Jude Law currently stars as a dashing pilot in the stylized retro adventure "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."

The handsome British actor is also featured in David O. Russell's philosophical comedy "I {heart} Huckabees."

Then there's "Alfie," opening Nov. 5, a remake of the 1966 Michael Caine classic, in which Law plays an inveterate womanizer.

In early December, Law will appear in "Closer," a film adaptation of Patrick Marber's dark play that's directed by Mike Nichols.

Before the year is out, Law will also serve as the narrator of "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and make a cameo in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," portraying vintage Hollywood swashbuckler Errol Flynn.

So in the space of four months, audiences will encounter Law in six films, the result, he says, of two years in which he "worked pretty much nonstop." No one could have predicted that all these films would be released so close together, and the glut is one reason "Alfie," originally slated to open this month, was pushed back two weeks.

Naturally, Law worries about overexposure.

"I can be incredibly optimistic or I can be incredibly cynical," he says. "The cynic in me says . . . I spent two years making these. I chose them all because they were so different, with such different directors at the helm, different types of films in different genres. And now they're being lumped together and compared, and some would be overlooked because people would just be, 'Oh, [expletive-ing] Jude Law again.' "

"But the optimist in me thinks, well . . . at least it's all over by Christmas" -- here he makes a whoosh! noise -- "and have all gone."

Law's ubiquity this fall reemphasizes what last year's Oscar-nominated turn as Inman in "Cold Mountain" made clear: Law, 31, has arrived as a major star, and as an actor, his assets extend beyond the beautiful face. An accomplished stage performer, Law has an ability to disappear into the roles he plays. And the 20-plus films he's made over the past decade reveal an adventurous performer willing to take on unsympathetic roles.

"Jude happens to be one of the most gifted actors working today," says "Sky Captain" director Kerry Conran. "With every character he plays, he becomes someone different. That may owe something to the fact that he has had a stage career, where it's more about the character and the part versus just creating your own personality. Certain actors are hired and expected to be themselves in a sense in a movie, and that's what attracts audiences. Jude doesn't do that.

"You'll never see Jude the same way in any film he does. . . . That's not something that's easy to do, but he makes it seem effortless, to be this chameleon of sorts."

"Huckabees" director Russell says he cast Law as creepy corporate climber Brad Stand because the role allowed the actor to turn his status as a "golden icon" inside out. "He's more of an artist than he is a movie star," says Russell. "In other words, even as he is a movie star, his core is still the core of an artist."

Russell, who calls Law "the least insecure actor I've ever met," admires his willingness to try anything. "He embraced every idea we came up with with a twinkle in his eye and a lot of laughter," says Russell.

In "Huckabees," Brad Stand repeatedly tells the same self-aggrandizing anecdote. Eventually he comes to understand how repulsive that can be, and when he's pressured to tell it one more time during an important meeting, he becomes so disgusted with himself that he vomits into his hands. "That was an afterthought -- what if he was so nauseated by telling the same story again and again that he threw up?" says Russell.

Russell says they filmed three takes, all of which he hopes to include on the film's DVD release. "Jude laughed hysterically and said, 'You will never use that. I'll give you $100 if you ever use it.' He owes me $100 now."

Taking on Alfie Elkins -- the working-class lothario whose conscience starts to catch up with him -- is a risk of sorts, partly because the role requires Alfie to speak directly to the camera, and also because the role has long been closely associated with Michael Caine.

Law spent much of his twenties avoiding heartthrob roles, but he was drawn to Alfie because of the character's depth.

"He tries to seduce you, the audience, and then eventually he can't help but show the cracks, really. Because he's invited you in, you see them as he sees them," says Law. "And that presented itself as a challenge."

Low Mane-tenance

Holed up in a suite in the Essex House hotel facing Central Park, Law is protected from the rest of New York by a gaggle of studio publicists, his own entourage of fellow Brits, and one unobtrusive security guy. Law is dressed all in black, and he smokes a single, bummed Marlboro Light. His hair appears to have been carefully tousled.

Not so, he claims. "If I let it grow . . . I've got big old curly hair," he says. "I never wash it."

Washington Post: Never? How often do you wash it?

Jude Law (incredulous): With shampoo?

WP: Yeah.

JL: Not often.

WP: Once a week?

JL: No!

WP (concealing a cringe): So more often than that?

JL (indignant): No! Every coupla weeks.

He's 5 feet 10 or 11 -- depending, perhaps, on how dirty his hair is.

He is named after the Beatles song or the character in the Thomas Hardy novel -- "It depends on my mum's mood," he says -- and was raised in Southeast London, where his parents both taught school. At age 5, he appeared in a production of "St. George and the Dragon," and his interest in theater increased as he grew older.

"I loved books and . . . my mum took me to the theater a lot and showed me a lot of movies," he says. "I just always enjoyed that world, I suppose, and when I was in an environment like a school play or a kids' theater group, it was something I felt very comfortable in."

From the very beginning, he thrived on the collaborative aspect of theater. "It was the one class where you felt like the teacher's opinion was on exactly the same level as everyone else's, and whoever had the best idea, that's what stood," he says.

