Above: Exclusive Portrait of BENN NORTHOVER for ZEFYR LIFE, by STEVEN MEISEL ©.
Benn Northover (born 3 January 1981) is an English actor, multimedia artist and AIDS awareness activist. He made his screen debut in the drama Hostage to Terror. Northover's other notable film roles include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Batzan Trilogy, Lotus Eaters, House of Boys, crime thriller Tutti i rumori del mare and director Mike Figgis' Lucrezia Borgia.
As a multimedia artist, Northover has directed several film and video projects, including music videos for artists such as Nick Drake and The The. He was invited to create a live video performance for David Bowie's Melt Down Festival, performed on stage at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. His photographic and written work has appeared in various publications including Italian Vogue, Dazed and Confused and AnOther Magazine. Northover interviewed fellow actor Kristen Stewart for the cover story of the S/S16 15th anniversary issue of AnOther Magazine. Northover's written work includes subjects as diverse as the legendary punk rock club CBGB, the writer Quentin Crisp and interviews with filmmakers such as Jonas Mekas and Jim Jarmusch.
Northover is a long time supporter and board member of the Anthology Film Archives, the legendary archive and cinema dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of independent cinema. In March 2017 Northover co-hosted a landmark benefit event in aid of the Archive alongside Steve Buscemi, Greta Gerwig, Michael Stipe and Patti Smith.
For over a decade he has been a close collaborator with legendary artist and filmmaker Jonas Mekas, leading to several film and video projects and a number of international gallery exhibitions at institutions including the Centre Pompidou and agnès b.'s Galerie du Jour in Paris. In 2012 Northover co-curated a landmark exhibition of underground cinema, with work by Mekas at the prestigious Serpentine Gallery in London alongside Hans-Ulrich Obrist.
Northover was an executive producer on the Douglas Gordon directed feature film I Had Nowhere to Go. The film was met with critical acclaim at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival, Toronto Film festival and the London BFI Film Festival.
Northover was selected to be the face of Italian couture fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna for their fall/winter 2015 and spring/summer 2016 campaigns, following in the steps of Adrien Brody and Sam Riley.
Northover is an AIDS Awareness Activist and has helpd raise funds as an Ambassador for ACRIA.
Lina DAUGIRDAITE: How are you today, where are you and what are you up to now?
Benn NORTHOVER: I’m well. I’m in New York, it’s 1:27am, I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to finish writing to you. I have some crazy album by War On Drugs that my brother sent me playing in the background.
DAUGIRDAITE: Can you tell us about yourself as a child? And how have you changed since childhood?
NORTHOVER: Adventures, experiences and challenges change us as we grow, but my roots are a strong part of who I am. I grew up in a small village on the east coast of England. It’s an amazing part of the world. We were very free. Fields, forests, a lot of music and adventure. So many nights swimming in the ocean. The walls of my room in my parents’ house were covered with quotes and thoughts. It’s all still there, they never painted over it. From very early on art was something that was very important in my life. I was always drawing, painting and making 8mm films. I struggled a lot at school, but thankfully I had an incredible art teacher who really helped me focus on what inspired me rather than a lot of what I was struggling with at the time.
DAUGIRDAITE: You are a man of many activities. What drives you in life?
'CURIOSITY IS WHAT DRIVES MOST OF WHAT I DO.'
NORTHOVER: Curiosity is what drives much of what I do. Also the chance to experience something I haven’t tried before. That may be an environment, a subject or a character. For me it's all connected. It’s always been about investigation and discovery. I feel lucky to have opportunities to put that curiosity into my work, may it be through playing a character in a film or exploring something through photography or even interviewing someone I find interesting. The why, who and what underneath the things we do has always been something that fascinated me from a very early age.
DAUGIRDAITE: What makes you decide that a project is the right one for you?
NORTHOVER: If it’s something I haven’t tried before or if it’s something I’m excited to see exist. Sometimes it’s the subject, sometimes it’s working with someone who you admire. I just got back from filming in Washington and New York with the artist and filmmaker Josephine Meckseper. I’ve always loved her work so when she asked if I’d like to work with her on a film she was making, I was like ‘ YES ! ‘. I enjoy a lot the collaborative experience you find in making a film or building an art project. When it works well, it’s about everyone coming to the table with what they have to offer and finding it together. My own photographic work tends to be documentary based, it's more of a solitary endeavor. It’s me with the subject.
