Jeremy Northam Unbuttoned (Biography Magazine) Oct 2003

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Jeremy Northam Unbuttoned (Biography Magazine) Oct 2003

Post  DebraRatt on Wed May 16, 2012 1:00 am

Jeremy Northam Unbuttoned
Biography Magazine
October 2003
by: James Greenberg

Caption: The Prince of the Period Piece Loosens Up

Jeremy Northam can’t escape the past. Try as he might to step into contemporary roles (a scientist battling mutant cockroaches in Mimic, an escaped con who poses as a gay beauty pageant judge in Happy Texas, the legendary Dean Martin in TV’s Martin and Lewis, audiences still associate the 42-year-old actor with gray Yorkshire days, frock coats, and the title “sir.” Ever since his dashing Mr. Knightly swept Gwyneth Paltrow off her feet in Jane Austen’s Emma in 1996, Northam has been hailed as the prince of the period piece.

“It’s probably because I come across as a bit chilly,” he admits. “When I did a lot of theater, I learned a measure of control, and I suppose the way I talk might seem to some people as very upper-class English accent—which it’s not.”

Northam might appear to be a staid stage actor, but underneath that sophisticated exterior lies a tremendous playfulness and wit. After a take on the set he has been known to break into a soft shoe number and do dead-on impersonations of fellow Brits Alec Guinness and Ian McKellen. “Jeremy can be the very model of a classically trained English actor and then can flip and be a clown; he can turn on a dime,” says Jennifer Ehle, his co-star in Possession (2002). “I think that’s part of his self-deprecating humor. Out of shyness he doesn’t want people to think he’s as elegant as he is.”

“You look at the period work he’s done and he still looks like a human being,” adds director Keith Gordon, who cast Northam as a ‘50s film noir villain in The Singing Detective, which opens next month, “There are some good actors who go stiff trying to act like they’re in another time if you put them in a costume. Jeremy just looks like a person who belongs there.”

Following The Singing Detective, co-starring Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson, Northam transforms himself again, this time into a colonel in the French military police thriller The Statement, with Michael Caine. He’s not sure what he’ll do after that. “I realize I’ve done about 18 films in seven or eight years. In that time my mum died and a relationship broke up. So now, I’m trying to spend a little more time on life things,” he says.

That might mean retreating from his London flat to his country house in Norfolk, where he likes nothing better than to whip up a simple meal using local produce. “Nothing fancy,” he says modestly. “I’m not going to spend hours constructing a small castle made out of pastry.”

Born in Cambridgeshire, England, on December 1, 1961 Jeremy Northam was thee youngest of four children. His father John, was a literature professor and Ibsen scholar at Cambridge; mother Rachel was a homemaker, sometime teacher, and later in life, a successful potter. Not surprisingly, his siblings all pursued artistic careers, his oldest brother, Chris, is a pianist; sister Kate is a graphic designer; and brother Tim is a theater set designer.

The family was cultured but never stuffy, recalls Northam. “I count myself fortunate to have grown up in a family where discussion was always present and ideas had value. But it wasn’t like sitting in an exam every time you sat down to a meal.”

A love of music was one thing they all shared, and Northam’s parents insisted that each child play two instruments. Jeremy’s were piano and violin, and later viola. He still plays, but in typically self-critical fashion says, “I’m a shit piano player,” then quickly adds, “I’m going to take lessons and get better. It’s one of those things I’ve been meaning to get around to.”

Although he was a self-confessed lazy student, he had a lively imagination. His favorite pastime was staging imaginary bicycle races in which he would do hundreds of laps competing only against himself. Being the youngest child gave him a certain fearlessness and a will to try anything new. “It’s almost inevitable that you can get away with more, you’re allowed a little more cheek. I’m sure the desire to entertain came out of that.”

But theater didn’t enter Jeremy’s life until he was 11, when his family moved to Bristol and his father joined the University of Bristol drama department. The town had three professional theaters, including the Bristol Old Vic, and in his teens, Northam developed a passion for plays, snatching up student discount tickets to whatever shows he could, both contemporary and classic. It wasn’t long before the idea of becoming a performer began to intrigue him. “I was about 16 when I thought, ‘This really appeals to me,’ and at the same time I thought acting was a form of vanity. How could I possibly have anything to offer? In a way, I’m still fighting with that now.”

