ROUGH CUT Q & A (Emma) Atlanta Interview

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ROUGH CUT Q & A (Emma) Atlanta Interview

Post  DebraRatt on Thu May 17, 2012 9:29 am

Emma Interview
Q and A
by Craig Ihms - Atlanta

THE BRITISH ACTOR JEREMY NORTHAM is probably best known as the guy who tried to kill Sandra Bullock throughout The Net. That was his only major film role before he co-starred with Gwyneth Paltrow in the upcoming film adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel Emma--the book the 1995 hit Clueless was loosely based on.

An accomplished stage actor, Northam chatted in Atlanta with Craig Ihms about literature, Paltrow and Bullock.

What do you think of this mini-revival of British authors via film? Although Bronte, Hardy, and others made it to the screen before, British literature is being made into film in unprecedented numbers. Why the renaissance?
I think the path to particular authors is well-trodden. I think Jane Austen writes romantic novels. Emma is a character who is kind of fantasizing about ideals with all these relationships. That ideal, though it's kind of rosy and romantic, also embraces people's failings as human beings. You can't really say anything about any of the characters in Emma without putting an edge in somewhere. I would say that Miss Bates, probably, is the only one who escapes, but she talks too much. Everyone's got something that's not quite right. That appeals to our quite hard-bitten natures at the same time. I think we want romance and we want escape to a certain extent. I think that is why we like films that are set in the past in some way. We feel comfortable about that. Something that happens, to some extent, in an age of innocence, before the fall, like some paradise compared to now. And yet, our modern sensibilities also demand us to be slightly selective, and I think her [Austen's] sense of humor is quite cynical at times. It adds a certain sharpness to the apparent sweetness of the story. It's got a certain Shakespearean roundness to it. Like in many of Shakespeare's comedies, there's a slightly uneasy ending: So there is at the end of a lot of Austen novels. There's a sort of celebratory feel, but the question is there: Well, what will the future hold?

Your first major film role was in The Net, a very American, very Hollywood film. How does doing an art film compare to doing a lighter one?
The major difference is money, in terms of budgets for the pictures. There isn't much difference other than that.

I think some scripts are better than others. The films' intentions are different. A Hollywood thriller like The Net has a different set of prerequisites than does a film like Emma. Emma was made because the director loved the book, and Miramax backed him. No doubt because they fancied that Jane Austen was popular at the time. The Net is more obviously trying to please an audience with a contemporary subject and a big, rising star like Sandra Bullock who is very watchable and extremely popular. It's a series of well-worked formulas, in many ways. People enjoy the reworking of a well-told story.

The Net is what really solidified Sandra Bullock's place on the map. How was it to work with her?
It was great. I had not seen Speed until I flew out to start filming The Net. I saw it on the plane going over. But I knew that she was big news. She had organized 1995 to be an extremely busy year. She was very professional, very generous. She put me at ease. I was understandably a bit nervous about working in America for the first time, and working in Hollywood. She really kind of grounded me. She is pretty sensible, and she is as nice as she seems. She became a very reliable ally.

You've acted out Shakespeare, Emily Bronte, and Jane Austen works, among others. Who is your favorite author to act out?
I think Shakespeare, although I've only done that twice in my life. I read that you had played Hamlet, and a lot of people say that is the most difficult role an actor can have. The funny thing about Hamlet is there's no way to prescribe what he is in the script. It relies so much on the personality of the person playing it. I played two other roles in that production. I played Laertes and Osric.

How was it to play Laertes?
I couldn't stand it. I really hated it. You've got two hours off in the middle of the show, and when you come back on you've got to come back in this enormous pitch. It's like "WHERE IS THE KING?" Somewhere at the end of the evening you go and pick up your larynx in the back of the stage.

Why were you drawn to the character of Knightley?
I read the script and was initially in for another role in the movie, and I thought I had to go and persuade the director that I should be considered for Knightley. The appeal is because he is a warm, but complicated person, and his affection changes. He's got an interesting journey to go on, which is that he starts as almost a brother, almost an uncle figure because he's sixteen years senior to Emma. So he watched her grow from an infant to adolescence to this beautiful young woman. And his affection changes from a protective affection to real passion, which is adult, and it's sexual. I think sex suddenly appears in his life and it's a bit of a shock. I think if any of us put ourselves in that situation we'd see that it's quite an amazing journey to go on. It's kind of scary and brave to acknowledge that in one's self. Some of the scenes are beautifully written and expressed. I am an admirer of good dialogue. I like talking movies. I'm not afraid to use dialogue. I suppose it's partly my theater background. I have always thought of theater as a sort of aural medium, and I don't see why the movies can't do that as well. There are many kind of visual felicities in the picture too--including Gwyneth Paltrow, to name one. I'm not sure what she would think of being referred to as a visual felicity.

The British people I know always cringe at the mere thought of an American mimicking an accent from the Isles. How do you think Gwyneth Paltrow did, and how well do you think an American Emma will be received in England?
There have been some fine examples, many of which escape my immediate recall, but there have been some awful ones, too. There have also been some awful attempts at American accents in England. I think she does an amazing job. Absolutely amazing. I never once heard a false note. It's not only about getting the vowel sounds right, or the tune in the voice. I mean it's hard enough for an English actor to speak Austen because the sentences are very convoluted. They're full of a rhetoric which we no longer use. If you break up sentences too much and over-explain them to an audience, then the audience won't get it. She had that absolutely innately, and kind of bubbled away with extreme confidence.

I agree. She had me totally convinced, but do you think cynicism and skepticism about her accent could hurt the movie, particularly in England?
If you said "films" and "American" to most British people, they would therefore go, "Hollywood." If you said Hollywood are doing a version of Emma, then I think most British people would groan and say, " Oh, we know what that's gonna be like." I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised--if they can see past it. I think people might well go to a viewing of Emma with a certain amount of preconceptions. But I think they can bury it. If people had known, they might have had that preconception more about Sense and Sensibility. Sense and Sensibility emanated from Columbia in L.A., and it had a Taiwanese director.

Emma has a dry, subtle humor. A British humor.
Why British? Can you characterize humor in that way?

I think you can certainly say that it has a European flavor. Emma is very funny at some points, but the humor will likely be missed by an audience that thinks Jim Carrey is what humor is about.
There's a humor in Austen's writing which is an undercut with a well-placed word. I just read the book again for an audio cassette in England and it was hard work, but it was incredible to see her humor. It's a humor based on irony, and it is largely deflating.

I know some British people look at the whole of America and think that they do not understand irony.
I was a bit vexed when I first went to California because people would look at me with an entirely straight face and flatly say, "You are so funny." And I'd look at them and think, "Are you being sarcastic?" In England, if you would go, "You are f--king hilarious," it would be a prelude to a fight. It would be funny at the same time. But then you realize, after a while, that it's just words instead of compliments. They're kind of going, "We think you're trying to be funny. You might not be succeeding, but we have to say..." It's said with a certain fear in their eyes that they're not sure whether they got the joke.

So how will Emma play to Americans?
You know, it's hard. It's like asking if Emma is an American or British film. The money came from America. The leading star came from America. The director/writer came from America.

It's a British film.

It's a British film in sensibility. Absolutely. I think that's right. But that doesn't mean that there aren't other, certainly healthy influences in it. It's not the book. It is a film version, and it is Doug McGrath's version, faithful though it is, of the original. It isn't afraid of saying, "Right, there's dialogue, and there's lots of it, and you're going to have to listen, and enjoy, in the sort of sensual way, the act of listening."


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