NORTHAM LIGHTS

Byline: Merle Ginsberg

NEW YORK — He’s handsome, he’s gifted, he’s smart, he’s on the verge of becoming a movie star. But Jeremy Northam would like to voice a complaint.
“It’s rare that people see me as a contemporary guy — as an actor or as a person,” he laments. Northam, best known for his portrayals of repressed Englishmen (“Emma,” “Carrington,” “The Winslow Boy,” “An Ideal Husband”), is speaking in his perfectly cultivated British accent, even though he’s trying — really trying — to be colloquial. People regard him, he says, “as if I’m some dinosaur from some bygone age.”
No surprise, then, that the 37-year-old actor was delighted to rip off his waistcoat for “Happy Texas,” a comedy that was the talk of last year’s Sundance Film Festival and is due for release on Friday. Northam stars as one of two American convicts who bust out of a Texas jail. In an extreme case of mistaken identity, the men are assumed to be a gay couple arriving in town to stage children’s beauty pageants.
Which means that Northam has to do a working-class American accent — while convincing the town’s closeted sheriff, William H. Macy, that he wants to date him. Meanwhile, he’s trying to woo Ally Walker, who believes he’s gay.
So how did writer-director Mark Illsley know that Northam could veer so far from type?
“I cast Jeremy because of ‘Emma,”‘ says Illsley. “He’s an actor who does wonderful things in a close-up. In the smallest ways, he tells you so much. And I do think he was the most courageous member of the cast: He had to play American and be funny. He did it brilliantly. And he worked for no money! Only nice people work for no money. Jerks will never do it.”
Offscreen, Northam does seem like a completely modern, unstuffy guy, dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, black jeans and violet-tinted wire rims. Though he’s humorously self-conscious about the danger of appearing too effete, too British (“I notice if I even use the words ‘theatrical’ or ‘poetry’ that they have funny overtones these days,” he says), he’s also reluctant to embrace the role of a rising Hollywood star. Gossip columns, he says, make him nervous.
“I have no desire to appear in columns that say ‘He was there,”‘ he says. “It’s hard enough just being in a crowd like the one at the Talk party in New York and being yourself. It’s the work that’s the fun thing for me — if I can say that without sounding dull and overserious.”
But poor Northam can’t help it if he was raised to be a man of substance. His father is a professor of literature at Cambridge, and he got his acting chops at places like the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Though he’s played a couple of bad guys and heavies in American films — opposite Sandra Bullock in “The Net” and Sharon Stone in the “Gloria” remake — he didn’t seem to have much fun doing it.
“I keep telling my agent I don’t just want to play period movies or bad guys anymore,” Northam says. But he shyly admits he’s about to do both — in the same movie. He’ll be playing Nick Nolte’s son-in-law in the Merchant Ivory production of Henry James’s densest novel, “The Golden Bowl.”
“I know it means going back to old Edwardian costume,” Northam says, smiling. “But I am drawn, I have to admit, to the abstract and the complicated. I like density of character — not just a reduction of motives to one simple thing.”
Because of his busy schedule, Northam says, his own life has seemed somewhat one-dimensional lately; he’s had no real home or love life to speak of. But the recent death of his mother after a long illness has made him realize it’s time to consider settling down.
“I want to share the things I love,” he admits. “I’m desperate for that now. But honestly, I’ve given up. Most of the great women I meet are going out with the sexiest men in the world. And when I go out with nonactresses, they’re convinced all actors are liars.
“How do you convince women you’re telling the truth?” he continues. “I’ve given up now. As they say in London, I’ve done myself up like a kipper — smoked, flattened and tinned.”
Spoken like a true Englishman.