Source: Empire November 2001. Words by Colin Kennedy. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.
Battling with bad luck, tripped up over typecasting, is Jeremy Northam just too darned nice for success?
The forecourt of a stately home; honey slow afternoon; wet English summer. Jeremy Northam, in a pressed, pin-striped suit, is elegantly drawing upon a cigarette. He looks like an advert for Raffles. A pile of electronic diversions is to hand, including, but not limited to, the new Backstreet Boys album and the Ali G video. He has been trying to keep up with popular culture. Life on an isolated film set, he deadpans, “Can drive you a bit mad.”
“I was thinking about sport the day,” Jeremy Northam muses, holed up in his trailer, “because it used to get to this time of year, and I would sit down and watch the cricket. And if you’ve been following Suffolk season by season, three or four years go by and you suddenly find yourself going, ‘Who’s this?’ ”
Sixteen years into an acting career that has taken in the near-sublime (Mr. Knightley in Emma) and the patently ridiculous (Jack Devlin in The Net), audiences are still asking of Northam: “Who’s this?” The next 12 months could change all that.
As of 2000, Northam is on location at Luton Hoo, where he is stepping into the polished brogues of Wigram, the unflappable English spy who is as close as World War II drama Enigma gets to a bad guy. This is a small risk for Northam. He does not want to be typecast. After all, this is an actor who in 1999 played back-to-back Sir Roberts (Sir Robert Morton in The Winslow Boy and Sir Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband), before graduating to full-blown prince for Merchant-Ivory’s The Golden Bowl.
“I don’t particularly want to do period films,” he admits. “I don’t want to play smarmy villains for the rest of my life; and yet I’ve reached the realization that I can only take what I consider to be good parts. And be thankful that someone wants to employ me.”
Northam’s résumé confirms that he can master American parts. Immediately prior to the Sir Bobs, Northam received excellent notices as a lovable bank robber in equally lovable comedy, Happy, Texas. The movie promptly died.
“I was pretty low at the end of last year,” Northam sighs. “We got good notices both here and in the States, so I don’t know what happened with that. It was something different, and after a while you start to wonder if you are capable of playing anything different.”
Such self-deprecation is well met. When Northam joined the publicity tour for The Winslow Boy, director David Mamet was surprised to discover that his star was quite unlike the picture of English reserve he had assayed so memorably in the movie. “Well,” Northam said, “that was acting.”
Off-script, Northam is a delightful fellow, full of surprise and wit, as the combination of Backstreet Boys and cricket would suggest. Spicing the conversation with impressions, today’s discourse ranges from the timeless appeal of the Rolling Stones (Enigma is produced by Mick Jagger) to “the Heath Robinson improvisation” which helped win the Second World War. All in all, Northam is a thoroughly pleasant way to spend the afternoon.
Somehow or other, a year goes by. Empire reaches the same dry, English gentleman at home. After three back-to-back shoots which have left the actor “feeling a bit overdone”, Northam is at last sitting down to – yes – watch the cricket. Empire feels a bit bad about interrupting this afternoon. Not least when Northam informs us of the current state of play. “England are 86 short of winning,” he gasps,”which would be an amazing thing.”
The unlikely hero of what will become England’s solitary Ashes victory is Mark Butcher, a workmanlike batsman enjoying the best day of his life. One day, Northam will enjoy a day like this, a day when everything comes together. It will not be Enigma. Although Northam argues intelligently that the movie plays against genre expectations, Michael Apted’s thriller also plays against the expectation of being thrilling. Northam’s next two movies – Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and Neil LaBute’s Possession – meanwhile, can only confirm that when it comes to supporting roles of a vaguely aristrocratic extraction, Northam is a class act – so that leaves the movie Northam shot in Canada this summer, Company Man.
The second film by Vincenzo Natali, director of the highly original Cube, Company Man casts Northam as an American lead in a “very funny, hyper paranoid thriller, like a ’60s thriller that was never made”. It sounds very interesting, but even for Northam, at the moment, “It’s difficult to imagine what the finished film will be.” No matter, Northam will not lose sleep fretting over where any of his new films end up.
Just as last summer, Northam has no idea what is coming next. The idea of lobbying for a part bemuses him – “I would not know how to begin” – so he’s waiting for a script which – like Happy, Texas – “jumps in your lap and licks your face”. He will not dwell on the ones that got away, or the ones he “fucked up in interview”. He does not dwell, period.
For a moment, Northam struggles to recall an appropriate quote from Hamlet, before settling for something more prosaic. “In other words,” he laughs, “we’re a long time dead.”