Jeremy Northam: One for the ladies?

The actor Jeremy Northam has played opposite some of Hollywood's biggest stars, and become a very British sex symbol. But, as he tells Laura Tennant, it's not enough

I met Jeremy Northam 10 minutes after the extremely romantic nature of the conclusion of his latest film, Cypher had made me cry. Cypher is actually somewhere between a paranoid thriller and a satire on the nature of identity, but it was still Northam's total fanciability which had made the most significant impression on me.

So it was with heart aflutter and mascara hurriedly repaired that I entered Blacks, a cool, dark, faded private members club in Soho where he had suggested we meet. And even though I knew that I was meeting an actor, not Mr Knightley or Ivor Novello or even Cypher's Morgan Sullivan, it was unexpectedly disconcerting not to find at least one of them waiting for me at the bar. I mention this because Northam's relative lack of fame, considering that he's made 21 films and starred opposite a succession of super-famous leading ladies, Gwyneth Paltrow, Uma Thurman and Sandra Bullock among them, has always puzzled me. Here was the answer. A star, even a great star like James Stewart or Clark Gable, essentially plays him or herself, and we love them for it not just because their personality is intensely endearing, or charismatic, or powerful, or sexy, but also because we allow ourselves to believe that we've been given access to their real, true, authentic self.

But Northam is too good an actor, and too private a person, to do anything but vanish completely and compellingly into the part. And at some level the audience senses that his inner self is being withheld, that in fact he doesn't want to be worshipped for himself, but respected for his work, and is piqued.

So the man I meet, of medium height and build, in pre-gym sweats, with a day's stubble and grey at the temples, could be anyone, and (excuse the gag) frequently is. In Cypher, I'd watched him transform himself from twitchy nerd to tanned sex god; but Northam the man was no more inclined to play the celebrity than he would be to suddenly "switch on" his Dean Martin (a man he impersonated so expertly in an American TV movie that the critic David Thomson says he watched the film expecting to see the real Jerry Lewis suddenly appear next to Northam's "real" Dean).

His evident dislike of being interviewed meant that much of our conversation consisted of a kind of meta-interview about interviews, and about the publicity commitments every actor must meet to "sell" his film. "I've never had a desire to be famous," he says. "Lots of actors are actually extremely shy." Is he shy? "I have shy areas," he says guardedly. It's not that he's anything less than sweet and cooperative and friendly, just that he can't bring himself to "put out", if that's not too vulgar an expression. His conversation is full of immense pauses and "ums" and "ers", while he ponders how to respond honestly without compromising himself, and of excursions into general topics from which, had I not been so mesmerised by his Jeremy Northam-ness, I should really have hauled him back. Most people adore talking about themselves, even to journalists; for Northam it's excruciating. "I've never had a huge circle of friends. I can't spread myself that thin and go 100 million miles an hour all the time," he says. "I choose to give truly of myself, entirely of myself, to the people I choose to do that with, and I can't do that with everyone."

The paradox is that, the better his acting, the less likely he is to get the brand recognition of a Tom Cruise or a Bruce Willis; and the studio system being what it is, that means he is sometimes denied the very parts he would play most brilliantly. "I came across a very smart, very bright little independent movie a while back, and I'd met the writer and director years ago. They needed a big name to play the female role, but the studio seemed OK with me being cast as the male lead. Then I heard that they'd offered it to three enormous male names, all of whom were being asked to work for a ridiculously low fee. And of course you think, 'well I'd do it for that', but that's not the point. The studio will only take the risk, even on a such a little low-budget film, if they can get a huge star for a tenth of his normal salary.

"As an actor," he continues, "you ask yourself what you can do to put yourself in a position where you can play that role. And I did decide that you have to put your name about a bit, and so, although I would have preferred to have never done a publicity junket or an interview or a fashion shoot for a magazine or a chat show - I've never had an ambition to make that a part of my professional or personal life - I've done an awful lot of it, mainly in the States." Yet he remains deeply ambivalent about what it would cost him to become a name the studio trusted to "open" a film. "I don't have the energy or the mental security to get involved with all that." Besides, he says, "I think it's a good idea to be able to disappear into the story, so that the first thing the audience sees isn't you, but the part."