DAUGIRDAITE: You seem to work and enjoy conversing with many very creative personalities such as Jonas Mekas, Jim Jarmush, Patti Smith, Steven Meisel etc. What qualities do you think highly successful creative people share? And how are they different...?
NORTHOVER: All the people you mentioned are workers. All hard workers. There’s a vibrancy in people who are grounded in what they do and who they are. There’s a certain energy in how they express themselves and the way they see the world. I’m blessed to have friends whose work and approach was part of what inspired me as a kid to pursue a lot of what I do now. It’s about the work. It’s about tuning into your own vision of the world and developing your own language to express that.
DAUGIRDAITE: You are a long time supporter and a board member of the Anthology Film Archives. Can you tell us a bit about Anthology, how you got involved and why this project is important to you?
'WE HELD A BIG ART AUCTION EVENT IN NEW YORK LAST MARCH FOR THE PROJECT, WITH A LOT OF ARTIST FRIENDS OF ANTHOLOGY,
INCLUDING AI WEIWEI, JULIAN SCHNABEL, CINDY SHERMAN, MICHAEL STIPE AND PATTI SMITH. IT WAS AN INCREDIBLE EVENING.
WE RAISED 4 MILLION IN ONE NIGHT, BUT WE HAVE TO RAISE ANOTHER 8 MILLION TO MAKE THE PROJECT A REALITY.’
NORTHOVER: Anthology Film Archives is an incredible place and I’m very proud to be a part of it. Right now we’re working on a fundraising project to expand the Anthology building and secure its future. We held a big art auction event in New York last March for the project, with a lot of artist friends of Anthology, including Ai Wei Wei, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, Michael Stipe and Patti Smith. It was an incredible evening. We raised 4 Million in one night, but we have to raise another 8 million to make the project a reality. Anthology is one of the world’s most important film centers dedicated to preserving and screening independent and underground film. It’s as significant in terms of cinema as the MOMA, the Whitney or the Tate Modern are in terms of art. People somehow assume that films will just survive, but they don’t stop to think that the only films that iTunes, Netflix are screening, are for the most part mainstream narrative or popular indie works. Even some of the more diverse streaming platforms don’t cover whole sections of artist or independent cinema. There’s whole sections of independent, underground and artist based cinema that will disappear if places like Anthology don’t survive. It’s like Jonas Mekas, Anthology’s founding father often says; “ Cinema is a big tree with many branches “ [Author's Note: Jonas Mekas has passed away since this conversation took place.]
DAUGIRDAITE: You are close friends and collaborators with Jonas Mekas. What things have you learnt from this great artist?
NORTHOVER: His influence on my life is indelible. I’d say one of the most important things I’ve learnt from Jonas is to embrace your own process as an integral part of the finished work. Always being open to the discoveries along the way, that can bring something unexpected to the piece. I’ve carried that through into my acting and into my own work as an artist. There’s a quiet discipline in how he approaches life, both as an artist and a human, which has had a huge influence on me over the years, outside of opening my mind and awareness to cinema, literature, poetry, languages, travel, music, food, philosophy, culture…the list is endless. I’m very proud of the projects we’ve done together. We’ve had some crazy adventures over the years. We first me when I was 18 as an intern at Anthology Film Archives. It was my job to check old film cans and sweep the floors. Then over the years we became friends and started to collaborate on different gallery and film projects. He’s one of my closest friends and a good person.
DAUGIRDAITE: What part of being an artist do you find most rewarding? And most challenging?
NORTHOVER: The fact that I can channel a lot of what interests me or things I’m curious about into my work, that’s something I’ve always found rewarding. And as I said before, the collaborative nature of much of what I do is something I get a lot out of. The challenge is often when a project has to pander to certain restrictions imposed by the more industrial or commercial aspects of the film or art worlds. I think it’s important to find a balance between the projects that feed you as an artist and those that help you survive. In a sense you have to be doing the work anyway, with or without permission or ‘waiting for the phone to ring’. I know some incredibly talented people who don’t get the chance to show their talents because they wait for others to give them a ‘chance’ or an ‘opportunity’ to ‘do’. You have to find ways to build your own project. To be brutally honest, no one except perhaps your closest loved ones are waiting for you to grow or succeed within the arts and they don’t owe you a thing, however talented you may be. You have to be doing it for more than just a job or a career. There has to be something stronger driving you.
