US Magazine (Aug 1997)

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US Magazine (Aug 1997)

Post  DebraRatt on Sat Jun 09, 2012 8:41 pm

Jeremy Northam
August 1997
by: Josh Rottenberg

With a smart role in a slick Hollywood thriller, this British actor could be on his way to stateside stardom. But can he handle it?

It’s been one month since Jeremy Northam made his latest vow to quit smoking, so he’d like to be interviewed someplace where he won’t feel too, you know, tempted. After some discussion, it is agreed that the meeting will take place at happy hour on a Friday evening at a bar in New York’s arty SoHo neighborhood. This sounds a little like interviewing Chris Farley at a Pringles factory, but who’s to argue?

Arriving at the appointed place, you find the 35-year-old English actor seated in a dimly lit corner behind the pool table, hunched over a glass of some pinkish-orange concoction and, sure enough, a half-full ashtray. Sporting an expression as sober as his down-town-watering hole camouflage—rumpled gray sport jacket, black jeans and tousled hair—Northam clearly is not thrilled about having fallen off the nicotine wagon. “I felt great for a month, and why I’ve started again, I do not know,” he says exhaling a stream of smoke. “I’ll stop again tomorrow.” But cut the guy some slack. Northam recently flew in from his home in London and is still nursing a case of jet lag. More important, the man who terrorized Sandra Bullock in The Net and swept Gwyneth Paltrow off her feet in Emma is here to tackle one of the most arduous roles any British thespian with Hollywood hopes must face: Celebrity Interview Subject.

From coldblooded technovillian to Jane Austen’s stouthearted Mr. Knightley, Northam has combined keen intelligence and an air of mystery with not-too-froufy leading-man looks, earning comparisons to the young Laurence Olivier and tags like “the thinking woman’s pine-up.” “Jeremy has a wonderful civilized masculinity,” say Emma director Douglas McGrath. “He manages to retain the best of the Old World—courtliness and gentlemanliness—while at the same time there’s also something very modern and sexual about him.”

In this month’s Mimic, Northam stars alongside Mira Sorvino as a scientist battling a killer virus spread by mutant insects. Miramax is hoping the arty $25 million frightfest can scare up Scream-sized box-office receipts against this summer’s blockbuster contenders, and Northam is well aware of what’s at stake. It’s the actor’s first crack at the hero role in a slick thriller and, after his 11 years of working mostly in the theater, could help propel him to full-blown Hollywood stardom. Northam’s just not sure what to make of it all. “I’m still coming to terms with doing movies,” he says, reaching for another smoke. “I’ve never felt like a member of a club. You still feel like you’re a hire-and-fire artist—you luck out or you don’t. And it doesn’t feel smooth. It never feels smooth.”

Frankly, an interview with Northam doesn’t always feel smooth, either. He can be effortlessly charming, revealing a serrated, self-deprecating wit when discussing, for example, his difficulty with the science part of Mimic’s science fiction (“I’m the kind of person who bought A Brief History of Time, and I’m afraid it has remained three quarters unread”) or the uptightness of Austen’s world (“Part of us wants to give everybody a good slap around the face and say, ‘What’s the f---king problem? You all look like you could do with a good sleep! And have you ever thought of working out?’”). But press the wrong button and Northam can shut down in an instant—only to brighten again just as quickly. Returning from a hushed phone call, he explains that his girlfriend is waiting for him back at his hotel. When asked what she does for a living, he replies coolly, “I’m not telling you.” (He will confirm that she is not an actress.) Then, moments later, he’s talking blithely about his increasing desire to settle down and start a family: “Part of me would like to be in a position to have kids, but I’d hate for a child to be brought up under these circumstances.”

