James Norton: ‘I try to present myself as friendly and people see something darker’
After playing psychopaths and priests, the actor is starring in an almost unbearably tragic role. He discusses bullies, broodiness and blockbusters.
James Norton’s latest film, Nowhere Special, has a premise so tragic it should be completely unfillable. He plays John, a 35-year-old single father who is given a few months to live, and has to find a new family for his three-year-old son. Even before you factor in the incredible performance by Daniel Lamont, who was only four when the film was shot, it sounds too obviously a tear-jerker, especially from Uberto Pasolini, a director known for Still Life, a very finely drawn, understated film in 2013, which comes at death from a much more oblique angle.
In fact, the film slips deftly past any obvious poignance to create something much more complicated, with arresting performances from Norton and his tiny co-star. “Credit must be given to the director,” Norton insists, on Zoom from his home in London. “He said: ‘I don’t want this to be brutally sad, I want this to be about life as much as it is about death.'” This you might characterise as a standard actorly response, generous and modest. Then there’s more: “My taste is aligned to that kind of performance. But the subject is so charged and universal, you feel the responsibility sometimes as an actor to show that you recognise how operettic and sad this is. Every time, I would give him a performance that was big, and schmaltzy and gooey, and he was like: ‘Yeah, I know you really liked that, but I’m not going to use it.'”
Norton has this searching, slightly self-flagellating approach – what he has said boils down to: “I nearly ruined this movie by trying to prove to the audience how empathetic I am, but luckily the director stopped me.” It’s the hinterland, educated by Benedictines, then taking a degree in theology before going to Rada. But more on God and monks later.
He comes off as a series of subtle contradictions; he’s very comfortable in his skin, yet he hates talking about himself. He’s like a masterclass in courtesy, but he’s not a pleaser. His signature roles – the monstrous Tommy Royce in Happy Valley, the tortured Sidney Chambers in Grantchester, a languid Duncan Grant in Life in Squares – indicate a deft approach to an acting career, side-stepping pigeonholes, always extending his range. But if someone were to write a comic part directly for him, it would be a character who hates the trivial but loves the carnival, who hates small talk yet loves being at a party. Imagine the chaos that person would cause.
Born in 1985 in south London, his mother a teacher, his fater a lecturer, Norton moves with his family to North Yorkshire as a child, and went to Ampleforth a Benedictine boarding school you could describe as “renowned” or “notorious”, depending on your mood. (In a depressingly familiar story about prestigious boarding schools, Ampleforth was banned from taking new pupils in November 2020, after an inquiry that found decades of child sexual abuse; the ban was lifted in April.)
Norton speaks of his intense connection with the landscape around the school (the village of Ampleforth is on the edge of the North York Moors). “There were elements of the setting that were very powerful. It’s such a beautiful part of the world, and three times a day, we would sit, and contemplate, and pray. I was grateful for that. It wasn’t therapy, but it was a moment of pause and meditation, in this incredibly lush valley.” He pauses, then reaches for more evidence, as if I might not believe that the valley was lush. “People go on holiday there!”
Really, if I had any scepticism, it wasn’t about Yorkshire, it was because it often feels like there is something he’s not saying. “What do you think I’m hiding – my dark obsessions with some cult of Catholicism?” he asks, winningly. Not exactly. But particularly when he talks about his religious phase – “I was a very religious teenager, which coincided with a hard time at school” – there’s often a shadow of quite a brutal atmosphere, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
That burst of faith let to his studying theology at Cambridge, even though he had lost it (or, as he puts it, “sort of changed”) by the time he was 18. “Lost faith” is too strong a term – but “still pretty spiritual” is too vague. “There are moments when I’m at my most extreme, with pain or trauma or joy – then maybe you’re crying out for any guidance or wisdom,” he says.
Going back to that “hard time”, he often talks abkout bullying, but in the most glancing way. Last year, when there were rumours that he might be the next James Bond, he said: “I do have moments when I’m being shot by a great photographer, wearing great clothes, when the little unattractive bullied kid in me is laughing his fucking head off!” In our conversation, it happens when we talk about the difference between a bad review from a reviewer, and a bad response from the audience on Rotten Tomatoes. I tell him I’m surprised that actors ever look at Rotten Tomatoes. “To be honest, I don’t. I did a couple of times, and I know that one or two of my movies have got like 4%. We have this weird, sick fascination with reviews, but to combine that and the audience into one metric, it’s like getting every bully that’s ever existed in your life, putting them all in one room and then throwing you into it naked.” Thinking about the one through-line connecting very different performances, Norton is incredibly – maybe uniquely – good at suggesting buried pain with the tiniest flicker of his features, which maybe he learned through the Lord of the Flies re-enactment that is the English public school system. “I would never send my kids to that,” is how he concludes this elliptical exchange.
His breakthrough roles on stage – Posh, at the Royal Court, and a zinging revivification of Journey’s End in 2011 – were cast to the type that he describes: “I was a Londoner from a well-to-do family with floppy hair.” A kind of Hugh Grant reboot, you might say, except “I’m not as bumbling as Hugh Grant,” he objects, then corrects himself fast. “He has this great comic sensibility.” Having recently set up a production company, Rabbit Track Pictures, with the producer Kitty Kaletsky, he’s very understanding about the urge to always keep actors in the same kinds of roles. “I get it – I get why it makes everyone’s life easier. If you’re thinking about the whole canvas, not one actor going through a transformative experience, pigeonholes make the money safer.”
