For the most insidious of this summer's movie villains, it's all a question of slime. As the ravishing half human, half alien in Species, Natasha Henstridge wallows in it. Literally. Two evildoers in other films embody it albeit as the most handsome viscosity you've ever seen. In the futuristic Virtuosity, costarring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe is an escapee from cyberspace with a penchant for messy murder and mayhem. Jeremy Northam in The Net, on the other hand, is James Bond's evil twin, with the bad manners to try to kill Sandra Bullock's character after he's seduced her. Here, the three baddies come clean on what it's like to play dirty.
Suggest to The Net's Jeremy Northam that his character, hitman Jack Devlin, is a sociopath, and he'll tell you that you've missed the role's subtleties. True, he beds the computer-wizard-who-knows-too-much, played by Sandra Bullock, only to reach for a gun the way others might a cigarette. ''But he's compromised,'' Northam, 33, says sheepishly. ''He doesn't think he's a villain...he just has no moral vision. I think he feels like a complete s---.'' As well he might, given that he practically salivates with excitement while suavely stalking Bullock's Angela Bennett through San Francisco, a computer and Glock his means of torture. ''He's never made the step of sleeping with his prey,'' Northam explains, ''and he's torn. He's perturbed by her forwardness and openness, and he's so uncomplicated that in some ways, killing her is the simple way out.''
Odd reasoning, perhaps. But it's the best the Royal Shakespeare Company actor could do during filming, especially with the larger concerns at hand: that he would be found wanting and be fired from his first big-budget American movie (which he wasn't), and maybe equally nerve-racking, that he wouldn't be fired and would have to go through with the sex scene on board a boat (which he did). ''I suppose I was nervous about showing my body,'' says Northam, who landed the part only five days after arriving in L.A. to find an agent. ''I went to the gym a lot. It doesn't show on screen, but there you are.''
True, the tall and slender London-based actor won't pose a threat to Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he's got the seductive act down pat. While Northam insists that in real life, ''I've never had sex on a boat,'' he'll nestle up to Emma Thompson on a schooner in this fall's Carrington, in which he plays (what else?) a gorgeous cad who dumps Thompson after a torrid affair.
''It's fun trying to convince people of false sincerity and faux vulnerability,'' admits Northam, who's wrapping up negotiations to star opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the screen adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. When playing The Net's villain, he says, the character ''starts to lie so much that he begins to actually believe it.... I think a lot of people can be like that.''
Most evil deed on camera: ''Driving a boat too fast through very, very shallow water, and endangering my life and those of the crew.''
Worst thing about being a villain: ''People treat you as though you're rather dubious.''
Favorite bad role model: ''Sean Connery as James Bond; he was kind of amoral and mischievous and wicked, yet you kind of liked him.''