1883 Magazine
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Meeting actor James Norton in the heart of Belgravia at antique pub The Star Tavern seemed like a cliché if ever I saw one. Public school boy, Cambridge educated, roles in period dramas’ Death Comes to Pemberley, up-coming feature Belle, and a young Brit thespian (naturally) – speaking in a nook in the most expensive postcode in London would befit Norton on paper. But who reads the paper anymore. “I’ve just bought a house in Peckham,” Norton bashfully states, his curious smile forcing my gaze. So we’re far away from home for the both of us here, but London aficionados all the same. “London is having its heyday, why would you want to live anywhere else?” Grins Norton, again managing to schmooze the old fogeys in the pub with one fell swoop. He is posh, but he knows it, accepts it, and is therefore able to poke fun at it.

The day before the interview Norton has just wrapped filming for Sally Wainwright’s psychological thriller Happy Valley, a six-part BBC series, in which he plays a Northern psychopath. The antithesis of the strapping, stylish (and posh) man sat before me,Norton insists it’s his favourite role so far, and becomes animated when talking about digging into the mind of a “monster”.

Norton is honest, perhaps too honest. He talks openly about the camaraderie turned to tense competition at drama school, his “camp death” in Doctor Who, and the extreme biscuit eating that goes on behind the scenes of movie making. We travel in and out of jest and seriousness, which is the ideal discussion formula (in my book). Norton studied Theology; he was curious about religion, and his one criticism of the film industry is that there are not enough opportunities for women. To find a feminist amongst the macho is golden. Come to think of it, I think we’ve found a golden ticket with Norton (and not just through his hair). Look out for it in Peckham...

Vinyl or Download? Download

Sweet or Savory? Savory

Leather or Fur? Leather

London or New York? London

Snow or Sun? Sun

Public Transport or Cycle? Cycle with a capital C

Rap or Rock? Neither…but rap I guess

Jay Z or Kanye? Kanye

Party or Night In? Party

BAFTA or Oscar? Both..Oscar Oscar

Kindle or Book? Book

Poetry or Prose? Prose

Cinema or Netflix? Cinema

Facebook or Twitter? Facebook

Being photographed or taking photographs? Taking, I would much rather be behind the camera..

Magazine or newspaper? Newspaper

Pop Art or Renaissance? Renaissance, old school

Coffee or Tea? Coffee

Watching paint dry or analysing art? Analysing paint drying..

Trivial (but more fun stuff) out of the way, I want to start by talking about your education. You read Theology at Cambridge…Did you have an idea you wanted to be an actor there?

I did, but I was too afraid to take the plunge. I found it quite hard when you leave school and everyone asks you what you want to do. I always wanted to be an actor, but I was too afraid of the condescending reaction you get. People go ‘oh that’s so sweet.’ But I did it all throughout my childhood, and at Cambridge I did loads of theatre.

Did you learn any big life lessons at Cambridge?

I went there having gone to a very catholic boarding school – that’s why I studied theology – and I thought that it might give me some clarification about theology in general. It didn’t. But in a wonderful way it asked more questions than it answered. I loved doing my degree, but it made me more confused.

You then trained at the renowned RADA. Is it competitive at acting school? Or is everyone chums?

At the beginning it’s quite competitive to get in; there are four rounds, so I think everyone shares this insecurity that they’re going to be found out – that they accidently got in – so there is a sort of camaraderie there. An ego is stamped on pretty quickly. Early on, you form very strong friendships, and in order to get the most out of the training, you have to have an enormous amount of trust in each other. You spend half the time wearing leotards, sweating, feeling your absolute worst and emotionally you have to put everything on the line. But then the sad tragedy of it was as soon as second year is finished; the school presents you to the industry and the agents start prowling. There’s not even just a little bit of tension, but massive fallouts. We had a real problem. I was really lucky as I already had an agent, and I managed to get a role in my final year so I left six months early and missed the real tension.

Do you think you need conventional training to become an actor?

No, I think there are many wonderful actors who haven’t, but it definitely helps.

Is it more to do with classical training?

