"People are talking about: ideal behavior"
by Rhoda Koenig
Richard David Story, editor
VOGUE, June 1999, pp. 117 & 120.
The couple next to us may not realize Jeremy Northam is an actor when he sits down, but I can see them catching on after a while when, from our table for two, they hear, in rapid succession, a Cockney workman, an excited German, President Reagan, a Hollywood agent, one of the seven accents native to Bensonhurst, a Jack Russell eating a lemon, a keeper of snakes at the London Zoo, and a snake. (Well, actually, they can only see the snake.) There is also some more conventional acting, as he demonstrates the wrong way to do Troilus's farewell to Cressida (long pause, quick glance to see if the noble profile is being admired, deep breath and right away - all in a rush, from "We two, that with so many thousand sighs" straight through to "the sale of broken tears").
Northam, 37, has loosened up a bit since his adolescence, when he thought that acting was just "showing off," a lot of "prancing about in tights," though in his family the theater was held in high regard: His parents were teachers, his father an eminent Ibsen scholar who taught at Cambridge and at Bristol. By the time he was sixteen, Northam had seen enough good Shakespeare to justify his growing fascination with performing, but, what with working as a stagehand and going to university as well as to the distinguished Bristol Old Vic, he did not start acting until he was 24. Then, however, he was soon taken on at the Royal National Theatre, where his second role was Hamlet - though he says sharply, "It wasn't my Hamlet." For those who don't remember, it was Northam who took over when Daniel Day-Lewis notoriously went to pieces during the ghost scene, walked off, and never came back.
Before long, Northam became known to British theatergoers as an actor with classic good looks and a deft way with classic verse as well as prose. (While he longs for a chance at most of the great roles, he has had his fill of the late-seventeenth century: "I wouldn't do those parts again any more than I would play Widow Twankey, thank you.") On television and in film he had brought his glamour to parts originated by Laurence Olivier, and his gentlemanly reserve to roles such as the allegorically named Mr. Knightley in "Emma" [this and other titles originally in italics, ed.] and the knights "sans peur et sans reproche" [original in italics, ed.] in two forthcoming movies, "An Ideal Husband," starring Cate Blanchett, and David Mamet's film of Terrence Rattigan's "The Winslow Boy" starring . . . well, starring Jeremy Northam. He has also turned his genteel opacity into sinister charm, with his portrayal of heartless playboys and of the villain in "The Net," one more example of the recent Hollywood axiom "When you want a bad guy, get a Brit." "There's a certain amount of cultural revenge," he says. "Americans look at the Old Country and see its chaos and disunity, its double-dealing."
Northam would, however, like to be thought of as simply an actor, not an English one - a wish that, when so many radical as well as cultural characteristics are ignored in casting, seems modest enough. He talks enthusiastically about the third film of his we'll see this year, "Happy, Texas," "a kind of 'Some Like It Hot' set in the desert," in which his character has to likewise pretend to be someone he is not. Northam does not, however, want to take on an American wariness toward homosexuality. "A year ago, I was offered a part [which he did not, in the end, accept] that I couldn't believe they wanted me for. I was told no American actor wanted to play it." A character's sexuality, he feels, "is no more than one defining aspect than his political opinions or his class," and he has no time for actors who are worried they might be typecast or thought to be gay themselves. Indeed, Northam's most recent critical success in Britain was a play, "Certain Young Men." in which all the characters were gay, and all the actors straight. "The eight of us thought that we were very sympathetic, but at one rehearsal, the author said he had never come across so much homophobia."
Though he has never given hostages to fortune, Northam, who had not worked for six months when we spoke, says he shares all actors' anxieties about where the next part is coming from, and when. How did he miss being in "Shakespeare in Love?" I ask.
"Too old an ugly, I suppose," he says.
Not even Jeremy Northam, I'm afraid, is a good enough actor to convince one of that.