Northam's Stages (1999)

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Northam's Stages (1999)

Post  DebraRatt on Sat May 12, 2012 3:04 am

Northam's Stages
Theater veteran is making his mark in movies like Mamet's `Winslow Boy'
9 May 1999
By Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer

From the onset of his film career, Jeremy Northam was determined to play a variety of characters and not get stuck playing a "token Brit" in American movies. "No," he once said, "I do not want to be the next Hugh Grant."

After his role as Mr. Knightley, Gwyneth Paltrow's suitor in "Emma," Northam was keen to avoid being typecast as plummy- voiced Englishmen who hold their emotional cards close to the chest. He played an American disease-control specialist in the the sci-fi thriller "Mimic" and an Irish American thug opposite Sharon Stone in "Gloria."

In "The Winslow Boy," a period drama opening Friday in the Bay Area, Northam returns to playing an Englishman. As Sir Robert Morton, a crafty, stiff-backed barrister, he's hired to defend a 12-year-old naval cadet accused of stealing and becomes the key figure in a highly publicized trial. The character is roughly based on Edward Carson, the barris ter who prosecuted Oscar Wilde during Wilde's libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury.

Set in 1912, "The Winslow Boy" was written and directed by David Mamet, who based it on Terence Rattigan's 1946 play. Nigel Hawthorne co-stars as the accused boy's upper- class father, Gemma Jones is his mother and Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife) plays the boy's suffragette sister.

For Mamet, 51, this G-rated drawing-room piece is a far cry from the scabrous, explosive drama of such earlier works as "American Buffalo," "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "House of Games." For Northam, 37, the film provided a chance to wrap himself around a complex, seductive character -- the best part he's had in a film.

"It is a cracking good part," Northam says, "the kind that leaps off the page at you when you read it.

"I loved playing him because there's such fun to be had with his stern exterior, his incredibly quick mind. . . . It's not often you get to play dialogue that is that light and intricate. And that's great fun."

While in San Francisco, Northam described the enigmatic Mamet ("He's quite demanding as a director"), spoke voluminously about his transition from stage to screen and refused to comment on any of the leading ladies (Paltrow, Stone, Sandra Bullock in "The Net," Emma Thompson in "Carrington") he's partnered onscreen.

"For years people have said, 'You've worked with some of the most glamorous people in Hollywood,' " Northam says with some irritation. "But I will not sit here and say something that might be taken out of context or misconstrued. They were very different people, at different stages of their careers."

Dressed in a blue shirt and blue striped pants, his hair still wet from a post-jogging shower, Northam is anything but formal -- and looks nothing like the conservative, immaculately groomed dandy he plays in "The Winslow Boy." At one point in the interview, he slips off his loafers, leans forward on a sofa and tucks his bare feet underneath himself.

Northam agrees that "The Winslow Boy," with its echoes of Edwardian England and its tale of repressed yearnings and family honor, is an odd match for the streetwise Mamet.

"People say, 'David Mamet? Well, where's the profanity?' As if that's all he writes," Northam says. "I think David was peculiarly moved by the notions of honor and self-sacrifice and altruism that people exhibit throughout the story. I had certain expectations that we would discuss the piece in terms of theme more than we did. But we just concentrated, really, on telling the story."

Northam spent time in British courtrooms to study physical demeanors and professional fronts, and he says Mamet helped him by honing his performance. "Although this is a melodrama, David hates the excesses of sentimentality and overemoting."

In the interrogation scene, when Sir Robert privately questions the Winslow boy to determine his innocence, Northam says, "My instinct was to go much broader, much bigger, to be much more overtly vile to the kid. And David was always saying, 'No, no, you'll get the answers you want if you're kinder to him.' "

Working with Mamet could have proved uncomfortable, in that the director cast his wife in the female lead and her brother, Matthew Pidgeon, as her onscreen sibling. Other actors and crew members were also Mamet regulars.

"It's slightly unusual to be in that situation on a film set," Northam says. "But David's very sort of courteous and polite and everyone's well taken care of. I never sensed any kind of awkwardness; we were all actors."

Born in 1961 to an academic father and a mother who designed pots, Northam was reared in Cambridge and Bristol, England. He trained as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic, won a 1990 Olivier Award as best newcomer in "The Voysey Inheritance" and made his film debut, in 1992, in an unsuccessful remake of "Wuthering Heights" with Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes

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