the series, both for the audience and the actor at the heart of it, is the props and pageantry of the papal office.
“I think when I was starting out [as an actor] I underestimated the power of costume,” Law says. “And in this role, unlike almost any other, putting on the robes, the white daily robes or the more formal robes of ritual, it had a great impact.”
“A huge amount of revealing and feeling the sort of status of someone in that position is helped by the reaction of others,” Law adds. “And when you’re being carried in by 12 men on a golden throne with robes, bejewelled robes, it helps a lot.”
For one of the key narratives in Lenny Belardo’s story, Law works with Diane Keaton, who plays Sister Mary, the American nun who raised Belardo at the orphanage and who joins him at the Vatican as his personal secretary.
Law says Keaton brought “a unique sense of humour and mischief and boundless warmth” to the role. “She’s fantastically modest too,” he adds. “I remember when she arrived she was constantly saying, ‘I don’t know why I’m here’, because she seemed to be the last person to realise just how loved she is.”
Law said he nicknamed her “Mama Rose”, after Mama Rose in Gypsy. “She was very much my Mama Rose because she’s the one always saying, you’re going to be the Pope, Lenny. You’re going to be the Pope. You’re a saint, Lenny. She’s my biggest supporter in the piece. And it was wonderful to work with her.”
WHAT The Young Pope
WHEN SBS, Wednesday, 10.25pm, and SBS On Demand