From here to obscurity: the young star who found that fame is fickle

Having portrayed an award-winning Heathcliff, James Howson is now back on the dole

Mark O'Brien
Friday 03 February 2012 01:00

James Howson was another figure in the unemployment statistics when casting agents came to Leeds seeking new talent to reignite the fire and passion of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.

He responded to an ad at the job centre and auditioned for the role of Heathcliff in the new film. Estranged from his family, he had been expelled from school at 14, served time for robbery and drug-dealing, and by 16 was living in a hostel with addicts and ex-convicts.

He was lucky. At 24, he suddenly became the first black man to portray the frustrated outsider on the big screen.

But having achieved critical acclaim for Wuthering Heights, joining the cast and crew at the Venice Film Festival where it was among the award-winners, he is now back living on the dole in his council flat in Burmantofts in Leeds. He was reportedly paid less than £8,000 for the role, though the film's budget was as high as £5m.

On 6 February he will be sentenced at Leeds Magistrates Court, having pleaded guilty to racially aggravated harassment against his Asian ex-girlfriend. He turned up at her family home last November and banged on the windows, hurling threats and abuse.

He is one of many people plucked from obscurity to star in the movies, chosen more for their life experience, or simply because they look the part, a trademark tactic of Wuthering Heights director Andrea Arnold, whose cinematic successes include the 2009 film Fish Tank, which tells the story of a teenage girl on a council estate.

Casting actors without any background in film is not a recent innovation. Ken Loach has long been regarded as the master of this directorial method, ever since his early success with Kes. "In any film, you are looking for someone who will make a fictional situation credible based on how they look and how they respond, what reactions they make, what personality comes across," he said.

Such was the method adopted by Ms Arnold when working with Katie Jarvis, the teenage star of Fish Tank spotted while having an argument with her boyfriend at a station. Or Shannon Beer, who starred alongside Howson in Wuthering Heights, after casting agents auditioned girls at a Sheffield comprehensive. Neither has since secured a major film role. As Beer seeks out her next starring role, looking to build on the opportunity that Wuthering Heights has given her, she credits the support of Andrea Arnold. "We're really close, and still in contact. She wasn't like a director; she was more like a best friend."

In his 2002 film, Sweet Sixteen, Ken Loach directed Martin Compston, a teenager who had signed for his local team Greenock Morton. Mr Compston has since enjoyed a promising start to his career on the screen. Shane Meadows similarly took Thomas Turgoose from a Grimsby youth club to star in This Is England.

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Since then Shane Meadows has supported the youngster and continued to work closely with him. James Howson meanwhile, can only be left to wonder when the casting agents will turn up in Burmantofts again.

15 minutes of fame: The stars who slipped

Katie Jarvis

The actresses was spotted arguing wtih her boyfriend outside a station by British director Andrea Arnold, who cast her as the lead in the acclaimed Fish Tank. She hasn't appeared in a film since.

David Bradley

Cast aged 14 as Billy Casper in the 1968 film Kes, Bradley, who was discovered in a village near Barnsley, started a film career but faltered, later finding work as a carpenter.

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail

Despite finding fame in Slumdog Millionaire, Ismail was made homeless in 2009 after his home in the Mumbai slums was bulldozed by authorities.

Jamie Waylett

One of Draco Malfoy's henchmen in the Harry Potter films, Waylett is due to stand trial in March over accusations of violent disorder during the August riots. He denies the charges.

Liam O'Brien

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