Source: USA Weekend December 28th – 30th, 2001. Words by Jeffrey Zaslow.
The period roles come stuffy and highly starched. And actor Jeremy Northam is OK with that.
Perhaps British actor Jeremy Northam is most suited to play an alien from outer space or an American cowboy or some self-absorbed rock star. “I don’t know what I’m best at,” he says. In the movie business, “you do what you’re asked to do, largely. Either you fight that all the way and say, ‘No, no, no, there’s something else I can do,’ or you’re happy to be working and you go with the flow.”
That explains his familiarity with starchy wing collars. He has made a career of period costume dramas, trading sparks with leading ladies such as Cate Blanchett (An Ideal Husband) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma). In Robert Altman’s new mystery/comedy, Gosford Park, he’s a 1930s British matinee idol. Next, he’ll star as a Victorian poet in Possession.
His movies set in the present – The Net, Mimic and Happy, Texas – mostly have been ignored, suggesting to filmmakers that Northam has his place, and it’s in the past. Whether that’s true or not, the actor has accepted being typecast. He hasn’t figured out how to fit into contemporary Hollywood films, “and I’ve given up trying.” Part of his newfound nonchalance coincided with a recent birthday. Northam, a longtime bachelor, turned 40, and the milestone led him to think about how he might have lived his life differently. “I’d love to be 25 again,” he says. “I’d enjoy the ride more – not take it so seriously.”
His ride began in Cambridge, England, where his father was a literature professor. His mother was a potter and teacher. Jeremy, the youngest of four children, was a kid with bad teeth who had an aversion to smiling and dreamed of being a cowboy. He describes his upbringing as cultured, but not stuffy like his later screen roles.
One of his first breaks as an actor came in 1989, when he was understudy to Daniel Day-Lewis in Hamlet at England’s Royal National Theatre. Northam took over one night during the ghost scene when Day-Lewis had what was reported as an “emotional breakdown.” Says Northam: “It’s a funny thing to have an experience like that on the back of someone else’s misfortune. It doesn’t exactly give you the liberty to enjoy it. “Even though he continued for 30 more performances, “it was never really mine.” He hasn’t seen Day-Lewis since then.
Northam began landing British period movies “because when you wash him off and he’s polished up, he looks so refined,” says Bob Balaban, the diminutive character actor who co-stars in and co-produces Gosford Park. Northam would be the perfect actor to someday portray F. Scott Fitzgerald, Balaban says. “He does a perfect American accent.”
Earlier this month, Northam visited New York for the first time since Sept. 11. A few years ago, he lived 10 blocks from the World Trade Center for five months. He admits he was “intimidated” by New Yorkers, who always seemed “so full of life. It was a city with an ability to keep reasserting itself.” On his return, he saw those same attributes “in a positive light,” as New Yorkers used their “collective energy” to recover from the terrorist attacks. He recalls a visit to the World Trade Center’s observation deck: “It was a peerless view across the city. I was reminded of how New York has been a gateway to another life, another world.”
The tragedy in Manhatten, and reaching age 40, are reminders to Northam that his career is secondary to other things. Does he think about having children? “That’s what I think about most of the time. But it’s very easy, being single, to romanticize about the prospect of being a parent.”
A great fan of cricket, Northam would love to someday have children to teach the game and its history. “I love reading about old cricketeers,” he says. “They hold the same place in my heart that old baseball players hold for Americans.” He knows cricket is perceived as a game for the upper crust. “It isn’t that at all. It’s a game with limitless possibilities, played with unspoken rules.” He likes studying matches from 50 or 100 years ago. “I can look at an old scorecard and imagine the game,” he says.
Just as each game of cricket has its own story, he points out, so do all the cultured men he’s played onscreen. He now chooses not to see himself in the “ghetto” of 18th- and 19th-century dramas. “Each character is different. Each story is different.” It hardly matters to him anymore that the stiff collars are the same.