As a teenager, he performed with the National Youth Musical Theatre and became increasingly impatient with school. "I hated the institution. I hated the cliques. I hated the cool kids and the jocks and the dumb kids and the smart -- I never felt like I was one of them and I hated the [expletive] politics of that," he says. "When you were all together there, they were all sheep -- fearful and terrified of shaking the cage at all. . . . I realize that I became a much happier, much nicer person when I did leave."

At 17, he quit school and landed a role in a British soap opera, and within a few years he was on London's West End. In 1994 he appeared in a Royal National Theatre production of "Les Parents Terribles," and the following year he was the only original cast member to appear in the Broadway version, by then titled "Indiscretions."

At the same time, he was taking on roles in British films, including the part of Oscar Wilde's volatile, aristocratic lover, Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, in the 1997 "Wilde," which won him a London Film Critics Circle Award.

He also appeared in American films, portraying an embittered paraplegic in the underrated futuristic thriller "Gattaca," and a slump-shouldered redneck hustler in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." But he first gained widespread attention -- and an Oscar nomination -- here in 1999, when he was teamed with Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon in "The Talented Mr. Ripley," director Anthony Minghella's first project after the tremendous success of "The English Patient."

Law played spoiled American playboy Dickie Greenleaf, a role he found intimidating. "I felt at the time a little in awe of working with Anthony, who had such success behind him and [was] so well spoken of, and Gwyneth and Matt, who were very much at the peak of their rise. And I had to step in and be this cocksure leader of the pack when I didn't really feel that way."

The roles that followed could hardly have been more varied. In the oddball British comedy "Love, Honour and Obey," Law played a track-suited London gangster. In "Enemy at the Gates," he was a Soviet World War II sharpshooter.

In 2001, Law appeared in Steven Spielberg's "A.I.," playing Gigolo Joe, a literal love machine. Originally Spielberg and Law planned to portray Joe using various prosthetics, but eventually they found that Law's vivid embodiment of the "mecha" required only extensive makeup and a carefully choreographed style of moving and talking. ("A.I." also marked the first time Law debuted the neck-cracking that may become a trademark of sorts; Law watchers may also observe it in "Huckabees" and "Sky Captain.")

Law was virtually unrecognizable the following year in the Depression-set "Road to Perdition," playing a homicidal photographer who specializes in both shooting pictures of dead people and shooting people dead. To portray the unsavory Harlen Maguire, Law underwent what he describes as a "grueling haircut," and wore false gums with yellowed teeth.

"He kind of looks innocuous, but then there are glimpsing moments where you think, 'Oh [expletive], that guy's a little bit weird,' " says Law.

Because his quarry was played by a somewhat beefy Tom Hanks, Law figured there was no point in trying to make Maguire seem physically intimidating based on size. "So we went the other way and tried to make him smaller, and verminlike," he says.

When he looked in the mirror, says Law, "I was delighted. It was [expletive-ing] hard work getting that look. We really worked carefully at it, and the makeup guys were amazing."

This subject leads to the question: Are you vain?

Law seems taken aback. "I would say no, but I'm sure I can be," he says.

He pauses, considering. "Well, yeah, like anyone else -- checking yourself that you look all right before you go to dinner. Or if you're about to have a photo taken, you know, making sure you don't have spinach in your teeth or that your hair looks all right. You tend to learn to do that if you have to step out in front of 200 photographers," he says.

"The world is [expletive-ing] obsessed with what everyone looks like. It's sad."

The Silent Warrior

The role of Inman, the Confederate soldier trudging home to his beloved amid the brutality and chaos of the Civil War, reunited Law with Minghella. It also required the actor to work a little harder than he had before.

"Prior to that part, I had relied quite a lot on putting layers over me and playing parts -- not like covering me but like finding different skins. In that part I had to strip that away and open up a lot more," he says. "Anthony wanted this guy to be sort of naked, without his skin. It's like he was wearing his nerve endings and his sinews out in the open, up against the wind."

And because the part called for very little dialogue, says Law, "everything had to be in the face. Everything had to be really felt, otherwise it was just going to be an awful lot of one look. It was also finding someone truly at the end of their tether, someone who feels that they're damned."

Inman was meaningful for other reasons as well. "I liked the fact that he was so at one with his natural surroundings. I liked that he was so demanding of himself to be true and confront his demons, and that he had an incredible sense of conviction," says Law. "I came out of that film being deeply moved by that whole experience."

Inman brought Law his second Academy Award nomination, but this time he lost out to Sean Penn in "Mystic River." Law insists he wasn't disappointed. "Whether you respect the ceremony or the institution or the paraphernalia that comes with all of that or not, the nomination is a collection of votes made by actors -- most of whom are nominated actors, so actors of some degree -- who've picked you out of some God-knows how many and said, 'Well done.' I took that, whether I'm stupid or not, as a great kind of compliment," he says.

Since then, new roles have brought new challenges. In "Sky Captain," he and his co-stars performed in front of a blue screen, which was replaced with computer-generated images later in the production.

