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Post  DebraRatt on Fri May 11, 2012 7:49 pm

'Emma's Northam Isn't Stuffy Type
20 August 1996
San Francisco Examiner

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. I have to admit, I wasn't looking for laughs when I set up an interview with Jeremy Northam, the romantic lead in Emma opposite Gwyneth Paltrow. These classically trained English actors can be a bit, well, stuffy.

The appointed morning, he is late to the interview. When he finally trots into the room, youthfully grungy clothes askew, eyes wild, he breathlessly shouts, in a meticulous Cambridge accent, this excuse: ''I'm sorry I'm late but I went to my very first game of American baseball last night! It was marvelous! . . . I loved it - the sounds of the stadium and the random acts on the field. And the hot dogs! Like eating two pounds of rock salt. By the end of the evening I felt like Popeye, with my face swollen out to here. . . .''

He puffs his cheeks up like a blowfish, then abruptly plops in a chair and offers an outstretched hand. ''Anyway, hello, how are you?''

Is this goateed, spiky-haired extrovert really the man who will make women sigh as the dashing Mr. Knightley? Indeed he is, and despite the odd package, the charisma seems intact.

The 34-year-old son of a Cambridge professor was in fact classically schooled in the theater and was a successful stage actor before turning to the silver screen.

He bridged the gap between theater and film by taking roles in Brit-art movies like the remake of Wuthering Heights and Carrington.

The break into more mainstream Hollywood fare came with The Net, in which he played a bad guy who wooed and then tried to kill Sandra Bullock. And now, Emma.

With his swashbuckling physicality and increasing number of roles as a suave seducer, Northam has been called ''a thinking woman's pinup.'' But the very idea makes him buggy.

''God, you can't be serious!'' He blushes, tries to bury his face in his hands. So why is he cast as a romantic leading man opposite lovely women? ''I don't know! I really don't. I suppose that's because I'm a good reactor, rather than a good actor.''

But Paltrow disagrees.

''Jeremy's a wonderful actor and a very sweet guy,'' she said in a separate interview. ''He's also really funny, isn't he?''

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Post  DebraRatt on Fri May 11, 2012 8:00 pm

Behind the scenes

EMMA (1996)


Douglas McGrath's "Emma" is a thoroughly delightful, well-acted and fashionable adaptation of Jane Austen's novel about a noblewoman's sincere yet misguided attempts at being a matchmaker. Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) first meddles into the love life of her awkward friend, Harriet Smith (Toni Collette), by counseling her to reject the proposal of a simple farmer. When she persuades Harriet to pursue the attention of Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming), her well-intentioned efforts backfire when he instead reveals his attraction for Emma. In the midst of a hopeless web of romantic blunders, Emma finds true love. This film is a pure delight, featuring breathtaking costumes and sets, a screenplay which is humorous, romantic, and touching, and a praiseworthy musical score. A true adaptation of which Jane Austen would be proud! Also stars Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley and Ewan MacGregor as Frank Churchill.

This film is rated PG.

From Novel to Screenplay

Before tackling Jane Austen, Screenwriter/Director Douglas McGrath was a humor columnist and a one-time writer on "Saturday Night Live." When asked how a native Texan ended up writing and directing a classic English story, McGrath offers a pun for an explanation: "''Well, Austin's the capital of Texas so I guess that somehow ties it all together.'' 1

McGrath originally wanted to transform "Emma" into a 1990s version set in upper east side of New York. Later McGrath discovered that "Clueless," a 1990s version set in Beverly Hills, was already in the making.

