As one of Britain's most sought-after actors, Jeremy Northam gets a fair few film scripts in the mail. So when he first read Dean Spanley - about a man who'd been a dog in a past life - you could forgive him if he burst out laughing.
But in this instance it was because he had a "heads-up" that Kiwi acting export Sam Neill was on board, and Northam was imagining his former The Tudors co-star in the title role. "I could definitely see Sam being a human who'd once been a dog," Northam says, 'but he couldn't see it at all."
In fact, Neill hadn't agreed to take the part - he just hadn't said "no". Luckily, by the time the Jurassic Park star signed, the script had already won over Northam, veteran of many English period dramas. You may remember him from Gosford Park, The Winslow Boy, Emma, Possession, Enigma, The Golden Bowl, An Ideal Husband and Carrington. But the multi-award-winning actor has also broken out of the period-drama mould with sci-fi thriller The Invasion and the post-modern comedy A Cock and Bull Story.
At 47 and 182cm he's still a shoe-in for roles requiring the old-school charm and distinguished looks.
"I've done a lot of period movies, and sometimes I say I'll never do another one," says the affable Northam, "but I found Dean Spanley very refreshing, very engrossing, very different." Based on Lord Dunsany's 1936 novella My Talks With Dean Spanley, the film is set in 1904 among the aristocratic upper-crust of Edwardian-era England.
Think of it as a kind of adult fairytale, played straight. We see events unfurl through the eyes of buttoned-up Young Fisk Henslowe (Northam), as he struggles with cranky, set-in-his-ways father Horatio (Peter O'Toole).
Since Henslowe's brother was killed in the Boer War and his grieving mother died shortly afterwards, father and son dutifully, somewhat halfheartedly, meet every Thursday.
After running into the eccentric Dean Spanley several times, a curious Henslowe lures him to a series of dinners. Under the influence, the dean begins recounting something rather startling: his past life as a dog. And Horatio also remembers something strangely cathartic.
The bizarre theme made Northam think twice about doing the movie, an Anglo-New Zealand production directed by our own Toa Fraser (No.2) in just his second feature film. Says Northam: "The story is necessarily whimsical, which made me a little nervous."
But his first phone call with Fraser set those fears to rest. "We were in agreement that while the whimsy is the hook it's not really a story about reincarnation. To balance the flavours of the whimsical and serious we wanted to root the story as much as possible in genuine, recognisable emotional territory."
The arc of this moving film is the strained relationship between father and son. Horatio and Henslowe, who rub each other up the wrong way, struggle to communicate.
"When older parents don't tell their kids what they think of them, it's very easy to get crossed wires - for the parents to think they're detested and the offspring to think that they're not cared for perhaps," says Northam.
Yep, this is the voice of experience. "My mum died about 10 years ago, and it was so, so difficult watching the effect of that process, before and after, on my dad. I personally found my relationship with my dad changed quite a bit after my mum's death. Like Horatio and Henslowe, we were both denied the translator of our relationship. Dad died about five years ago and, you know, there are things you might have said and could have said and done."
Although the film suggests that reconciliation is always possible, Northam is glad it doesn't deliver one of those American-style 'ain't-everything-swell-now' endings. "The film doesn't posit a glib resolution to those things. It's just a sort of a reference point."
Narrator as well as protagonist, Northam, who appears in almost every scene, was on the set for every moment of the 26-day shoot in Cambridgeshire and East Anglia.
"I don't know if I've got the puff anymore for that kind of thing,"' he says, "but you get a chance to feel really at home with the story."
Given the off-the-wall subject matter, he needed that chance. "The story was so unusual that it took us all out of our comfort zone. Like Sam was saying 'How do I play the dean? Does he know he was a dog? Is he a conman? Is he barking mad?'." No pun intended.
And, after all the long days of father-son tension onset, it's not surprising there was a bit of behind-the-scenes ribbing between Northam and O'Toole, 76.
Northam: "Peter's really entertaining, full of stories and laughs and he has this phenomenal concentration on-camera."
Although they had never met before, despite both having worked on the bonk-busting mini-series The Tudors, apparently the eight-time Oscar-nominee suggested Northam play his onscreen son.
Modest Northam is not convinced. "I actually asked him about that right at the end of shooting, and he denied all."
Northam, who divides his time between London and his countryside home in Dorset, recently finished work on the Charles Darwin biopic Creation and Stephen Poliakoff's war thriller 1939, both scheduled for release this year.
"At the moment I'm doing not very much. People are saying I should get on a plane and go to Los Angeles, but I'm not sure if it's the right time." And he's been there, done that before.
He's keeping an open mind about his next role, seeing the strange-sounding Dean Spanley turned out so well. After premiering to a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival last September, the film earned stellar reviews from the British papers after opening there in December.
Northam is full of praise for Toa Fraser and his Kiwi contingent.
"Toa's very well prepared and thinks on his feet. You know that if he says `I've got it, let's move on', that he has. And you don't often see a director chucking around a rugby ball between takes."
And when's Northam's iPod started bleeping onset, he learned another Kiwi tradition: the slab. If a phone or other device interrupts a scene, the person responsible has to buy a round of beer.
"Toa reminded me of that and I'd completely forgotten, so I didn't ever provide the slab."
Perhaps he should come Downunder to pay his beer dues? "Send me a script. I'd really love to come."
* Dean Spanley opens nationwide in cinemas this Thursday.