CANNES, FRANCE — Many actors have some special talent, but Jeremy Northam has discovered an unexpected one. He is currently the movie world's leading expert on playing well-starched British gentlemen named Sir Robert.
This is coincidence, not typecasting. Mr. Northam is definitely British. But he's not a Sir, and he's hardly well-starched as he chats about his career in a sun-dappled hotel lounge during the Cannes filmfest, where one of his latest films, "An Ideal Husband," a comedy based on Oscar Wilde's play, was shown in the prestigious closing-night time slot.
Nor do his two Sir Roberts have much in common, beyond their aristocratic pedigrees and impeccable haberdashery. The one in "An Ideal Husband" is hiding a secret that could become a political scandal if a beautiful young blackmailer doesn't get what she wants from him. The one in Northam's other current picture, "The Winslow Boy," is a seemingly stuffed shirt with a generous streak he keeps modestly out of sight.
Movies as varied as "Amistad" and the forthcoming "Happy, Texas" prove Northam's versatility, but he acknowledges that old-fashioned English characters are frequently offered to actors like him.
"Period drama is considered something Brits can do," he says with a smile. "My background is in theater, with a lot of classical works and wordy high comedy. I've always felt cast in a noncontemporary way, and sometimes that's been a source of frustration for me."
This didn't stop him from enjoying his Sir Robert roles, though. "I like characters who are limited by their situation or compromised by themselves," he says. "I always look for some kind of internal drama [behind] the social front they present to the world. It was fun trying to find the emotional heart of these characters."
Northam's comment about "internal drama" gives a clue to his performing technique. Some actors turn primarily to the external traits of their characters, reasoning that a personality can be revealed through gestures, mannerisms, and appearances. Other actors delve into their own emotions and memories, looking for personal truths that will enhance their fictional characters.
Northam sees value in both approaches, but says he tends toward the latter group - even in a wordy high comedy like "An Ideal Husband," with its crisp appearances and stylish dialogue.
"I like to think I work from the inside out," he explains. "The appearance of a character is important, of course. But increasingly for me, it's not as important as finding an [internal balance] between control and relaxation. You want to be in control of what you you're doing as an actor, but you also want to be free enough to allow things to emerge [from] the mental and emotional work you've done."
This means cultivating instinct and intuition alongside well-honed performing skills.
"Particularly in movies," he says, "it's tempting to read a script and say, 'I see exactly how I want to do it. But you can never plan how things are going to be when you arrive on the set. The lighting will never be the way you imagined it, there won't be a chair or a doorway where you hoped there would be. So you have to prepare in other ways that allow you to be able to do anything that's required."
Northam's seriousness is refreshing at a glitzy event like the Cannes filmfest, where glamour and fame frequently outshine quiet professionalism. He enjoys the fuss made over him here, but knows enough to keep it in perspective.
"Apart from doing a short play in London last winter," he candidly notes, "I haven't worked since August of last year. There are times when I wouldn't be recognized by my own family, let alone by anybody else. I've been acting for 13 years now, but I know I have to take whatever happens. You can never predict how tomorrow or next month is going to be in this business."
What keeps him committed despite such uncertainties? "I became an actor because I like acting," he says cheerfully. "That's what I have a connection with. It's what still turns me on!"
*'The Winslow Boy' is now in theaters; 'An Ideal Husband' opens June 18.