CANNES, FRANCE: “I read several interesting accounts that you could smell King Henry XIII from three rooms away because his leg was rotting so badly, and he hid it with rose oil,” Jude Law tells a half-full press conference in Cannes on May 22. “I thought it would have a great impact if I smelt awful.”
Law, 50, plays the cruel and merciless 16th century King in his latest, highly anticipated film Firebrand, a story about the royal’s sixth wife Catherine (played by Academy Award winning actress Alicia Vikander), and one in competition at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.
“I went to this beautiful perfumier who, by the way, makes wonderful scents—but she also makes awful scents,” Law continues, laughing. “She somehow managed to come up with this extraordinary variety of pus, blood, faecal matter and sweat.”
Law says he used the scent (in a subtle way) to get into character, but when Brazilian-Algerian director Karim Aïnouz got a hold of it, the film maker spray it very liberally about the set.
“The camera operators were, like, [gestures vomiting],” laughs Vikander, her demureness momentarily broken by this funny recollection.
Vikander, who was present at last year’s festival for her role in Irma Vep, was emotional as Firebrand received an eight-minute standing ovation at its May 21 premiere. She stood a row in front of her husband Michael Fassbender who was cheering her on with great pride. This year, the 34-year-old Swedish actress joins leading ladies Julianne Moore, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Lily Gladstone as the strong, feminist Catherine Parr who was married off to a king renowned for killing his wives. Separately, she was a writer and wrote many books—she was the first English women to have a book published under her own name—an incredible feat given she was struggling to survive day by day.
“This is a woman who is married off without having any say in it and knowing that there are five wives are dead,” says Vikander. “Putting yourself in that state of mind really changes things. That’s where I realised how fragile each moment is, and how she is so terrified of anything that she does wrong that could make this man flip.
“It’s mostly men and kings that are acknowledged throughout history,” she continues. “[Catherine] does have these books that you can actually read and translate into modern English. I read them and listened to her voice and thought, ‘This is a woman from 500 years ago!’ It’s pretty extraordinary.”
Like The Danish Girl (of which Vikander won an Oscars Best Actress gong) and Tulip Fever, Vikander lights up in period dramas—and Firebrand is no exception. But it’s Law who steals every scene given his character has a big emotional range. Vikander, on the other hand, is playing a woman doing her best to remain invisible. Regardless, the on-screen relationship between Catherine and Henry—one poisoned by paranoia from the moment they meet—is highly watchable and required a lot of chemistry between Vikander and Law.
“Alicia is a good friend and a [scene] partner,” says Law. “She is incredibly brave and fearless. My memory is that we laughed we a lot, which is really twisted because of course we did awful things to each other… [But] I think we had to [laugh]!”
“You have to approach it with some sort of lightness, I think,” responds Vikander of the heavy subject matter.
Thankfully, cinema-goers won’t have to ingest Law’s pungency.