James Howson is believed to be the first non-white actor to star in the role in any screen adaptation of Emily Bronte’s classic 1847 novel.
Howson is in his early 20s and from Leeds. By casting him for the pivotal role the production team may have fulfilled Bronte’s wishes – because some academics believe Heathcliff was not meant to be white.
In the novel, the young Heathcliff is found abandoned at the former slave port of Liverpool by the kindly Mr Earnshaw, who adopts him. The boy is described as a ‘dark-skinned gypsy in aspect and a little lascar’ – a 19th Century reference to sailors from India.
Film insiders say the production team felt other adaptations relied too heavily on established actors. In an attempt to return to the novel’s roots – which centre around doomed teenage lovers – they looked to cast unknowns. They even wandered around the streets of Leeds looking for likely ‘Heathcliffs’ and held open auditions for young actors with no previous experience. They also looked for a member of the Romany community but no suitable candidate could be found.
James will play opposite 18 year old Kaya Scodelario,as the beautiful but doomed Cathy.
One source close to the film said: ‘Previous versions have had people in their mid-30s running up and down the moors and that is not what the novel is about at all. This is all about going back to basics.'
Andrea Arnold, the Film4 movie’s Oscar-winning director, has been filming key scenes at Moor Close – a desolate farmhouse in the North Yorkshire Moors which has no electricity or running water.
Cotescue Park in Coverham, also North Yorkshire, is being used as Thrushcross Grange, the home of the wealthy Linton family. Arnold went to great lengths to conceal the identity of her male lead. Howson has no social networking sites and cannot be traced through the internet.
The cast have all been staying at the £85-a-night Kings Head in Richmond, North Yorkshire. Much of the filming, which ended on Tuesday, was shot under conditions of strict secrecy in and around the village of Thwaite.
The party to mark the end of filming was held at The Old Board Inn, a small pub in the village of Hawes, close to the film set.
The following morning Howson, looking somewhat worse for wear, confirmed that he was playing Heathcliff.
He said: ‘The filming went really well. Yeah, I’m from Leeds. I don’t really know if I’m supposed to be doing this. I should really speak to someone first – not my agent – someone else.’ But the Daily Mail revealed the details of his casting today, confirming the name that Screenterrier had already uncovered.