Jeremy Northam: No More Mr. Knightly
You may not know Jeremy Northam by name, but you’d probably recognize him if you saw him. The English actor came to Hollywood in the mid-90’s. He made his US debut in the cyber thriller, The Net and starred opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma the following year. In 1997, Northam appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and had a leading role in Guillermo del Toro’s American debut, The Mimic. He was promoting the latter when he sat with Martha Frankel for a profile in the July 1997 issue of Movieline magazine. The conversation starts out a little dry, but before you know it they are discussing foreskin and the time Northam had to step in for a freaked out Daniel-Day Lewis.
If you haven’t seen The Net or Emma, it’s likely you’ve never seen Jeremy Northam, the Brit who was so wonderful in both these films. So go rent them and then we’ll talk.
OK, was I right or what? As the snarky bad guy in The Net, Northam was both dangerous and sexy–you knew he had to kill Sandra Bullock, but couldn’t they just sleep together one more time? And as Mr. Knightley in Emma, Northam simply took your breath away. The film rightly belonged to Gwyneth Paltrow, but it was Northam who held our interest.
I’m scheduled to meet Northam at his hotel on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. On the way there, I wonder if I’ll be able to pick him out on a crowded street. You know how it is–actors are usually shorter and thinner in person, and I’m not sure if Northam’s handsome face will be recognizable. Not to worry–I spot him right away standing by the corner of the hotel, smoking a cigarette. Northam is actually more handsome than he appears in his movies. What a pleasant surprise. “Jeremy,” I yell and wave. He looks up, startled, and appears ready to bolt. “Don’t worry,” I assure him, “I’m here to do the interview.”
“You scared me,” he says. “I just stopped smoking a month ago and–”
“What do you mean? I just saw you having a cigarette.” The cigarette has disappeared in the 30 seconds it took me to walk over to him.
“Yes, yes, I know. I started last night again. I’m so bloody pissed at myself. I stopped smoking, gave up coffee and tea, and stopped eating bread.”
I moan. “Of course you’re smoking, then. I hate when people give up four or five things the same day, it’s a recipe for disaster. Your body goes crazy and starts to feel deprived so then you go back to those things with a vengeance–it’s so typical.”
“No, I don’t believe that,” says Northam. “I got in late last night and I had to get up early, so I went back to smoking. But I’ll give it up in a day or two, you’ll see.”
We walk into the lobby of the hotel where I wait while Northam runs upstairs to get a jacket. He’s down in two seconds and we start walking to Central Park. Outside on the corner, Northam turns and waves to a redheaded woman getting into a cab.
“Your girlfriend?” I ask.
“Yes, she is. But we can’t talk about her. It’s my rule. I know it’s boring but I feel I have to keep some things private.”
“OK then. But just a few questions. Is she an actress? Do you live together?”
“No, she’s not an actress. You can’t have two actors together, then it’s just a nightmare, isn’t it?”
“It would appear that way. But lots of actors feel the only people who understand them, and understand their way of life, are other actors.”
“Not me. And we don’t live together. But she’s from Australia, and I think she may be moving back there. So, please, let’s not talk about it because it’s going to break my heart.”
Heartbreak–my favorite topic. But I’ll let it go for now. I clip the microphone to Northam’s lapel. “OK, now just tell us your whole life story.”
“Oh, I don’t know how much there is to say,” he says as we get settled on a bench in the middle of the park. Around us, a weird assortment of New Yorkers have made themselves comfortable. Some have taken off their shoes, some didn’t have shoes to start with. We keep our feet clad.
“If one had a fantastically difficult upbringing,” Northam continues, “or spent time in jail or had a nasty substance abuse problem, then it makes much better copy. But none of those things were true for me. My childhood wasn’t boring, but it felt very conventional. I’m the last of four kids. Dad is an English teacher and a theater professor and Mum taught [home economics] in between having children. I went to a school in Cambridge called Kings College Choir School, which was a great place, very musical.”
“Where have you been till now? I don’t think anyone ever heard of you before The Net.”
“I was working, Martha. I was in England doing theater, and a bit of telly, and just getting experience. It’s only you Americans who think that until you make it in movies, you aren’t really working.”
“And it’s only you Brits who feel like you have to come here to America and be in movies before you’ve really made it.”
“Well, I’d like to think that I’ll be one of those actors who will be working into my sixties and seventies, someone who doesn’t just get a good five or ten years. I’d like to have a career that spans decades.”
“Like who–Anthony Hopkins?”
Northam creases his brow. “Well, Nigel Hawthorne also comes to mind. He’s had a brilliant career.”