Yes, most of it is taken up by classical and theatrical training; voice work, dialect, and movement. They prepare you to hold your own in an auditorium. For me, the most important thing was the feeling beforehand – saying I wanted to be an actor, and I’d mutter it down into my shoes – which meant if I walked into an audition I had no confidence. I felt like I was being a child, and it was a farfetched dream. Then spending three years dedicating time and effort..

…You come out like ‘I’M AN ACTOR.’

Exactly, you come out like ‘I’m a professional actor’, and that confidence is so important in persuading directors and producers that you can do the role. It sets you up with an immense amount of contacts, and when you’re not really aware of it you fall back on your training.

Do you worry you’ll get typecast into the classics? A lot of young British actors go into period dramas.

There was a time when I was worried – when you’re a young bloke, public school educated, went to uni and have a period look as everyone keeps telling me – so yes, at the beginning you have to monopolise on your strengths. I’m very lucky, the last role I finished was a long shoot where I played a Northern psychopath.

I was going to ask, you are about to be seen in Sally Wainwright’s psychological thriller Happy Valley, which you star as a psycho serial killer. Tell us more and how did you get into character?

It was amazing. It was the most rewarding role because it was so distanced from myself, and the first big series that I had been given a role that wasn’t a young, nice, educated posh guy. I was suddenly this monster. I did a lot of work on the accent, but luckily I grew up in North Yorkshire. The hardest part of the preparation was learning and getting into the head of this guy. The production put me in touch with a criminal psychologist, and he took me through what it was like to be in the head of a psychopath, and it’s completely fascinating. A psychopath is partly to do with miswiring in the brain, but also to do with an infant who has suffered neglect and abuse. They have no control as an infant, and when they finally get control in their life, they hold onto it, and anything that threatens that is an enemy. They believe that the world is inherently hostile. If they don’t attack, the world will attack them. The hardest part was doing the murdering, and raping. In James’ head – the actor, it’s horrible, but in Tommy’s head, it’s not only justified, it’s necessary to survive.

You are quite the thespian; do you have a preference between Theatre and Film?

I don’t have a preference. I love doing theatre, RADA was mostly theatre orientated.

Is it more daunting because there is a live audience?

Having an audience means that there is no second take, you have to hit it first time and every time. For the audience it’s their night out, they’ve spent loads of money to come, so you have a duty to deliver. On the one hand that is exhausting and daunting, but on the other, it’s so exciting. What I miss in film is the feeling of sharing that moment with the audience. They are sharing the sweat and chemicals. When you’re making people laugh or cry, and you can feel them laugh or cry. But with film there are other wonderful parts about it, you tell a story over months and months. You tell the same story every single night. You don’t have a fourth wall, and you can be in a room with just a camera, and you are dressed up in a period costume. The whole room is dressed as a 15th Century room, and you’re there in your wig and you’re transported.

What character have you most enjoyed playing so far?

On stage it was Captain Stanhope in Journey’s End, and in TV, it’s what I’ve just finished, Tommy the psychopath. Ironically and weirdly, both of them are psychopaths. I don’t know what that says about me.

You’re a psychopath.,

Maybe

If you could play anyone from literature, or any movie already made, who would you like to play and why?

There’s quite a lot of stuff at the moment on the Brontës, and their brother Branwell never gets a look in. He was a drunkard, sad man, and to be the brother of these literary geniuses, in those days when the man was expected to... I think it’s an interesting story that needs to be told one day.

What director would you love to work with at the moment?

The obvious one is Steve McQueen, just because he’s Steve McQueen. I loved Shame and Hunger, and then 12 Years smashed it out of the park.

What about an actor, whose career and role choice could you mirror?

I think someone like Michael Fassbender, he always surprises you. Sean Penn, taking roles like Milk, and I admire Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s someone who I can identify with, being from public school.

You have also been in Doctor Who, were you a fan of the show beforehand, or had you even watched it?

No I hadn’t, and I felt guilty. When I was on set, and Matt Smith turned to me and passed me the Sonic Screwdriver, and I was holding it and the Tardis was there – I had this moment when I realised that this is a dream for thousands of people and I’m so blasé about what’s going on. I thought I should appreciate this moment. I really enjoyed filming it and I had the most camp death in the world. I was on a winch and an alien grabbed me from above and I got yanked off screen. About 30 times in a day, I had this big harness on and just got whipped up. It was like being at a theme park. This claw would come to shot and I’d have to scream.

