Full speed on the Northam Line (1999)

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Full speed on the Northam Line (1999)

Post  Admin on Wed Nov 07, 2007 8:45 pm

Full speed on the Northam line
by Toby Rose Evening Standard 10/19/99

Jeremy Northam is apologising. Profusely. He confesses to being testy and terse when questioned about his string of girls. I only asked because they're not just any girls. Sharon Stone, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino and Sandra Bullock have all been leading ladies in his royal flush of Hollywood pictures. Most leading men would see this as amazing good fortune. But Northam objects to being defined in terms of his leading ladies, to being labelled as a mere on-screen walker - the movie equivalent of the man who lifts up the prima ballerina.

Northam with Nigel Hawthorne in The Winslow Boy: "Every time I do a TV show the researcher has looked up my credits, seen these big-actress names, and it's the first question"

'Every time I do a TV show the researcher has looked up my credits, seen these big-actress names, and it's the first question. They want to know all about the actress. I should have a line worked out for that, but really I don't see why I have to talk about it all the time,' he groans.

That is all about to change. We're on the paparazzi-infested beach at Cannes and he's splashing his feet in the surf as we talk. No celeb-mag cameras flash. No TV crews rush over. No autograph-hunter interrupts. But this year may be his last chance at sun, sea and tranquillity. Jeremy Northam is going big time.

British cinema-goers (who saw him with Sandra Bullock in The Net, with Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma, with Mira Sorvino in Mimic and with Sharon Stone in Gloria) have most recently seen him with Rupert Everett in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. Now he's in the film of another classic British play, Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy, directed by leading American playwright-turned-film-director David Mamet.

Next comes Happy, Texas. Also very much his film, it has been snapped up for international distribution by Miramax and is set to push Northam further into centre stage. Plus, he's just become the pin-up for Saks Fifth Avenue's new menswear campaign. In short, a CV any Hollywood hunk would die for. And, while he hasn't hopped aboard the celebrity bandwagon, he readily admits, 'This is what I've been waiting for.'

So what do his friends think of his success? 'They probably despise me,' he replies.

Such success has been coming for some time, and the 38-year-old, Cambridge-born actor wasn't necessarily expecting it. 'I could never have imagined that I would be performing opposite these icons, these movie stars. It came as a total surprise really,' he tells me. The films proved to be one smart career move after another for him, raising his ante in the industry even though none of them exactly set the box office ablaze. However, as he points out, 'I wasn't responsible in the public eye, because I'm not Sharon or Mira or Gwyneth. But, of course, you put a lot of time and effort into doing what you do, and you want it to work, and you would rather be associated with things which are happy successes.'

His slew of forthcoming films look set for greater success. First up in British cinemas is The Winslow Boy, a costumed courtroom drama based on a real-life Edwardian episode in which a well-to-do naval cadet was accused of stealing a postal order. Northam's performance, alongside heavyweights like Sir Nigel Hawthorne, is being widely praised. He plays the accused boy's tough, but ultimately soft-hearted, defence lawyer. 'Those around him see him as a man without heart, ambitious, greedy, egotistical and opportunistic. A fantastic role!'

In total contrast, next month's low-budget indie comedy, Happy, Texas, sees him as a con man, on the run and masquerading as a gay beauty-pageant meister. Happy, Texas wowed them at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival. In the back-to-front way films often get released, he actually shot it immediately before An Ideal Husband. 'I got back on the plane from LA and a day later I was in a read-through. I went from playing an escaped con man in Happy, Texas to a politician with a dodgy past.'

His own past is far from dodgy. In fact, it's a copybook British theatre background, including the scene where he left drama school early (the prestigious Bristol Old Vic) after having landed a job at a provincial rep (the Nottingham Playhouse). He says he's still too embarrassed to reveal the play in question, but the gamble paid off - since then he's been 'resting' for only three months. In 1989, when Daniel Day-Lewis had a breakdown and left the National Theatre stage, understudy Northam was ready to step into his shoes as Hamlet. That same year he won the best-newcomer Olivier award for his performance in Richard Eyre's The Voysey Inheritance. 'I got into acting because I like plays,' he states.

That was the motivation earlier this year when he was back on the London stage, playing gay again in Certain Young Men. The big names were in the wings here, too, because this was at Islington's Almeida Theatre, whose highly respected boards had just been trodden by such movie megastars as Kevin Spacey, Juliette Binoche, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. Though, as Northam points out, 'the people who do plays who are perceived as movie stars all come from a very strong theatrical background'.

At any other time in Hollywood's history, choosing to appear in the gay drama would probably have been nixed by his agent. But, he says, 'as a straight man, playing a gay man is an exciting challenge. I really enjoyed the experience. Certain Young Men opens up the gay lifestyle to a wider audience.'

In fact, he helped to invent the fast-moving ensemble piece in the original workshops seven years ago. Though one aspect seems to have angered the hard-working thespian. 'People talk about you earning 250 a week like Nicole Kidman as if it's a badge of honour - and that makes me fed up because for most people in the business that is a good wage and that is all they get,' he says indignantly. 'What you hope for is to play the parts you want to play, to be a part of the industry that you want to be a part of. I am ambitious to be a better actor.'

He clearly means every word - but that word 'industry' betrays the fact he's accepting the inevitable. He may not have forsaken North London for the Hollywood Hills, but Jeremy Northam is on collision course with stardom. When the studios tire of bumbling Hugh Grant types and cerebral Ralph Fiennes types, 'handsome hetero' Jeremy Northam (as French Elle just called him) will be ready. He's undoubtedly on the shortlist for that ultimate Brit hero, James Bond.

Just don't mention the Bond Girls.

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