Ava V. Gerlitz
Josh Wolk
April 28, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

When Jude Law (”Gattaca,” ”Wilde”) signed on to David Cronenberg’s new mind-bending thriller ”eXistenZ” (opening Friday), he probably had no idea there would be homework. But writer/director Cronenberg encouraged Law and costar Jennifer Jason Leigh to bone up on Jean Paul Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Nietzche’s writings and become sudden experts in existentialism. That’s the thinking behind this tale of a videogame designer (Leigh) who has trouble figuring out what’s real and what’s programmed when she’s caught with her bodyguard (Law) in her own virtual-reality creation.

A less enthusiastic actor might have groaned at the nighttime reading, but Law saw it as an opportunity not only to understand his character better, but also to get some free education along with his paycheck. ”For very selfish reasons, I take any excuse to expand the mind,” the 26-year-old British actor tells EW Online. ”In the next film I did (”The Talented Mr. Ripley”) my character plays the saxophone, so I learned the saxophone. Someone else was going to pay for me to learn to play it. So I said fine. They taught me to sail for that movie as well. I wasn’t going to say, ‘No, no, no, I’m just going to act.’ I was like, ‘Get me a boat, I’ll do it!”’

Another free lesson Law took away from ”Mr. Ripley” — writer/director Anthony Minghella’s follow-up to ”The English Patient” which should be released sometime next year — was that there are drawbacks to being a superstar. His costars had perfect teaching credentials: They were Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon, who was just coming off of being decreed a matinee idol in ”Good Will Hunting.” ”Matt was so embarrassed that the paparazzi would follow him around and get in the way of filming,” remembers Law. ”The only time I saw him get angry is when we were doing this intense scene in the middle of the ocean, and boats would be going by and they’d be snapping pictures.”

Law has already flirted with ”next big thing” status and experienced a taste of his own fame. But if his head ever gets too big for a movie screen, he plans to return to his homeland for a little reality check. ”In England, they won’t make you the new big thing, but they’ll take pleasure in knocking you down if you claim to be. Great pleasure. And they’ll take photos, too,” he laughs. ”Besides, actors in England are slightly more akin to bricklayers. They’re looked at as craftsmen. If you say you’re an actor in L.A., they say, ‘Oh, really? I’m one too!’ But in England, they say, [in a disinterested voice] ‘Oh, what’s that like? Do you get much work? How’d you learn all them lines?”’

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