“Oh, please, Jeremy. There’s no way you want to grow up to be Nigel Hawthorne.”
Northam sort of glares at me. “Pete Postlethwaite’s had that kind of career–”
“OK, I give. Now, tell about your theater experiences.”
“When I finished school I took a year and a half off, because I knew I wanted to act. I had a place booked at a university near London, at a place called Bedford College, and I figured I’d go there and study English when I was done with this acting thing. I had never had a job in my life. I was one of those kids who went to school on Saturday mornings instead of going to work–”
“A spoiled brat?” I inquire politely.
“No, no, not at all. People always think I’m a public school brat, which I’m not at all…”
“In England, public schools are private, right? So what you mean is that you went to a regular public school, and you’re not some snob who went to expensive private schools.”
Northam tries to think this out. “Yes, I guess that’s what I mean. I went to work backstage in the theaters in Bristol and had a really good time. I’d just hold the ropes and move scenery and I saw how all the shows came together. We would put on a few different plays a week, so it was quite an education. And I worked at another theater, a touring theater, and that was great, too. Oh fuck, it was absolutely unbelievable.”
“I think I was kidding when I said you should tell us your whole life story.”
Northam turns red. “OK, I’ll make it up quick. My first proper job wasn’t until 1986 when I left drama school. I was 24. Do you think I should lie about my age?”
“Nah, we’ll find out anyway, and it’ll be so embarrassing.”
“How do you find out? Do you lop off an arm and count rings? Well, OK. Fair enough. I left school and began singing in restaurants to get my equity card and earn a bit of money just crooning, lots of the old standards. I think I emptied some of the best restaurants in Bristol. And then I went to Salisbury and worked in theater as an actor, doing everything from Chekhov to Pride and Prejudice to pantomime to Arbuzov and Rattigan. I worked with great actors who had been doing it for donkey’s years. Then I did a few small movies, some telly, and lots of theater–”
“Didn’t you once stand in for Daniel Day-Lewis when he had, like, a nervous breakdown onstage? He was playing Hamlet and thought he saw his dead father or something?”
Northam looks decidedly uncomfortable. “I don’t know if I can actually shed any light on that,” he says.
“Light, schmight–just tell the story.”
Northam laughs. “OK. I went to the Royal National Theatre to do some work. It’s the kind of place where you’d do a part in a play, understudy someone else in another play, and rehearse a third play. It was exhilarating. I was playing Osric in Hamlet, but I was also an understudy for Hamlet. Osric is a crazy part because you stand around a lot, wave your hat in the air, act a storm. I’d been doing it for six months and was dead tired. I remember thinking that I had the next day off, and how much that meant to me at the time.
“So I come off the stage and I’m walking to my dressing room when I hear this grumbling over the speaker. I thought it must have been tuned into another one of the theaters there, because they’re about an hour or so into Hamlet and there’s no way anyone should be talking during [this part of the play]. And then someone said, ‘Dan’s not going to carry on.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding– what’s going on?’ All anyone knew was that he had walked offstage. Then the guy playing Horatio said to me, ‘How are you on the lines?’ Lines? Fuck, I hadn’t rehearsed Hamlet’s part in months. I went to my dressing room to see if I could find my copy of Hamlet, which had all my annotations, all the things that I needed to look at and go, I know this. I couldn’t find it.
“Then Dan’s dresser walks in with all his costumes, and flings them on my bed without saying a word. I couldn’t get a drop of saliva to form in my mouth. Then an announcement was made to the audience that the part of Hamlet would be played by Jeremy Northam. You could hear seats popping up because people were leaving. I got out there and started the play where Dan had left it. It was horrifying, because the audience knows this play very, very well–you expect them to start shouting lines out. The other actors were looking at me like I was a caged animal. Believe me, it was the most horrifying night of my life.
“I have no idea if Dan saw his dead father,” Northam finishes. “He never told me that part. But if he did I would understand, because Hamlet is a part that forces you to really dig deep into your soul.”
“I saw my dead father once,” I say, “but I was tripping my brains out.” Northam has no idea if I’m kidding or not.
Two girls walk by, look at him, and I hear one of them say, “It’s Mr. Knightley.” He doesn’t notice.
“OK, I think we can all agree you did your share of theater. How did you get to Hollywood?”
“After I made the film Voices From a Locked Room in Canada, I went to L.A. to meet with a guy who is [now] my agent. He had contacted me when he saw the screen test for Voices. I meet him, then the next day I have a meeting with Irwin Winkler [for The Net]. I read for him the next day, two days later I meet with him and Sandy [Bullock], I audition, and have the job that afternoon.”
