September 30, 1996 12:00 PM

AS A 6-YEAR-OLD GROWING UP IN Cambridge, England, Jeremy Northam had a simple, consuming ambition: He wanted to be like Clint Eastwood. “I had a cowboy outfit with this hat, and a push scooter,” he recalls. “That was my horse.”

Whoa, buckaroo. Northam, 34, didn’t get to be Eastwood, but he has made Jane Austen’s day, and his own, as the civilized Mr. Knightley (no Dirty George, he) in the current movie version of Emma, a book he found easy to put down when he first tried reading it at 14. “Being a spotty, hormonally charged pubescent,” he says of the arch tale of a misguided matchmaker and the gentleman who sets her right, “I don’t think it was the best thing for me to try.” Taking on the movie was another story. Says Emma’s American director, Douglas McGrath: “He made [Knightley] very romantic and also vulnerable.”

The son of John Northam, a retired university literature professor and his wife, Rachel, a potter, Jeremy studied at England’s prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, then worked his way through regional theater to the London stage. There, in 1989, when Daniel Day-Lewis suffered an onstage meltdown during a production of Hamlet, a very nervous and underprepared Northam stepped in. “I stuttered for five hours afterward,” he says. The director, Richard Eyre, demurs: “He was incredibly self-possessed.”

Northam, who played Sandra Bullock‘s lover turned would-be killer in last year’s The Net—and who will play a scientist in Mimic with Mira Sorvino—tends not to let such praise, or the looming prospect of stardom, go to his head. “I am,” he says with a shrug, “a lucky bastard.”

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