DAUGIRDAITE: In what way do you feel that artists are playing a meaningful role in society?
'REAL CHANGE IS MADE BY THE PEOPLE, BUT ALL CHANGE COMES FROM SOME KIND OF SEED, A DEFINING MOMENT, HOWEVER SMALL OR INDIRECT.'
NORTHOVER: May it be through music, film, words or imagery an artist has a unique role to excite, educate, rally, provoke and entertain the people. Real change is made by the people, but all change and knowledge comes from some kind of seed, a defining moment, however small or indirect. It’s important that people don’t turn a blind eye to what’s going on around them in society and I believe strongly in the power of art and creativity to bring awareness to themes and causes that need to be spoken about. The arts have an age old tradition to be able to speak directly on matters that politicians or the media fails to address. A creative or artistic voice has an incredible power to enable communication on a level that surpasses language, geography or origin. I remember when I was a kid, my father traveled to India with an arts organization called H.I (Health Images) to teach local communities how to produce their own educational health posters using easily made silkscreen printing and clear simple imagery. They were addressing themes such as clean water, breast feeding, safe sex and healthy eating. That was the first time I became aware of the power of art and imagery to inform and bring awareness. I think now more than ever it’s a time for artists to address directly subjects concerning division, racism, equality, the environment and social awareness. As I heard Patti Smith call out to the audience at the end of an event for the environmental justice in New York; “ Use Your Voice “.
DAUGIRDAITE: What gives “meaning" to your life?
NORTHOVER: My daughter. My loved ones.
DAUGIRDAITE: You have been a long-time advocate for AIDS awareness and have hosted fund-raising events for AIDS Charity Acria. Why is this specific cause dear to you?
NORTHOVER: It’s shocking how people so often think that AIDS and HIV are a thing of the past. What’s most alarming is that it’s now not even an epidemic, but a pandemic. There are over 37 million people living with AIDS worldwide, nearly 2 million of those are children. It’s heartbreaking when you look at those figures. I’ve lost a number of friends to AIDS, women and men, straight and gay. AIDS is a human disease. Treatment and medication have come a long way, but the fight is far from over. Awareness and education are vital in the fight against HIV and AIDS, and better care needs to be more available worldwide. My first movie was a drama called House Of Boys based in the early 1980’s when AIDS first started to appear. I played a young man living with AIDS and the confusion about this ’new disease’ at the time. The director Jean-Claude Schlim himself lives with HIV, the film was semi-biographical. It was a real passion project for him. Through that film I got to meet a lot of people involved with AIDS awareness and education. It’s so important that government action and funding be forced to change when it comes to support and education.
DAUGIRDAITE: What other causes that you care deeply about?
'ESPECIALLY AS A PARENT, YOU CAN'T JUST LOOK AT THE WORLD AND HOPE.
YOU HAVE TO GET INVOLVED AND ACTIVELY CONTRIBUTE TO THE CHANGES THAT WILL AFFECT BOTH OUR CHILDREN'S LIVES AND THOSE OF GENERATIONS TO COME.'
NORTHOVER: Like many of us, I care about different causes that affect our society and our environment. Especially as a parent, you can’t just look at the world and hope. You have to get involved and actively contribute to the changes that will affect both our children’s lives and those of generations to come. It’s important to be aware and not simply depend on news channels or social media to inform us on what’s going on in the world. I feel very strongly about what my good friends Jesse Paris Smith and Rebecca Foon are doing with Pathway to Paris (http://pathwaytoparis.com). It’s not simply about environmental awareness, but also environmental justice. They are bringing together musicians, writers and environmental activists and others to help raise consciousness and create action in support of a robust international climate agreement. Their 1000 Cities initiative, is a strong mission to go beyond the targets of the original Paris Agreement. The initiative actively encourages all the cities of the world to transition off of fossil fuels and move to 100% renewable energy by the year 2040. It is possible and its very very real. What ever Trump says from his naive bubble, its vital for future generations to turn the Paris Agreement and similar initiatives into a reality and build an strong global grassroots climate movement that invites awareness and works affectively to hold our leaders accountable.