Of the novel, McGrath admits that he put off reading it until after college but was surprised at how much he enjoyed it: "I was used to great novels being so heavy and serious and ponderous and always worried about big things. Then came Emma, which was so effervescent... The rightness of the romance keeps everything so effervescent it's impossible not to be enchanted by it... I just thought it was so delightful to have a heroine who was completely wrong and ill-informed about almost everything she's doing. Usually, in 19th-century literature, the hero or heroine is a figure of honor that goes about correcting problems and dramas that other people have initiated. In Emma, she causes all the trouble. I thought that was a great, funny concept... With the exception of [Mark] Twain's works, I think it's the funniest of the great novels -- so I decided to write a screenplay based on it." 2

When McGrath began writing his screenplay, he thought he would be the first to transform a Jane Austen novel into a modern film: "[I began writing] before Jane Austen became the John Grisham of romantic fiction. I had no idea that ?Persuasion,' ?Sense and Sensibility,' and ?Pride and Prejudice' would become movies, or that ?Emma' would be updated as ' Clueless.' " McGrath, however, is the first to make a film version of Emma (narrowly beating out a BBC television production): "I was amazed to find it had never been filmed in years past, because it dramatizes perfectly." 3

As McGrath put the finishing touches on his screenplay, his parents telephoned him with bad news. They frantically informed him that Emma Thompson was filming a version of Emma. Panic-stricken, McGrath called his agent, who reassured him: "I have just three words for you: ?Sense and Sensibility.' '' 4

After his script for Woody Allen's "Bullets over Broadway" was nominated for an Oscar, McGrath rushed to Miramax Films to push his newly completed "Emma" screenplay: "They asked who should direct it and I said 'me' and everyone got quiet. For some reason they finally agreed and I immediately started working on it before they could change their minds... Besides, first-time directors work cheap." 5

Of the screenwriting and directing experience, McGrath jokingly remarks: "I come from a family of hard workers, so I worked hard to convince them that bringing Emma to the screen was not a cushy job. After all, I had to snuggle up to a warm fire and reread the novel, which is laced with wit and romance. I had to sit through auditions with brilliant actors who made me laugh and cry. I had to shoot the film in ravishing English countryside. Then I had to watch it over and over and choose between a superb performance and a performance that was superb. It was draining work, but for Austen's Emma,' I was willing to sacrifice my comfort. After all, it is a classic." 6

Auditions and Casting

Director Douglas McGrath originally intended only to cast British actors for the film, but was impressed with American Gwyneth Paltrow's ability to mimic an authentic Texas accent: "I chose her because I'd seen her in [a previous film] and she'd done the most immaculate Texas accent. I grew up in Texas, and when my friends and I would go to the movies, we would just kill ourselves laughing whenever anyone tried to do a Texas accent. But Gwyneth's regional accent was perfect; she sounded like girls I'd grown up with. So I knew she had a phenomenal ear." McGrath was confident that Paltrow would also be able to pull off an English accent in "Emma." 7

Paltrow's audition secured the lead role for her, as McGrath recalls: "We had many actresses, big and small, who wanted to play this part. The minute she started the read-through, the very first line, I thought, 'Everything is going to be fine; she's going to be brilliant'... We didn't even open up the audition process, and a lot of actresses were miffed about it." 8

Paltrow was asked to do a second read-through with the already chosen English cast members, including Jeremy Northam. Although it gave her a chance to try out her English accent, Paltrow admits being very nervous. McGrath, however, recalls that she did beautifully: "The British actors were all terribly polite, but when we did our first reading [with Paltrow] it began in an atmosphere of 'Okay, we'd better help the little American girl with her part.' Then Gwyneth opened her mouth and spoke her first line. Her accent was perfect and everybody sat up all at once, realizing that not only were they not going to have to help her, they were going to have to race to keep up with her." 9

Northam, a native Brit, was asked to audition for "Emma" after a director spotted him in Los Angeles filming "The Net." After reading the script, Northam was ready to beg for the part of Knightley: "I was being considered for another part and I remember thinking, ?Oh, no Knightley is the part I really want to be seen for.' When I met the director, we got on very well and we talked about everything except the film. At the end of it, he said he thought Knightley was the part for me, so I didn't have to bring up the issue at all." 10

Northam was surprised to be cast as the charming Knightley, as he has always considered himself "ugly": "I don't know [how I could be cast as Knightley]! I really don't. I suppose because I'm a good reactor, rather than a good actor. I suppose that's why it works." 11

Northam was intrigued by Knightley's reticence, a trait which he notes is rare in Hollywood's leading male roles. He remarks that it was Knightley's quiet demeanor which led him to accept the part.

