The Nevers Star James Norton on the “Insane Hedonism” of Victorian London
Norton plays Hugo Swann, the HBO Fantasy Series’s Irresistible Bad Boy.
For some characters on The Nevers, the period fantasy series airing now on HBO, the battle of good versus evil plays out on epic sale, but for Hugo Swann it’s a more internal affair.
The series’ resident roué is seemingly at odds with himself; at times leaning into his wealth and privilege, at others attempting to outrun it. He’s also one of the few people of his class who seems comfortable around “the Touched,” the characters on the show endowed with supernatural abilities – most likely because he runs an underground nightclub where a number of them work. He’s charismatic, complicated, and at times contemptible – and nearly impossible to ignore.
James Norton – a veteran of Grantchester and Happy Valley – revels in Hugo’s complications and calls him “the kind of character every actor loves to play.” Here, he talks with T&CC about Hugo’s appeal, the unexpected hedonism of Victorian London, and the terrifying challenges of filming comedy.
Hugo is something of the series’ resident troublemaker. What about the role made you want to play him?
It’s already been a couple of years since I first read the pilot, so it has been a long time being in Hugo’s head. It’s funny, I very clearly remember the little brief in each script. They said something like Hugo has about five years left on the clock for his charm, which meant to me about five years away from middle age, and they ended with, “but ultimately he’s gone down the light,” and it’s true; he’s this wonderful, seductive, delightful man, but at the sae time, he’s dangerous. That’s the kind of character every actor loves to play – he’ll both offend and seduce in equal measure.
He feels like part of a tradition of louche characters that could include Brideshead Revisited Sebastian Flyte. Did you have those kinds of people in mind?
We certainly wanted him to feel different from established characters, and yet that’s very much part of it. The truth is that he is both rebelling against his privileged upbringing and he’s also protected by it. It’s all very kind of sartorial, elegant, and rich; some of the clothes I wore were genuinely encrusted with diamonds. it was unreal. Sebastian Flyte is a good comparison because he is someone who embraced the privilege which he was born into… there were many, many, inspirations and yet there were also none, because no one is really like Hugo.
The series is rooted in reality but is most definitely fantasy. How did you prepare to be part of this world?
There was a lot to get one’s head around. We worked on a need-to-know basis; if your character didn’t really know about certain things going on, you weren’t ever told. For a long time, I didn’t know very much about the Touched at all because Hugo isn’t Touched and then slowly, as we started filming more, snippets of information would trickle down. It was really exciting, because I learned all about it in real time.
It was all about immersing myself in the established order of very wealthy, privileged class as well as the underbelly of London in that period. What was really surprising was the fact that we all just assume the Victorian era was very repressed and buttoned up, but of course, as often happens when I society is repressed, there were outbursts of insane hedonism. It was fun to have immerse myself in that subversive, darker undercurrent of London.
What was most challenging about playing the role?
The scenes are big and they are fast, so you really have to come prepared with your A game. For me, the challenge I most enjoyed was that Hugo has these amazing lines, which are really funny – and I haven’t done much comedy. So, to play a role that has these really funny lines was intimidating because I knew that there was a potential for them to really sing, and being so I was worried that i was going to fall short or the rhythm wasn’t going to be there. There was a part of me that was like, “Am I going to be funny enough?” And I think Hugo is funny, hopefully, so that was nerve wracking.
As far as we’ve seen so far, Hugo isn’t among the Touched and doesn’t have any supernatural abilities. In the months production was halted, did you discover and new gifts of your own?
I did all the obligatory stuff; I grew tomato plants and went deep into the sourdough bread wormhole, which I’m loving. The odd thing about my lockdown is that it taught me that I’m someone who has been a yes person for my whole life. I can’t really say no to an invitation or an opportunity. And I think because it was forced on me, because there was nothing else to be done and nothing to miss out on, I found the time and the space to do things I hadn’t done for years, like painting. It’s not a superpower, it;s actually the opposite, but I definitely learned about the benefits of taking a step back.
Original article at Town & Country.
This article has been reproduced for archive purposes.