by Jemima Hunt
British Elle Magazine, August 1999
*Whether playing a smoldering Austen hero or a biting Wildean wit, Jeremy Northam has what it takes to make a girl swoon. Jemima Hunt finds that off screen he's just as gorgeous*
I'm trying to get out of London. First tube, then train, then plane. Everywhere I go I find Jeremy Northam staring at me from posters promoting his film *An Ideal Husband*. The poster in my local tube station has been decorated with juicy red lipstick kisses smudged across his face. Somebody loves him.
I arrive in Cannes. The sun is shining and all the way along La Croisette - the hotel-spangled seafront - are billboards framing the same face. The same dark eyes, distant stare and a hint of a smile that threaten to surprise you with something.
The posters are for David Mamet's 'The Winslow Boy', which is in competition. 'An Ideal Husband' is closing the festival. Northam is the man of the moment, yet his presence is hard to detect in the film magazines and gossip columns churned out every day. Then, in one of the magazines, I spot a photo of a group of actors having lunch. Lurking at the back is a man shielded behind dark glasses wearing a bemused expression on an unshaven face. It's him.
Mention the name Jeremy Northam to women and you'll provoke one of two reactions. Either they swoon - 'Mr Knightley in 'Emma'? God, he's gorgeous' - or they haven't got a clue who he is. Read reviews of his recent slate of films and you'll find him described as both 'ubiquitous' and 'a new talent to watch'. But with the release of 'Happy, Texas' and 'The Winslow Boy', the confusion should be resolved. Northam is undoubtedly one of the finest actors around.
A few weeks later we meet for lunch at London's Claridges. I find him tucked away, smoking, behind potted ferns and American tourists. He's just back from a week's holiday in a Mexican resort a short drive from LA. He's tanned and relaxed and fighting jetlag, which lends him a tousled look and a slightly sleepy air. He's wearing a light blue suit with suede shoes and chunky silver bracelets slip from both wrists. His smile falls somewhere between knowingly seductive and boyishly shy and he has a gaze to match. 'I'm not very good at this,' he says on the way to our table. But Northam is the perfect lunch date - charming and garrulous yet managing not to give too much away.
The fact is, in America Northam is a star. Playing Mr Knightley in 'Emma' did for him there what the role of Mr Darcy did for Colin Firth over here. It established his sex appeal in breeches and his silky charm. It saw him become the subject of web sites, one of which, created by a devoted fan called Cindy, has the mailing address g_knightley. In the States he's recognised in the street. 'Sadly if doesn't tend to be 17-year olds,' he laughs, 'Women old enough to be my grandmother ask if I'm into older women'. In 'Emma' he also had the enviable task of vying for the affections of Gwyneth Paltrow. At the time she was seeing Brad Pitt. 'Love scenes were intimidating, knowing she was going out with the sexiest man alive', he says. 'But she made it easy. So kissing me couldn't have been that bad.'
What's impossible to ignore is how well Northam has done when it comes to leading ladies. Is it true that for on-screen chemistry you have to fall in love? 'Not at all', he counters, which isn't however to say that he doesn't fall for them. In 'Carrington' Northam played Emma Thompson's devilishly handsome lover - the man on the sailing boat with one hand on the tiller, the other on Em. 'Fantastic actress,' is all he'll say. There's also been Anna Friel in Stephen Poliakoff's TV drama 'The Tribe' in which there was a very naked bed scene. 'It ended up being a very funny piece: acting was great fun', he admits.
In the New York thriller 'Mimic', Northam played opposite notoriously tricky actress Mira Sorvino. Together they save New York from giant cockroaches. 'I was covered with green slime for most of the movie' is Northam's singular comment on the film. However, in terms of on-screen spark it looks as though the cockroaches were more fun than Mira. Of Sharon Stone, whom he plays opposite in this summer's gangster flick 'Gloria', he is full of admiration. 'She's wickedly funny and very smart'. However it is Cate Blanchett, his co-star in 'An Ideal Husband', for whom he expresses genuine emotion. 'She has this breathing intelligence most actors have to strain for', he says. 'She's just alive in a very understated way. She's also very married'. So what's the story with girlfriends? Is he the 'confirmed bachelor' as reported? Northam shrugs. 'It's hard. People don't trust you because you're away all the time and you're an actor. I spend too much time on the hoof'. Past girlfriends? 'There was someone a while ago, but I was more in love with her than she was with me'. According to those in the know, he goes for very beautiful women. Inaccessible women possibly, though not exclusively actresses.
Northam arrived in Hollywood as the smooth-talking villain opposite Sandra Bullock in 1995's 'The Net'. Since then he's gone on the join the ranks of British actors winning American roles, four in total. He spends a lot of time in LA. 'I go there to work but not to hang out because I find it soul-destroying the way work has status attached. Yet to make an archetypal American['The Net'] was a fantasy come true,' he says, before adding with typical self-depreciation, 'At the time I just remember feeling bemused and that they had made some awful mistake'. To date, Northam has played a judge in Steven Spielberg's 'Amistad', a scientist in 'Mimic' and an Irish-American gangster in 'Gloria'. 'Though Iíve never had any desire to be a professional Brit,' he confirms. Ironic then, that it was his performance as arch gentleman Mr Knightley in 'Emma' which convinced the director of the forthcoming 'Happy, Texas' that Northam was his man. 'It was the way the character listened and responded to situations then crossed over into romance - apparently.'
