Show people: A name for himself: Jeremy Northam: Jeremy Northam is a rising star at the RSC. But his loyalties lie with shows, not institutions

JEREMY NORTHAM is met by a gaggle of friends as he emerges from the stage door of the Barbican. Five minutes ago, he was being loudly applauded for his performance as Horner in Wycherley's The Country Wife, just in from Stratford. His face is still shiny with sweat and his voice rushed with exhausted excitement. As we walk through the deserted streets, looking for a pub, he calms down, the high replaced by a wary seriousness. His friends follow a few yards behind. I ask him what they think of his acting career. 'I don't know,' he says. 'They probably despise me.'

Northam has spent the year shuttling between Stratford and London, playing Philip in The Gift of the Gorgon at the Pit and in the West End, Horner at the Swan, Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost at the Barbican and Horner again, back at the Pit. His looks and vowels place him in the pigeonhole marked floppy-haired- Oxbridge-types. But his acting shows an exuberance and wit that are his own.

Although he won the Olivier Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 1989 (for the lead in the comedy The Voysey Inheritance), his rise has not been meteoric. 'I don't think it happens like that and it is right that it shouldn't' Five years on, 'I'm still learning and training and hopefully getting better and maybe not.' But since drama school eight years ago, he has been out of work for only three months - straight after 'a wonderful part' in the TV adaptation of Barbara Vine's Fatal Inversion. 'I thought I might get a few offers after that, but nothing came. I wasn't happy with my performance, though. It was hammy.'

Northam was born in Cambridge 32 years ago, the son of a university lecturer. When he was 10, the family moved to Bristol, where his father switched from English to Drama ('academic, not practical,' he says, just to dispel any idea that he comes from a theatrical family). His background was 'dead middle-class, lots of books about the place, lots of music'. His parents were 'horrified' when he told them he was thinking of a career in the theatre. It was Oliver Neville, until recently head of Rada, who put the 16- year-old Northam firmly on the thespian path: 'He and his wife lived just down the road and they were the first actors I had ever met. It was the turning point.'

From Bristol Grammar School he went to Bedford College, London, where he got a 2:1 in English, and then to Bristol for a two-year course at the Old Vic Theatre School ('the only place that would have me'). He landed a part in Nottingham before the course ended, but refuses to tell me what it was - 'I'm too embarrassed. It was a terrible play.' Then there was a year of rep in Salisbury under the late David Horlock, artistic director of the Playhouse. 'That's where I really learnt to act. I owe him a great debt. With him, you felt you were on a journey. I wended my way through Chekhov, Bennett, musical and pantomime. I learnt certain standards and values.'

After 18 months on TV in two series, Wish Me Luck and A Piece of Cake, he played Captain Molineux in The Shaughraun at the National, and was then asked to be Osric to Daniel Day-Lewis's Hamlet. He was also Day-Lewis's understudy, and took over for 10 performances when the star broke down, an experience he describes as 'scary and great fun'. Then came Voysey. He claims to have been 'extremely green' when he won the award: 'I'm still pretty green now. At the time, I thought, 'Oh Christ, I can't go out and muck things up now.' It's an attitude that has stayed with me.' From the National he moved to the West End, as Andrei in The Three Sisters with the Redgraves, joining the RSC a year ago.

He swings between self-deprecation and self-confidence. 'You've got to be bold,' he tells me, in apparent contradiction to his claim to greenness. 'I am not an RSC actor. After a year here I don't feel - how can I say this politely - necessarily integrated into the RSC. My loyalties lie with shows, not institutions.' An element of Horner's contempt creeps back into his voice as he waves away comparisons with other actors, and claims not to be inspired by any individual. 'I don't covet people's lives or careers, I think things happen by surprise. I admire dozens of individual performances.'

Of his own recent performances, Berowne is the closest to him. 'I have a lot of affinity with his changeability. He also gets upset, he is temperamental, and prone to being spiteful when he can't get his own way. I love playing him. He is not a pleasant character, although he is charming and dazzling.'

Now on his fourth Silk Cut, Northam is impatient to join his friends. He has barely introduced me to them before he rushes off to the bar, returning in a sudden temper. 'Bloody barman, refused to serve me.' Northam's girlfriend lifts her eyes to the ceiling and one of the company, the comedian Nick Revel, says: 'Calm down and have some of mine, Jeremy, I know what it's like after a performance.' A touch of Berowne indeed.

'The Country Wife' continues at the Pit, Barbican, EC2 (071-638 8891).

(Photograph omitted)

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