“So you were thinking this Hollywood stuff is pretty easy, huh?”
“No. I just remember feeling completely bemused, and that they had made some awful mistake, that it was all gonna go wrong. The whole experience was a dream come true, and then I thought I’d be right back in London, back to doing three shows a week. But on my way back to London, I stopped off in New York, and the next morning I met with [Emma director] Doug McGrath. He’s a brilliant man and we had a hilarious breakfast, where we talked about everything but the script. We met again and I auditioned for it, and I think he was extremely brave, because he had to persuade Miramax that I was the person who could play the part. Nobody knew who I was, so it was a bit of a risk.”
“Did you read Jane Austen as a kid? Because I know I tried to and couldn’t get through it.”
“I tried to read Emma when I was 14 or so, and I couldn’t get through it either. I thought it was about some uptight, rigid morality, about people trying desperately to do the right thing. I read it for the film, though, because I wanted to know what the tone of the dialogue was. It’s very easy to go very wrong with it. After I read the book I realized these people are not as wealthy as you think they are. They’re not free to make any choices at all. Their lives are all circumscribed by duty and responsibility. I appreciated Austen’s sense, for want of a better word, of morality. And I don’t mean she was a prude. I just realized that at the heart of Emma is a character who is at times distinctly unlovable. And Austen’s sense of mischief in writing that and sustaining that for a 400-page novel is absolutely brilliant. Because, of course, you love Emma, but she’d drive you fucking mad, and you suffer with her mistakes as you go along. And that’s something that I hadn’t appreciated when I was younger.”
“Now you’re in Mimic, in which you and Mira Sorvino play a pair of scientists who think they’ve controlled a virus, but have only succeeded in almost ruining the planet.”
“Mimic touches on man’s arrogance in thinking we have controlled nature. I heard on the radio the other day that these scientists are out trying to spot the spitting earthworm [the Mongolian Death Worm] in the Gobi desert. They’ve never caught one and all the nomads in the desert live in total fear of this thing. Don’t they think that might start some trouble?”
“OK, three major films under your belt, and now you’re working on Steven Spielberg’s Amistad with Morgan Freeman and Matthew McConaughey.”
“Yes, that was a surprise. It came up very suddenly. I have a very small part as a judge in the 1800s, and I only worked on it for a few days. The story is about slaves who rebel on a ship. It was a wonderful experience.”
“Are there any differences between British actors and American actors?”
Northam nods. “American actors seem very easy with the camera, and they know what works for them, and they know how to use it. I don’t know any of those things. I can’t bear to go to the dailies. I can’t stand watching myself when I know I can’t change anything because it’s already on film. But maybe that’s something you learn with time.”
We both stop to watch a young girl who has at least 50 piercings on her face.
“I don’t get it,” says Northam. “I keep thinking that snot is going to come shooting out through the holes in the nose. And now people are doing scarring with razor blades and stain. What do they call that?”
“Yes. There’s this case [the Spanner Case] in the U.K. now, a group of people who were into self-mutilation, or mutual mutilation, and they had been demonstrating and I think they just lost their case in the European Court of Human Rights.”
“What did they want?”
“They wanted to be able to nail their foreskins to a plank of wood.”
“You need a law for that?”
“Well, I guess the law felt that they had a responsibility to protect, but my attitude, I’m afraid, is if people want to do that to themselves, let them.”
“I don’t have one, and neither does my boyfriend, so I don’t know– are foreskins really sensitive?”
“Why are we talking about this?” Northam wants to know. I remain silent. “Well, yes, the foreskin has a lot of feeling.”
We both sit quietly for a minute, thinking this over. “So now you know I have a foreskin,” Northam says.
“Believe me, I am doing my damnedest not to imagine it.”
He laughs. “I hope you’re not going to put this in the story.”
Of course I’m going to put this in the story, but Northam looks so nervous all of a sudden I decide to tell a story on myself just to make him feel better. “Years ago …,” I begin, and then I launch into a genuinely embarrassing foreskin encounter of my own.
“My God, Martha, you probably fucked that guy up. He’s in therapy right now. But you’re not going to tell that story in the magazine. You’re just going to have me talking about nailing the foreskin to a board, right? Well, please make it plain that I’d rather be talking about–”
“The theater?” I ask in my best British accent.
Northam smacks my arm. “I’ll tell you, doing movies is easier than doing the press for them. But that’s because I feel like all this stuff is too private and personal.”
“Don’t worry, honey,” I tell him. “It’s just between us.”
Martha Frankel interviewed Rob Lowe for the June ’97 issue of Movieline.