"At times Gwyneth and I felt like we were literally, on a primal level, really delivering acting as it should be," he says. "Sometimes it was like being in an avant-garde empty-space theater production where we just had each other and a script to hold on to."

"I {heart} Huckabees" presented its own set of difficulties, says Law -- namely "Giving [the director] what he wanted. Opening up enough, feeling free enough, brave enough to dive in and bare your heart, your soul. . . . For me, playing a character who had to be believable but also utterly fake. He was a guy who I hope everyone recognizes a little bit in themselves . . . the kind of person who is so convinced that they are genuine [and] sincere, they lose sight of the fact that in fact it's all based on falsehoods, it's all based on presentation and the smile and the shoeshine."

The process also required a certain amount of trust in the vision of director Russell. "Having faith that amidst some serious anarchy and chaos, that this guy who was leading us was going to really come up with something that made sense -- at least to him -- in a finished product," says Law. Early reviews have been mixed, but Law is pleased with the result.

"I think anybody who sees that film should recognize that he's a super special filmmaker," he says of Russell. "It's a brilliant film and really rare."

"Huckabees" is hardly the first time Law played an American, but Brad Stand is a certain type of American, and embodying him required several actorly tricks. "You never stand on one hip -- you never put yourself on one hip. You stand good and square . . . You imagine you've been eating a hell of a lot of beef burgers."

A Scene With Punch

In Britain, where Law is a first-name-only celebrity, he is plagued by nosy reporters and paparazzi. First there was his 1997 marriage to actress Sadie Frost, perhaps as famous for her line of scented underwear as for her movie roles. Then there was their divorce, which involved sordid tabloid tales of postnatal depression (hers), a suicide attempt (also hers) and an alleged affair with "Cold Mountain" love interest Nicole Kidman (his), as well as domestic disturbances requiring police intervention. Before that, there was a 2002 incident in which Law and Frost's toddler daughter -- the youngest of their three children together -- accidentally ate part of an ecstasy tablet she found on the floor at a children's party. All of this led to a kind of aggressive hounding Law characterizes with one word: "Horrible."

Now he worries that all the interviews he's been doing to promote his new films might intensify the tabloids' interest. "If you're fighting people trying to intrude into your life, you can be seen to be contradicting that by doing press or covers," he says. "I would argue that one is on a professional level, the other is encroaching on private life, but you sometimes feel like you're fueling their argument."

This brings us to the Windshield Story, which takes place during the filming of "Alfie." The film's climactic moment occurs when Alfie finally begins to realize how badly he has hurt other people. Filled with anguish, he smashes his fist through his car's windshield.

"That's not a special effect," says director Charles Shyer. "Jude really broke the window with his fist. You know what those windows are like?"

According to Shyer, Law smashed the windshield because of the direction Shyer had offered just before shooting the scene. "I don't know that he likes me talking about that. . . . Maybe it's a bit too personal," says Shyer dramatically.

The director had spent months watching the media besiege Law and his new girlfriend, actress Sienna Miller, who appears in the film as one of Alfie's conquests. "I wanted him to have the emotion, and I just said to him, 'The windshield is the paparazzi,' " recalls Shyer. "He just hit it so [expletive-ing] hard I thought he had broken his wrist. I was so scared. I said, what have I done?

"I think maybe it was an unfair direction . . . because if he had broken his wrist it wouldn't have been worth it," says Shyer.

The Windshield Story has already appeared in several articles about the making of "Alfie," but Law has little patience for that kind of Hollywood legend-building. "You know what? I was gonna hit the [expletive-ing] windshield anyway, because that's what the part required. I had been waiting for that moment in that part for four months, because to me that was when the veneer of that character finally [cracked] . . . and it's one little glimpse into him and his pain," says Law. "You can faff around with that all day long . . . or you're gonna [expletive-ing] hit it as hard as you can and get it over and done with.

"Charles, of course he thought" -- and here Law adopts an American accent -- " 'Hey, I said paparazzi, and he really hit it.' "

The actor makes a derisive snort. "At that time I had a year and a half of [expletive] in my life just like everyone else does. And as an actor sometimes you use that stuff, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you pretend, sometimes you don't. Sometimes it's fake, sometimes you find yourself thinking about a pet bunny who died when you were 4, and sometimes you don't. And with that one, I let all hell break loose and I smashed the windscreen because it was what was required," he says.

"I cut my knuckles open -- [expletive-ing] hurt. But it was good. It worked, and it got us out of there early."

"I can be incredibly optimistic or I can be incredibly cynical," says Jude Law of his current and soon- to-open films. " . . . They're being lumped together and compared, and some [could] be overlooked." Law with Cate Blanchett in "The Aviator," due out later this year, and with Naomi Watts, below, in "I {heart} Huckabees." He traces his interest in acting to childhood: "My mum took me to the theater a lot and showed me a lot of movies. I just always enjoyed that world."Law's leading ladies include Gwyneth Paltrow in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and Jane Krakowski in "Alfie," the soon-to-open remake of the 1966 Michael Caine classic.