Real-life mother and daughter, Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson (mother and sister to actress Emma Thompson), were cast by coincidence to play mother and daughter, Mrs. and Miss Bates. Casting director Mary Selway didn't have a clue that they were related, as they were placed on separate casting lists. Thompson was almost not cast as the chatty Miss Bates because she was too young for the part (Thompson had only recently played a young bride in "Four Weddings and a Funeral"): "In the book, Miss Bates is older than me, and when I first read, Doug thought I wasn't right. But when I went back, Mary let my hair down to look older. And I got glasses, which helped. You'll see a miraculous change takes place." 12

When his proud parents came to visit the English set from Texas, McGrath decided to include them as extras in a ballroom scene. McGrath's mom proudly teases: "It was so much fun. Do you know what they call the extras now? Background artists! We're working on getting an agent now." 13

Ewan McGregor (Frank Churchill) decided to take a chance on his first period film with "Emma": "I've read a lot of period adaptations and most of them bore me to death in the script form. This one managed to get very witty dialogue; I thought it had a really good pace to it." McGregor also remarks that the chance to work with the other actors was one reason for signing on to do "Emma": "[There were] great people on [the film]... Toni Collette, she's brilliant, so funny and such a nice person... And Jamie Cosmo, who played my dad in [a prior film], played my dad in Emma as well." In addition, McGregor admits that he wanted a chance to try out the period costumes: "All actors like dressing up, regardless of what they might say. It's fun. All that [clothing], it's so different." 14

Barely any of the actors were Jane Austen fans before signing on to do "Emma." For example, Paltrow remarks: "[In school I] found Jane Austen too chatty and a little less accessible." Toni Collette (Harriet Smith) also confesses: "I just found [Austen] to be a complete bore. [But Emma] is so clever and funny... The older I get, I appreciate her more." 15

On Location

To bring the proper English poise to the film, the cast members, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam, were required to learn from a movement teacher. Northam recalls: "It was like trying to understand the steps of a dance, one that came out of a certain etiquette. In this world, when they sometimes seem to be saying nothing, there actually is a great deal being communicated." 16

Paltrow confesses that one challenge in playing Emma was wearing the costumes: Unlike her co-stars, she was too flat chested to fit into most of the "Wonderbra meets a nightgown" dresses, as she describes them.

In order to play the Rubenesque Harriett, actress Toni Collette had to gain weight. Collette, however, didn't mind: "I think it's important for people to look real in films. There's a tendency to go Barbie doll and I don't agree with that at all." 17

When first-time director McGrath had questions during the shoot, he called friend and one-time co-writer, Woody Allen for help: "It helps to know a big genius who you can call. My questions were really rudimentary, and he was really helpful and acted glad to say things like, ?The camera is the one on the wheels.' He sent a really sweet encouraging note before we began [filming]." 18

McGrath recalls that Paltrow was especially good at jumping into character: "The amazing thing about [Paltrow] is that as a rule she can be running around the set, singing, dancing, curled up like a cat, and then the minute action is called, she completely changes. She adopts every feature of a young woman in 19th century England of that breeding and station." 19

Paltrow already knew how to shoot a bow and arrow before filming the archery scene with Northam. However, she was required to take lessons in ballroom dancing and horseback riding. Paltrow also took singing lessons for the film, and McGrath thought she did so well that he decided to use Paltrow's real singing voice in the scene where Emma performs on the piano-forte.

McGrath had an English etiquette expert on hand during the shoot to make sure every gesture and detail was historically accurate.

Although "Emma" has been praised for its lush scenery and costuming, it took a mere $7 million (considered rock-bottom cheap by Hollywood standards) to complete. McGrath's film cost less than half of the total cost for "Sense and Sensibility," which wrapped up filming just as the "Emma" shoot concluded.