Perhaps work-related subjects are safer: Does Northam feel he’s competing for plum roles with other trans-Atlantic leading men, like, say, Ralph Fiennes? Whoops—wrong button, thank you for playing. “Sure, I would have given my eyeteeth to play Ralph’s part in The English Patient,” he says, bristling. “But there was never any chance I was going to be seen for that part, so how can you be competitive?” Later, thoroughly defrosted, he says, “Ralph is in a very fortunate position. That is the subject of great envy among many British actors, because he seems to have cracked [the American market] completely.”

Those who have worked with Northam say that while he can be funny and generous off the set, his strict, demanding approach to his craft is also tough to crack. “Jeremy is…it’s difficult to say,” Paltrow offers cautiously. “He’s incredibly driven. We worked so differently. He’d get frustrated with me sometimes, and I’d get really frustrated with him.” McGrath found himself continually trying to balance Northam’s rigid precision with Paltrow’s laid-back style. “Gwyneth just read it, absorbs it and does it, whereas Jeremy studies it, analyzes it, breaks it down,” McGrath says. “But they’re both very professional, polite people—I mean, nobody was throwing any hairbrushes.”

According to Mimic director Guillermo del Toro, Northam had a similarly tricky working dynamic with Sorvino. “Jeremy is very academic and technical, and Mira comes from the spur of the moment, the emotion,” he observes. “I think that halfway through they found a way to work that was working for both of them.” Still, you can’t argue with the results. “Whatever he demands is worth it,” del Toro says. “It’s never a matter of ego. It’s about the part.” Northam’s meticulous working style might go back to a childhood spent surrounded by the rigors of academia. The youngest of four, Northam was raised in Cambridge and Bristol, England, by a father who taught literature and a mother who made pottery. An admittedly lazy student, Northam says his happiest memories are of playing—albeit a characteristically exacting form of play: “I remember riding a bicycle around a circuit of my own devising, doing hundreds of laps,” he says. “I’d imagine I was in some kind of race, but I was all the competitors.”

After graduating from Bedford College with a degree in English, Northam began taking roles in local theater and soon won acclaim as a stage actor. In 1989, he found himself playing Osric in a production of Hamlet while serving as Daniel Day-Lewis’ understudy in the title role. One night in the middle of Act I, Scene 5, Day-Lewis suffered a sudden emotional meltdown and exited the stage, leaving a stunned Northam to finish the performance and the production’s run. “It was a total surprise,” Northam says. “My first line was ‘O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? And shall I couple hell?’ And it was a bit like that, because I thought, ‘Christ, will I be able to remember this?’”

Northam’s understudy days are well behind him—in April he wrapped Steven Spielberg’s slave-rebellion drama, Amistad, and in August he’ll begin shooting The Misadventures of Margaret, with Parker Posey and Brooke Shields—but as for what the future holds, he’s not exactly comfortable speculating. “It’s all work,” he begins. “Success for me is not money and fame or anything. I want to improve as an actor and…” He falters, runs his fingers through his hair. “And get the chance to play the parts I’d like to play. And…” He glances over at the guys playing pool—no help there. “And feeling fulfilled in yourself.” Letting out a groan, Northam drops his head into his hands. “God, this is horrible. Sometimes I just feel like it’s a form of public masturbation. I can’t bear it.”

Northam is flatly unwilling to be pinned down—either to following a straight and narrow career path or to being a user-friendly public face—and when it comes to achieving critical marquee mass in Hollywood, this could prove to be either his biggest asset or greatest weakness. “Jeremy can do a lot of things, which in a way makes it harder for him,” says McGrath. “It makes it harder to pigeonhole him. But maybe people are becoming a little looser these days.” He pauses. “I mean, look at Ralph Fiennes.”

It seems fitting that the clearest insight into Northam’s personality comes when you’re not even looking for it, as he explains what attracted him to the role of the noble but inscrutable Knightley: “You’re not always sure what Knightley’s thinking. He keeps his own counsel, largely. And every now and again, he reveals what he really feels in the most extraordinary outburst.” Stabbing out his cigarette, Northam adds with a wry grin, “I think I can relate to that.”

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