'Happy, Texas' couldn't be further from a Jane Austen novel. It's a screwball comedy littered with mistaken identities which Northam describes as '"Some Like it Hot" set in the desert'. He plays an escaped convict who finds himself handcuffed to actor Steve Zahn, George Clooney's moustached sidekick in 'Out of Sight'. They pitch up in a Texan town called Happy and steal a camper van belonging to a gay couple who organise the local beauty pageant. Northam plays mean and moody, giving way to soft and tender as the ex-cons find themselves seduced by small-town values. Northam meanwhile has to rebuff the advances of the sheriff (William H Macy) who falls madly in love with him.
'It's a spirited movie and a great story,' says Northam. 'It's really about choices and how when you're deprived of choice you actually start to feel something exhilarating'. It's a film that caused such a buzz the holiday-makers at Camp David request a copy of it. Yes, no lesser than Bill and Hillary Clinton called up Miramax to ask to see it. 'Apparently they were kind of depressed and needed to be cheered up. I hope it did the trick.'
Now, about Northam's other movie. To meet him and hear him talk is to understand why David Mamet cast him in 'The Winslow Boy'. He has a very rich, velvety voice, perfectly pitched to play barrister Sir Robert Morton in a performance that has already earned him rave reviews at Cannes and in America. An English costume drama, 'It's set in 1912. Ronnie Winslow is 13 and accused of stealing a five shilling postal order,' explains Northam. 'His father launches a campaign to clear his name in Parliament using a barrister, who I play'. Delivering powerful rhetoric to save the day he also trades meaningful glances with Rebecca Pidgeon, the lead female in a display of restrained emotion - another familiar Northam trait. 'It's about intentions', he confirms.
Born in Cambridge in 1962 and brought up there until he was 10, it comes as no surprise to discover that Northam, the youngest of four, is the son of an academic father and a teacher mother. When his father left Cambridge to take up a post teaching drama a Bristol University, Northam ended up at Bristol Grammar. There he discovered drama. 'I was about 16,' he says. 'It was just something I became more and more interested in. I liked the idea of being preoccupied by someone else as I walked about the place saying someone else's words. He went from there to the now defunct Bedford College in London to study English, then spent a formative year pulling ropes backstage at the Hippodrome Theatre. There he encountered actors for the first time and became convince that 'acting was a worthwhile thing to do and not just an ego trip'. Next stop was the Bristol Old Vic, where he trained. Fellow students included actor Sean Pertwee.
Following the Old Vic came the traditional repertory theatre route. 'I did a Chekov, Terence Rattigan, pantomime and a musical,' Northam says. Then followed two years the National Theatre, where he was named Best Newcomer at the 1990 Olivier Awards, and two years at the Royal Shakespeare Company. He appeared in 'Hamlet', the same 'Hamlet' as Daniel Day-Lewis, who, as anyone remotely interested in Daniel Day-Lewis knows, had a nervous breakdown on stage when visited by a ghost of his father. It's an old story but a good one. Northam smiles. I was playing Osric but was an understudy for Hamlet. I'd been doing it for six months when I came off stage and heard, 'Dan's not going to carry on any more'. The guy playing Horatio says, 'How are you on the lines?' Fuck. I hadn't rehearsed the part in months. I couldn't get a drop of saliva to form in my mouth but had to start where Dan had left it. It was horrifying'.
These days Northam does mostly films. Does he miss the theatre since landing his first film role opposite Juliette Binoche, as Cathy's brother Hindley Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights in 1992? 'I did 'Certain Young Men' at the Almeida last year which was my first play in a long time', he says. All the characters were gay and all the actors were straight. 'There's something about performing brilliantly written words which is electrifying. It also meant I could live at home'.
Home is a flat in North London, though these days, 'Norfolk is where I like to wake up,' he says. Northam recently bought a 300-year old house five miles from the sea with a garden filled with plum and apple trees. It's an escape from urban life. He thinks he'll be there for the Millennium. 'I find it dismaying waking up a different hotel room in a different place after a while. I find it lonely.' Pets? He's not a cat person nor a dog person. 'What were you expecting?' he laughs when I phone him in the country. 'A black Labrador called Harry?' His father comes up from Cambridge for weekends, as do friends when Northam's around, which isn't often. It's an awful thing to say, but I'm usually happiest when I'm working. I love acting. I also love knowing I've got time off to do ordinary things. When I'm up here I cook a lot of fish.'
And now he's got time to relax before heading off to Italy this summer to take up a role in the next Merchant Ivory production, Henry James' 'The Golden Bowl'. Northam plays an Italian aristocrat opposite luminous beauties Uma Thurman and Kate Beckinsale. And which one does he fall in love with? 'That would be telling. You'll have to see the movie to find out,' he says.