Relationships On and Off the Set

Of Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam remarks: "Technically she's brilliant, but she was also a lot of fun... She just sails through and seems to have a blast doing it, and I think it shows on the screen because there's a real sense of fun and mischief... I'm not saying there are not things an English actress couldn't bring to [her role as Emma] but I think Gwyneth brings something which is different. I think by nature she has got a sort of New York, urban attitude... There is a sharpness about Emma and a kind of sharpness about Austen's writing which is probably more akin to late 20th-century urban sensibility than we might at first believe." 20

Similarly, Paltrow enjoyed working with Northam: "Jeremy's a wonderful actor and a very sweet guy. Our approaches were very different -- he's very schooled in the theater, which is not my background. So that alone provided a lot of stimulation. He's also really funny." 21

Of Paltrow, co-star Greta Scacci (Mrs. Weston) remarks: "I was already very fond of Gwyneth because we'd done ?Jefferson in Paris' together, and I already had a kind of maternal relationship with her, so it felt very natural to play her governess." 22

Paltrow especially enjoyed working with her director, McGrath: "[The movie] was extraordinary because he is extraordinary. He is as witty and insightful as anyone I have ever met. No matter how pressured the situation, he was calm, focused and delightful. He was so involved with the spirit of the film that he would watch the monitors and act out all our parts with us." 23

Toni Collette (Harriet Smith) enjoyed working with the entire cast, especially Paltrow: "[The shoot] was a wonderful reminder that I could have fun while I'm working. Just a fabulous group. Gwyneth and I became very close, as the resident non-Brits." Of Collette, Paltrow remarks: "She's such a nut! I just adore her. We were always off in a corner, cracking jokes." 24

The Actors on Their Roles

On playing Emma, Gwyneth Paltrow remarks: "It was fun to play Emma because I don't think I share many qualities with her. I'm certainly not a matchmaker and I don't meddle in people's lives. But she's very spirited, thinks she knows everything, and I really love and appreciate all her faults. I think it's really important to see a film heroine who's not perfect, who makes mistakes, feels the pain of those mistakes and ultimately learns and grows from them." 25

Paltrow also praises Jane Austen: "The wonderful thing about Jane Austen is that [her work] translates brilliantly to screen... The stories are so cleverly conceived and the characters are so well drawn that they make wonderful film." 26

On Jane Austen, Jeremy Northam remarks: "Hers is an age of innocence, compared to ours. And Austen's are indeed very romantic stories, written by a young woman projecting her future. But that's coupled with Austen's acerbic wit and almost cynical view of people. In other words, she encourages us to delve beneath the surface, to not trust the surface of things, and I think that appeals to our hard-headedness. It's not that we're cynical but... well, look at the way we look at our politicians. We're skeptical. So is Austen. And I think when romance flourishes in that sort of environment, it is truly romantic because it embraces human nature, warts and all." 27

Concerning Knightley, Northam remarks: "I wanted an ambivalence in the character. [Knightley is] not sure what he's feeling -- or what he is allowing himself to feel... He's quiet, he's not tearing up the scenery. It's a quiet journey from being this person who regards Emma as almost a sister with a protective, avuncular affection to somebody who has come to terms with different kinds of feelings. The thing about Knightley is that he has learned to be altruistic, he has learned to be kind and selfless and for various reasons, which aren't really explained in the book. I imagine that his life has somehow become circumscribed by duty and responsibility -- so much so that he has to learn to be selfless and I think in the course of the story he has to learn to be selfish again. He has to learn to remember things which he has long forgotten... He's faithful [to Emma], he always has the strongest faith that she will change, be better. That's what I love about Knightley." Referring to a recent breakup with a longtime girlfriend, however, Northam confesses: "I guess I don't have Mr. Knightley's altruism." 28

On her character, Harriet Smith, Toni Collette remarks: "I think the movie has much to say to [young people]. About peer pressure, and trusting yourself. Harriet spends all her time trying to please and be like Emma. And eventually she goes full circle, to listen to her own heart again." 29

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