Leading man of the moment James Norton on his new show McMafia and bossing big winter coats
How to stay warm and look cool at the same time?
Allow TV’s most dashing leading man, James Norton, to demonstrate
before james norton was Sidney Chambers, the kind vicar with the auntmelting eyes in ITV detective series Grantchester. Before he was Tommy Lee Royce, the raping, murdering, reptilian psychopath in BBC crime drama Happy Valley. Before he breathed the rarefied air of Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky in the same corporation’s adaptation of War and Peace, and was made a bookie’s favourite for Bond. Before all that, James Norton was a children’s party entertainer.
“It’s true,” says the London-born North Yorkshire-raised actor, while politely devouring a cheeseburger (poker the night before, whisky was involved…) at the back of a low-slung members’ club one drizzly Soho afternoon.
“I ran kids’ parties, cycling around London on Saturday mornings with horrible hangovers, taking 50 children for a birthday party with a rucksack full of Haribo. I remember thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’”
Since those existential mornings on the bike, the 32-year-old has gone from handsome Sunday night upstart to the heir apparent to the crown of British acting’s Next Big Thing, mixing impeccable credentials — Cambridge and Rada — with an ability to master roles as
diverse as clergyman, criminal and Tolstoy royalty. Next though, another big budget series: McMafia.
“It’s about a man who’s tempted into the mafia underworld against his wishes; a classic Corleone-type story,” Norton says of his role as Alex Godman, a Russian-born English-raised financier grappling with the pull of his father’s murky nine-to-five. “You’re never quite sure how much he’s enjoying it and how much he’s seduced by it.”
Based on the 2008 non-fiction book McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld by Misha Glenny, the eight-part co-production by the BBC and America’s AMC (Amazon has bought the streaming rights) is gritty in story and global in scope, with locations in London, Belgrade, Cairo and Tel Aviv. It required Norton to learn Russian phonetically but, as his other roles have proved, the easy option isn’t really his thing.
“The challenge with roles like [in] Happy Valley are the physicality and the mindset,” he says. “Tommy’s a clinical psychopath, so how do you empathise with that? Alex sounds and looks similar to me, so the challenge comes more in understanding his journey and choices, and it’s that moral grey area that I think makes the show so interesting.”
With another potential hit series soon to be released, is it all starting to feel a bit real? Does Norton feel, well, big time?
“This job is so fickle,” he says, apologising for a mouthful of burger. “If this or that role doesn’t come in and you’ve attached your entire sense of self to your job, which I know some actors do, then — please excuse my language — you’re fucked. It could all vanish tomorrow and then what? You’ve got nothing to refer back to.”
“I’m lucky, every time I call home my mum says, ‘Keep your feet on the ground, James.’ I’ll go back to Yorkshire and walk the dog. Don’t get me wrong. I love the glamour and fluff of the job, but I’m not Tom Cruise,” he says. “I like living in Peckham, cycling everywhere and drinking at my local.”
A potential disruption to the very un-Cruise life of Norton occurred during the summer of 2016, when, seemingly out of nowhere, he was linked to that holy grail role of James Bond, rumours he claims are “totally unfounded”.
“It’s lovely to be in that conversation but it’s not true,” he adds. “It’s the only time I’ve had paparazzi chase me down the street and camp outside my flat. Someone even took a photo of me cycling outside my house. The Daily Mail published a story that was literally ‘James Norton Cycles… Somewhere.’ They didn’t even know where I was going! Hilarious!”
As we talk about the year ahead, a television producer on a neighbouring table berates a waitress for a muddled risotto order. Norton pauses, employing all his classical training in order to keep a straight face at the farce erupting around us.
“I’d love to develop my own work and carry on doing plays,” he says. “Plus, who knows what will happen with McMafia? I do know they want to do a third season of Happy Valley, which is something I’d love to be a part of. Hopefully, the right work will have come and it’ll make sense. Or maybe it won’t, and I’ll be back to doing the children’s parties…” Parents of London: keep your fingers crossed.
McMafia starts in January on BBC1
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