Unfortunately, Northam had no clue how to launch a professional acting career. “My folks were supportive, but it was not a world they were familiar with. They didn’t want me to be disappointed or hurt.”

In college at the University of London, he acted in a few productions but concentrated on getting his degree in English. It wasn’t until he was 23 that he enrolled in the Bristol Old Vic theater school. “I was kind of glad not to do too much [acting] until then. So when drama school came along I was happy as I’ve ever been. I was completely broke and exhausted, but really elated.”

To pick up some cash in the summer, Northam and a friend played music at restaurants in Bristol. “I marched around with a horrible electric keyboard that I borrowed, and we howled our way through everything from ‘Moonlight Serenade’ to ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.’ We were awful—but we got fed.”

Eventually he landed roles in regional productions and moved on to the National Theater, where a dubious opportunity came along in 1989. At the time, he was playing a minor role and understudying for Daniel Day-Lewis in Hamlet. In the middle of a performance one night, Day-Lewis reportedly saw the ghost of his own father, got spooked, and walked off the stage (the tabloids called it a nervous breakdown). Enter Northam, ill-prepared and petrified. He vividly—and painfully—recalls watching people in the audience get up and leave when they announced he was filling in as the lead.

“It has been popularly reported as a ‘great break,’ but I don’t think of that as a break at all,” says Northam. “Personally, it was a horrible thing to deal with in subsequent years because it was based on the failure of the person who should have been playing the part.”

Northam played Shakespeare’s tormented Dane for 30 more performances to good reviews, then got what he consider his real break with a revival of the 1905 play The Voysey Inheritance at the National Theater later that year. His performance earned him Britain’s prestigious Olivier Award for outstanding newcomer.

A few years later he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and continued to work regularly onstage. Then in 1995 his career took an unexpected turn when the lead role he was playing in an independent film in Canada accidentally lead him to Hollywood.

An agent saw Northam’s screen test and invited him to L.A. Four days later he was cast as a charming but sinister Internet crook terrorizing Sandra Bullock in The Net (1995). “The producers wanted an unknown Englishman to play the villain,” he says, underplaying his own talent as usual.

But clearly it was more than good luck. On the way back to London after filming The Net, Northam stopped off in New York to meet with director Doug McGrath and got the plum role of Mr. Knightley in Emma. He also played a bit part in Carrington (1995) that included a roll in the hay with Emma Thompson. Soon he’d earned a reputation as one of only a handful of actors who could manage to look smart and sexy in a waistcoat (along with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett). Critics dubbed him “The Thinking Woman’s Hunk.”

“He’s just one of those guys who has a flirty sexual energy,” says Gordon. “He’s very physical, always giving people back rubs.” And for the sex scenes in The Singing Detective, he was willing to try anything, adds the director. “He’s just very shameless and hard to embarrass, which is great fun.”

Despite such utter lack of inhibition, Northam keeps his personal life strictly private, which might explain why he’s so adept at costume dramas, where characters pride themselves on their restraint. “What interests me about those roles is the sense of what’s happening beneath,” he admits. “For me it would be a challenge to play a character who we see totally on the outside.”

Northam is not the kind of guy you’ll see turning up in the gossip columns. He’s had a few long-term relationships that fizzled, but it’s impossible to pry any details out of him. Though he was never married, he has always imagined himself as a father. However, after recently playing host to his brother and his 6-month old niece in Norfolk, he confesses to a few second thoughts. “Maybe I’m not so sure. It was fantastic but at the end of the week I was exhausted,” he says. “So, yes, I want to have a family and kids, but as soon as I say that, another part of me goes, ‘Oh God.’”

If Northam’s goal is to balance his personal life, he hasn’t quite figured it all out yet. In the end, his true love might be acting. “It still fascinated me,” he says. So, “I’m looking at all kind of options, not just different parts. I’m also looking to direct a theater piece in London, and I’m looking at a book to turn into a film.” And that’s just for starters. “There are thing I want to do that I haven’t even thought of yet.”

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