Would you like to do an action movie?

Yes, I actually did a sort of action movie in South Africa last year; I played a Viking in a film called Northmen Viking Saga. Sadly my character meets an early end, but we had loads of stunts. It was a little boys dream, running around playing with swords and arrows.

What do you do when you’re on set and not acting, which must have been for a lot of the time..

I try not to eat all…I eat biscuits and drink coffee. There’s always loads of food on set, you have a massive breakfast, and then mid lunch they bring a soup and onion bhaji’s, then you have lunch and cake and sandwiches. What’s great about a film set is you have 100 people, and when the actors aren’t rolling; there is a great social aspect of filming. I love chatting with people. My grandmother is a great chatter and I have her genes. So chat and eat biscuits.

Do you have any criticisms of the film industry?

The big thing is the number of parts and opportunities for women. There are always more roles for men, but that’s partly to do with the way playwrights were writing for many hundreds of years. With Shakespeare there are usually 12 guys and 2 women.

So you’re quite the feminist?

Yes, I am. I think it’s harder for actresses. That’s not to sound condescending, there’s some wonderful young female directors coming through at the moment. This is the time for them. They are all taking over the theatre. That’s very exciting.

There is a supposedly a thought/statistic that if a female is the lead then the film won’t do as well. Cate Blanchett spoke about it in her Oscars speech.

Is that really a thought? About 10/15 years ago, Jody Foster took the lead in this big police drama, and it flopped, and everyone started asking questions about whether a female can lead. I think that’s complete crap. Of course they can.

Who would be your co-leading lady?

Well Cate Blanchet is amazing, and Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur, she gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. She’s now been in so much. She is wonderful.

When would be your ‘I’ve made it moment’? Your face on billboards on Oxford Street?

No, sitting in a pub and having an interview...I think with every actor and actress, when you feel like you’ve made it, there will always be some other job that you want, and there will always be another ladder. If you stop that hunger then great, you can relax, but most people…Imagine; George Clooney is probably looking at Brad Pitt going I want his job. I don’t think it’s about getting to a certain place, but for me the most important thing is getting to a point where I can choose the work. If I can get there and live in London..

Would you move to Hollywood?

I would for work, but I wouldn’t permanently. I love London. London is having its heyday, why would you want to live anywhere else? At the moment it’s in its prime.

What roles have you got coming up this year?

I’m just about to start a new series as a vicar.

That is a steep transition from psychopath..

I know. Hopefully I’m not going to get them mixed up. It’s a new series called Grantchester, which is a six-part ITV drama, based on the Grantchester Mysteries by James Runcie. It’s about a young vicar who is a loveable rogue, he loves his women, his booze and his jazz, and he has come back from WW11 with a lot of demons and bad memories. He turns his hands to amateur sleuth work, so he solves murder mysteries. We’ve got a great cast and we start filming on Monday. It’s my first time at the front of a show, so from Monday its lock down for me. I’m filming 11 day fortnights, 11 hour days, for 15 weeks.

Wow, that’s going to get tiring..

Yes, I haven’t ever done this big a commitment before. But I’m quite productive when I’m under stress. I’m a big faffer if I’m not being productive. You are told to get up at a certain time, and from the moment you get in the car to being dropped off, you’re sort of moved and told what to do. So there isn’t any opportunity to procrastinate.

How is your vicar outfit?

I have a suit and dog collar. I’ve got the whole thing.

Are you religious?

No, obviously I have a relationship with religion, because I went to a catholic school and studied theology. I can’t call myself religious, but I’m definitely fascinated by it. I’m one of those annoying modern …but I will continue to carry on that exploration.

Do you think more religious people should study theology?

No I don’t, because I think if anything it just makes you more confused. But if you think those questions should be asked, its one way of going about it to answer them.

Happy Valley will start on Tuesday April 29th on BBC One.

 

Words by Elspeth Merry
@elspethmerry

Photography Yakub Merchant
www.behance.net/yakubmerchant

Make Up and Grooming Maria Vittoria Bortolussi
www.mariavittoriabortolussi.com

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