It’s an interesting swerve, from performing to producing (though he has by no means given up acting); quite rare to go from the creative side to the money side, especially when you’re so successful at the first. But it’s part of a longer play, “to take the helm and direct my own stuff. As actors you don’t have that many goes at it. People pay attention when you direct and you have to get it right.”
Norton veered away from his acting pigeonhole quite dramatically playing Tommy Royce in Happy Valley, a powerful crime drama from Sally Wainwright at the top of her game. Broadly speaking (no spoilers), he plays the incarnation of pure evil. Talking about his process, once, to the New York Times, he said he tried to inhabit each character in his daily life, which was a trial when he was doing Happy Valley, having to wash up in a broodingly psychopathic way. “I never said that! I can’t believe I said that.” “You definitely said it,” I insist. “It’s the New York Times. They have this accuracy thing.”
“I’m not one of those actors who turns up on set in character,” he says. “I do my work, I do my research. I’m all for commitment. If it helps you to be completely consumed for days on end, great. When other people aren’t able to do their work because your process is so extreme, that’s selfish,, I’m not that kind of actor at all.”
He seems plagued by the idea that he might once, quite a long time ago, in passing, having sounded like a wanker. “You just can’t take yourself too seriously. This industry is full of overly earnest people who think were God’s gift to mankind. We’re entertainers, we’re storytellers, there’s a lot of play and childishness in that.” A pause. “I was probably just trying to keep my teachers at drama school happy.” This has a cacophonous ring of truth; he comes over as a person who puts a huge amount of thought into keeping people happy.
On the subject of sheer entertainment, Norton has also recently starred in The Nevers, a show I absolutely loved that had a rocky beginning after its creator, Joss Whedon, was accused of creating “toxic environments” in his past work (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, later, Justice League.) What should have been the first season was turned into two mini-seasons – thee second, expected to air in 2022, will have a new showrunner, Philippa Goslett – and the reception has been quite muted. “I’d never seen a show like it,” Norton says. “Female-driven, these warriors in Victorian London, so indefinability and genre-bending. My experience of Joss was all great. I know that I can speak for the cast that we had a great time. I don’t know what happened in the past, and you have to listen to those people’s voices. All I know is that we loved working with him and it was a shame to see him go, but Philippa will pick it up beautifully.
“Starred” is a moot point by the way – The Nevers is the ultimate ensemble drama; everyone in it gives a transfixing performance and there are about 100 of them. Norton plays Hugo Swann, a dissolute young aristo possessed of a Wildean with who runs orgies and – this somehow feels more transgressive – drinks in the morning. Norton groups a collection of his roles loosely as “the nice guy who’s quietly sociopathic underneath …I don’t know why they see that in me,” he says wryly. “I try to present myself as friendly and they see something darker.”
The role that seems, from the outside, most like him was Sidney Chambers, the crime-cracking, heavy-drinking cleric in Grantchester, and he agrees: “My headspace is a 1950s pries. That was also my first role out of the gate as far as carrying a show and the responsibilities that involves.” Part of what was interesting about that show was not just Norton’s performance – which is really humane – but also Robson Green’s which is idiosyncratic, understated, relaxed. They obviously had a rare chemistry.
Nothing compares to acting with a four-year-old, however. Norton says of Nowhere Special: “It was one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had on a film set. The classic thing is you avoid animals and children. Not only is Daniel the lead, there are loads of other kids in it and loads of animals. There was always some rabbit, or a dog.”
It really is a move of breathtaking ambition to try to do anything sensible involving a four-year-old, but Norton makes it sound like a cakewalk. “When you;re doing improv with a fellow actor, you’re constantly aware of this sabotaging voice.” With Daniel there was no voice; he was going through the process of understanding death in real time.” To underline the point, he recalls that at the end of the shoot, Lamont asked his mum when they were going to start filming; he thought they had been rehearsing the whole time. “Most of the preparation was going to his house, having dinner, playing with his toys. Had Daniel not responded to the filming, it would have been a disaster. But it was amazing. I really did have a very genuine affectionate relationship with that boy. We really did get on. He just gave himself to me as a friend.”
Did it make him want children? “Oh yes. I was going back to my girlfriend [the actor Imogen Poots], saying this has definitely kicked me into dad mode You know, I’m mid-30s, I’ve always wanted a family, my sister has kids, my broody barometer is kicking off anyway.” He laughs. “I suppose that’s your headline?”
With the tragedy of a global pandemic still so fresh, this might be a dicey time to launch a film that is itself so tragic, and that fact hasn’t escaped Norton. “It’s interesting to work out what appetite people have right now – whether blockbusters or arthouse movies are going to dominate the cinema. Is it going to be a summer of love and escapism? Or are we a bit quieter and more reflective, because we’ve had to be?” It feels like a question about something larger than film, quite an idealised dichotomy from an anguished idealist.
Nowhere Special is in UK cinemas from 16 July.
Original article at The Guardian.
This article has been reproduced for archive purposes.