Stills from a film. Starring James Norton and costarring Edita.
Stills from a film. Starring James Norton and costarring Edita.
This article originally appeared in VMAN 38, on newsstands August 24. Order your copy here.
James Norton is on the telephone, calling from location in Croatia. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the work of the 32-year-old British actor, consensus among the international film and theater cognoscenti is that Norton is one of the most talented young actors working today. He’s increasingly mentioned in the company of such British actors of note as Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Eddie Redmayne. “Britain’s Next Superstar,” London’s Daily Express recently declared.
Educated at Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the range of Norton’s acting ability is remarkable. His portrayal of Tommy Lee Royce, the rapist and murderer central to the British television series Happy Valley (available in the U.S. on Netflix) defines the word demon. That character’s counterpoint is found in the heart-touching Sidney Chambers, a countryside vicar who solves murders on the PBS-ITV series Grantchester. Norton was also critically acclaimed for his role last year as the nobly anguished Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War & Peace, the BBC and Weinstein Company version of Tolstoy’s novel, directed by Tom Harper from a script by Andrew Davies.
He’s rumored to be one of the top choices to play secret agent James Bond in future films—“I hope Daniel Craig plays Bond many times more,” Norton said when asked by reporters about this—but when I speak to him, he’s months into filming McMafia. It’s an AMC-BBC crime drama written by Hossein Amini and directed by James Watkins that tells the story of a very different kind of Russian prince than the one he played in War & Peace. In McMafia, Norton takes on the role of Alex Goodman, a Michael Corleone from The Godfather: Part I type, who tries to transcend his Russian family’s criminal past.
In June, James was seen in Hampstead, the UK release of a film starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson. This fall, he will be costarring in the reboot of the classic 1990 science-fiction flick Flatliners. The latter depicts a group of medical students whose exploration of the afterlife involves near-death experiments with devastating results and also stars Ellen Page, Diego Luna, and Nina Dobrev.
“An American accent?” I ask and Norton laughs. Of course he’s done American accents before, including in a London stage production of Tracy Letts’s Bug last year and on Netflix’s Black Mirror. But Norton explains that his character in Flatliners was “my first kind of all-American dude. An agent of mine kept saying, ‘Find your inner dude, man.’ I find it hard to find my inner dude sometimes, so it was fun to actually find him.”
The art of great acting begins with an actor’s preparation, especially when they play as many different characters as James Norton. “Your process changes as you go and you learn what works and doesn’t work for you,” Norton says. “When I left drama school, I had this fresh, shiny folder full of technique and information and various kind of rooting and animal exercises, and it was ridiculous.”
Over time, Norton has distilled these techniques. Now, after deeply researching each new character and the world that character lives in for about a month, Norton puts that formal study aside. He tries to forget it, otherwise he finds that “you end up trying to play the research, and it’s a disaster. The most important thing I do in the lead-up—and this goes for all characters, once the more academic and cerebral work is done—is that I try to spend as much time as I can in the body and headspace of that person.”
That includes brushing his teeth, taking a shower, dressing, shopping, sleeping, and eating as the character until the role feels comfortable. Then, “when you’re on set and they say, ‘Right, okay, let’s rehearse this scene,’ that headspace, the emotions, the instinct, the desire, and all the things that come with that person are familiar and at your fingertips.”
He pauses, reminded of something. “I try and do the most mundane things, like go shopping and buy milk. But if I’m playing my character from Flatliners—who’s a complete dog—or I’m playing a psychopath like I did in Happy Valley, one day I can be a disgusting flirt and then, two days later, I’m a horrible psychopath and I’m sort of throwing milk around the room. So, my local shopkeepers can be a little weirded out by me.”
Norton was born in London and raised in the Yorkshire countryside. His parents are professors and his sister is a doctor. Although it’s been with him since childhood, he isn’t sure when he got the acting bug, since it’s not in the family. When I mention that I’d read he’d felt the itch ever since he played Joseph in a Christmas nativity as a four-year-old, he denies this with his characteristic self-deprecating humor: “I remember that all I had to do was walk from one end of the school hall to the other with Mary on my arm. But because I couldn’t see my mum and dad in the audience, all I did was scream and wail all the way across. I remember it clearly. I was like, ‘My audience isn’t here.’ The diva in me was already there, age four.”
He read theology at Cambridge with a specific interest in Eastern religions and also acted. Enjoying the acting tremendously and encouraged by a college theater director, Norton applied to RADA. Theater roles came first, but his breakout came with the aforementioned role in Happy Valley, which began airing in 2014. In 2010, just as his career was taking off, Norton was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. With daily insulin injections and glucose levels tests, managing the condition is a challenge—tracking his health, fitness, and diet has become necessary—but he hasn’t let it get in his way. Nor has he allowed a condition on the other side of the scale to trip him up: his good looks.
Concerning his dreamboat status, he tells a story about visiting with a great aunt not too long ago. Sitting across from each other at lunch, she studied him. Something puzzled her. “I don’t understand how you can look so good on telly, because you’re so bland in normal life,” his great aunt mused. Must be the breeches and the floppy hair, he told her.
As for fashion, he likes vintage clothing and spends time going to flea markets to find pieces “that have a memory attached to them,” like a sheepskin coat he bought for $50 from a “Russian psychopath” while filming War & Peace and a jacket he bought some 15 years ago in Berlin that he treasures to this day.
Whether it’s finding costumes and vintage clothing with provenance or playing roles that range from transcendent saints to terrifying sinners, fascination with discovering and telling stories inspires his work. “You have to empathize with people even if they are the most abhorrent, villainous creatures. You have to understand their motives and where they’re coming from.” Finding empathy is also his philosophy for life, on or off stage.
Around this point in the telephone conversation, an aide jumps on the line to remind Norton that he needs to return to set. “Acting is a privilege,” he says. “You get to learn about all these different parts of history and worlds, genders and sexualities.” To truly empathize with a character requires breaking down “all those judgments and preconceptions. Hopefully, it will make you a more understanding person in the long run. If it doesn’t, you’re probably doing something a little bit wrong.”
But anyone can tell that James Norton is doing things more than a little bit right.