DAUGIRDAITE: You seem to be a person who cares a lot about staying yourself, listening to your own truth, doing things your way... Is this right? Can you tell me how you came to this way of thinking and being?
NORTHOVER: What other way is there to be? At the end of the day, you are the only person you’re lying to if you don’t do that.
DAUGIRDAITE: What do you do to stay "centered"?
NORTHOVER: Dance a lot with my daughter. Spend time around people I love and respect.
Make time to do things that feed me.
DAUGIRDAITE: What makes you feel most alive?
NORTHOVER: Challenge, inspiration and discovery.
DAUGIRDAITE: What personality traits do you value most in others?
NORTHOVER: Patience, empathy, enthusiasm, focus, honesty. I value a lot the quirkier sides of people because that is so much more honest that a presented front.
DAUGIRDAITE: The hardest moment of your life that you have had to go through and how did you find the strength to overcome?
NORTHOVER: I’ve always liked that Ken Kesey quote “ You are as strong as you feel it inside yourself to be “ Meaning that even if you don’t feel you have strength in that moment, you know inside yourself that you have the strength to rise to the challenge. We all come up against challenges in life, love and work, but its amazing how strong our own choice to rise to that challenge can be as a positive catalyst for change. The other day I over heard my friend Jonas talking to someone who was telling him about a ‘problem’ they had. Jonas answered “ It’s not a problem, its a challenge ”.
DAUGIRDAITE: Your happiest moment, is there one?
NORTHOVER: There are so many. Often those moments are in small details or the quiet personal achievements.
DAUGIRDAITE: Could you share a piece of poem, a book excerpt, or a piece of music that has inspired you lately?
NORTHOVER: Oh man! So many!!! Ok, lately?! Lets see, these are more things that have touched me
or I’ve come across lately.
Jackson Pollock in a 1948 interview:
“ The painting has a life of it’s own. I try to let it come through “
'I MAKE DRAWINGS TO SUPPRESS THE UNSPEAKABLE. THE UNSPEAKABLE FOR ME IS NOT A PROBLEM. IT'S EVEN THE BEGINNING OF THE WORK'.
Louise Bourgeois interviewed in The Drawing Book:
“I make drawings to suppress the unspeakable. The unspeakable is not a problem for me. It’s even the beginning of the work. It’s the reason for the work; the motivation of the work is to destroy the unspeakable.”
From the Lou Reed (who was always one of my hero’s) song Magic And Loss:
“ You pass through arrogance, you pass through hurt, You pass through an ever present past, And it's best not to wait for luck to save you, Pass through the fire to the light - And if the building's burning, move towards that door But don't put the flames out, There's a bit of magic in everything, And then some loss to even things out…… “
From The White Album by Joan Didion:
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live….We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
DAUGIRDAITE: What are you working on right now?
NORTHOVER: I just finished the film with Josephine Meckseper. We record the final voice over this week.
Then I start on the next two films in the Baztán Trilogy (based on the international best selling book series by Dolores Redondo) The first film ‘ The Invisible Guardian ’ came out earlier this year and we’re shooting the next two films back to back. I’m excited to continue working with the director Fernando González Molina and Marta Etura who plays my wife in the films. I’m a huge fan of the books, they’re amazing intricate thrillers, I couldn’t put them down when I first read them. I’m really impressed with what Fernando are doing with the adaptations. Other than that, I’m about to launch an online project of my own image and video works. Its a very personal piece spanning the last 15 years.
DAUGIRDAITE: Do you believe in luck?
NORTHOVER: I remember one night in New York, a few years ago in a taxi with my friend Jefferson [Note: Jefferson Hack Founder of Dazed Media]. He suddenly came out with this great quote “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity “. Being talented at something doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to succeed. Luck is the alchemical fire that can light up a situation, but you better have spent time finding and tuning into what’s unique in your vision and abilities and honing that, hone your knowledge, your craft. Own what you do so nothing can take it from you.
DAUGIRDAITE: Thank you Benn Northover!
NORTHOVER: Thank you!