Golden Bowl interview (2002)

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Golden Bowl interview (2002)

Post  Admin on Wed Nov 07, 2007 9:00 pm

In his new film Jeremy Northam plays an Italian prince who is loved by two women. If only real life were as straightforward. 'I want more stability in my life,' he tells Anna Murphy

WITHIN 10 minutes of meeting the actor Jeremy Northam in a north London café, I have spilt my coffee right down my front. Northam responds with a gentlemanly fleetness straight out of one of his screen performances - Mr Knightley in Emma perhaps, Sir Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband or, most recently, Prince Amerigo in the new Merchant Ivory adaptation of Henry James's novel The Golden Bowl. He rushes off to get a cloth, assiduously wipes me down, suggests - laughing - that perhaps this is why he "wore rubber trousers today", and then insists that it is his fault I spilt my coffee in the first place.

'Incredibly driven': 'The very fact that acting was ephemeral and hard to grasp made it seem all the more wonderful.I still do feel that'

No doubt if you are Jeremy Northam, life is one long obstacle course of flustered females spilling things, dropping things, tripping over things, so I imagine you do get a routine off-pat. But he does seem remarkably nice for a heart-throb.

It is 10 years since Northam won an Olivier award as Most Promising Newcomer for The Voysey Inheritance. Now 38, he is often described as a "slow starter", yet in the interim he has worked non-stop, alternating prestigious stage work at the RSC and the National with increasingly high-profile screen roles.

For a while he looked in danger of becoming little more than big-budget arm-candy, siring the likes of Mira Sorvino and Sandra Bullock (in Mimic and The Net respectively). But in The Golden Bowl he again proves himself an excellent ensemble player, just as he did last year in The Winslow Boy and The Ideal Husband.

Acting with an all-star cast - in this case, Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman and Kate Beckinsale - can't be for the faint-hearted. "Terrifying," agrees Northam. "I was pretty frightened starting out. But it was not a competitive environment. We all had our particular concerns and worries but we were all of the same mind."

In fact, the reports of on-set dramas of the non-scripted kind might suggest a rather different atmosphere. (There was an alleged incident - which Northam's PR had warned me in advance not to mention - when Beckinsale's husband, the Welsh actor Michael Sheen, punched him on the nose.) But Northam claims he was plagued by only one real concern once filming began: "I was anxious about playing this very desirable man. Amerigo is desired by both Kate and Uma. That is a bit of a mindf--- to start with."

The beginning of The Golden Bowl is a tangled affair: Amerigo is to marry the wealthy Maggie (Beckinsale), who is ignorant of his earlier love affair with her impoverished best friend Charlotte (Thurman), who, in turn, ends up marrying Maggie's father (Nolte). The story then does the very opposite of unfold; indeed, its knots tighten further still.

"It gradually dawned on us all that all our characters were culpable," says Northam. "I remember at one point Uma said to me 'You are lying to me now,' and I said, 'No I am not because I hadn't read the line like that.' And she said, 'Oh yes, I see what you mean, but I don't agree.' There are these incredible shifting perspectives."

Northam admits that he wasn't initially keen on doing the film - "I can't say I was crying out to do a period movie at the time, but it was just so beautifully written." This must be a recurring problem, given that he has recently finished working on Enigma, based on Robert Harris's Second World War novel ("I play a complete bastard!" he exclaims with glee), and is currently filming an adaptation of A. S. Byatt's Possession, in which he plays the Victorian love interest alongside Jennifer Ehle. "At the moment I am looking to do something more contemporary again, but then I am always bleating on about that."

Northam first decided an actor's life was for him when he was about 16. "I was not one of those kids who had a fantastic, elaborate toy theatre or was six months old when I wrote my first play. I think it was partly when my parents moved to Bristol [where his father was an academic] and you could see all this incredible range of stuff at the theatre, and I did some school plays. Then a couple moved in on our street who were involved in theatre and it was through talking to them that I realised it was a practical possibility, that it wasn't just some sort of teenage ************ fantasy . . . although it probably still is.

"It was not that I had this particular talent - I have always had to work at acting, but I think it was the work that appealed. The very fact that acting was ephemeral and hard to grasp made it seem all the more wonderful. I still do feel that."

Between school and college Northam spent a year working backstage at the Bristol Hippodrome. "I can still remember word-for-word Danny La Rue in Aladdin [he switches to a terrifyingly camp accent, like the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang] . . . 'Good evening, boys and girls. This is my son Wishy-Washy. You never knew your father, Wishy-Washy, did you? Thirty-five years ago he went down the garden to pick some peas and he never came back.' 'That is terrible, Mum, what did you do?' 'Opened a tin of beans!' "

He laughs extravagantly, on a roll now. " ''Eeeeer!' " he mimics, switching to a toe-curling Bristolian accent, " 'Sing Mother Kelly's doorstep!' I used to do that accent to my old neighbours in London and they used to say 'Please don't! You are making us feel nauseous!' "

After an English degree at Bedford College, London, Northam went back to Bristol, to the Old Vic theatre school. "I am definitely a product of that place. There you were taught that if you work and work and work, then you can forget what you know. You have retrained your instincts for whatever it is you need to do." In the event, Northam left the course early to take up a stage role in Nottingham. "When I started to work at 23 I felt ancient, and I have felt ancient ever since because you are always working with 17-year-olds."

What would be his advice now to his younger self? "Just relax! Don't be so hysterical about everything and neurotic about the next week and the next job, and just enjoy it. It has taken me a while . . . I don't know . . . my mother died last year, and she had been ill for four years, and in between living here and there, and wondering how she was doing, and feeling I ought to be nearer . . .

"At the moment I am just trying to get myself a bit of space. I have been meaning to move flats for six years and it has taken me that long to have the time to do it - it sounds ridiculous when everyone else seems to manage it just like that. I am pinning my hopes on my new flat as a little island from where I can survey the scenery. I want more stability in my life."

Yet his growing fame will surely not help him in his search for stability. "I don't feel remotely famous. Occasionally the idea does freak me out. For it to start relatively late in life could be odd, because you would be thinking, why is that person staring at me? Especially when you are having one of those days when you don't want anybody to look at you anyway." He pauses. "I am having one of those days today actually," he grimaces, running his fingers through his immaculately tousled coiffure.

So does being an actor make him feel vulnerable? "Mmmm. Three months filming, a run at the theatre, then the rest of the time in therapy!" he laughs, then is serious again. "I was very stable for a long time. I am lucky that I have always worked. And I used to have a girlfriend who would always say 'But you are doing what you love!' " In response to his complaints? "No. When she was expressing why she wasn't content."

Northam's last serious girlfriend was the model Lisa Butcher (whose unfortunate marital history encompasses Marco Pierre White and a Chilean polo player). This month he has been seen out on the town with Marie Helvin. Still, Northam claims not to have much luck in his private life. "When you are working on a role mentally and emotionally you concentrate on a particular outlook and I think that can be disturbing to be around - you are on a kind of leash and you never quite want to let that go. An old director friend of mine once said to me that for your partner when you are working, it is like you are having an affair."

He sighs. Today, the actor whom Gwyneth Paltrow once described as "incredibly driven" claims that all he really wants is to hear the patter of tiny feet. "I am an uncle nine times over and I am getting more and more broody. But the chances of me becoming a parent are fairly remote at the moment. I have got to find someone who would like to have children with me and is around long enough to manage it."
The Golden Bowl is on general release

"Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire."

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