The not wanting to be famous (and I believe him, bizarre as it may sound given that successful actors are necessarily known to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people) is connected to a deeply serious view of his profession. He is the child of a scholarship boy who taught drama at Clare College, Cambridge and, at 81, is still translating Ibsen. Northam was drawn to acting because "I'd always liked the idea that drama acts at its best as a kind of arena for debate, not just about the thing itself, but also producing aesthetic, stylistic, political and moral discussions. The Jungian view would be that it affects all of our imaginations and somehow taps into our hidden, ancient, primordial memories."

Northam trained at the Bristol Old Vic and then spent a couple of years in rep, which he says he loved. "The discipline of the theatre, where everything backstage is clean and organised and stowed away, makes me think of being on board ship. And you are so determinedly fearless at that age. I really enjoyed doing Chekhov one moment and Rattigan the next." Then he began to be cast in plays at the National and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He received much acclaim after standing in for Daniel Day Lewis as Hamlet, and won the Olivier Award for Most Promising Newcomer for The Voysey Inheritance. In 1995 he was cast in his first big Hollywood role opposite Sandra Bullock in The Net, the same year making Carrington, in which he played the dastardly Beacus Penrose. Since then he's mingled Hollywood with independent movies, appearing in Emma, The Winslow Boy, An Ideal Husband, The Golden Bowl, Enigma, Gosford Park and Possession, garnering almost uniformly glowing notices along the way.

Constant travel for work has resulted in what he describes as a "hectic few years" in his personal life. A relationship dating from 1986 ended, and he claims to have found it "incredibly frustrating to always be on the move" since then. Many of his friends have married and settled down, and he says he sometimes feels he's gone "past the point" of having children. When I protest, pointing out that he is in his prime, he says, rather Eeyore-ishly, "I don't consider 41 being in prime of life. Even if I conceived a child tomorrow I'd be 52 by the time it was 10. I'm not sure I'd have the energy, and I find that quite scary. People will say that it's some kind of evasion, but I would never want to have a kid for me. I'd want to have the child for the child's sake, if that makes sense." However he confesses to getting "very broody", and he adores his nieces and nephews, especially the newest one, born at Christmas.

But he tells me, rather surprisingly given his natural reticence, that he is currently in a relationship with a girl he met in Canada last summer; in February they visited La Gomera in the Canary Islands, a tiny volcanic outpost covered in ancient forest and usually shrouded in mist. She's not an actress, and he did refer to her only half-jokingly as "my beloved", so who knows? Perhaps we may shortly be hearing the patter of tiny Northam feet. While they are separated, he seeks solace at his house in Norfolk, where he retires to regain "a sense of calm and security". "The space and light up there is wonderfully peaceful. I find myself doing funny things like gardening, and cooking, which I rarely do in London."

It's a peculiarity of leading men that they get to play heroes, and I ask Northam if the varieties of chap he's called upon to represent have given him insight into what the manly virtues might be. I suppose I'm thinking about the so-called crisis in masculinity, and the way that if you said, "Badly done, Emma, badly done" to a girl these days, she probably wouldn't want to bury her face in your serge (I would, but that's because I've got a thing for top-quality marriage material like Mr Knightley).

"Some of my most successful and brilliant women friends have told me that they're still looking for a bloke on a white horse," says Northam. "But men don't know if they're supposed to be that, or a supporting presence, or just absent, or a toy, or what. But it's not as if it is something that other generations haven't grappled with. It makes me want to rush back and read The Way of the World, which has got one of my favourite quotes (and he delivers it in a lovely, ironic drawl), 'Ah, men, men! Ah, women, women!'."

My time is up, and I suggest that Northam is anxious to get to the gym. "No, no," he says drily. "That would be a misrepresentation." Ah, Jeremy, Jeremy!

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