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James Norton: "I’m getting more adventurous as I get older"

From a Tolstoyan prince to an underground sex club owner, James Norton has played an eclectic range of roles. A graduate of both a monastic school and Cambridge university, Norton is not your average actor

James Norton

James Norton is deciding what to cook me for dinner: “It depends on the time of year, but I’d probably go down to the fishmonger and do a piece of fresh fish on the barbecue, maybe halibut steak. Or I can slow-cook a shoulder of lamb on my barbie, which is killer.”

It might have something to do with the warmer weather that I’m dying for a barbecue, but I won’t pretend I’m not impressed.

Sadly, this invitation is only speculative – we’re speaking over Zoom, of course – but I’m sure there are heaps of people out there who would gladly spend time with the British actor, and not just because of his cooking.

We go on to discuss the kind of barbecue he uses (a gas grill, for those interested), how seasonal eating is the way forward, and how he’s trying to eat less meat and fish.

“I’m a complete glutton, I love eating and drinking. I have to keep myself in check – I find it very hard to say no to things,” says James Norton. “I’m a bit of a Hugo.”

He’s referring to his recent role in HBO’s The Nevers, which aired in April. A twisted period drama set in Victorian London, it follows a group of people, mostly young women, with supernatural abilities, or “turns”, which appear after an unexplained supernatural event. It was created by Joss Whedon and bears his characteristic hallmarks – lavish, fantasy, blockbuster – although it’s worth noting that Whedon has now left, citing personal reasons, to be replaced by showrunner Philippa Goslett.

Lots of actors struggle and fight for the right to play something completely different and go on that transformative journey

“I play Hugo Swan, who runs this orgy club and blackmails everyone who comes there. And he’s basically sort of this all-consuming pansexual. He just eats drinks, smokes, fucks, just does everything he wants. He doesn’t have any filter, has no boundaries, has an impulse and follows it, which is amazing. I think a lot of our lives, especially in England, we’re used to being a little repressed or dampening down certain instincts.”

Speaking to me from his flat in Peckham, Norton is all well-spoken, self-effacing, quiet British charm. Hugo Swann, meanwhile, is loud and louche, without a hint of the self-consciousness I sense during our interview. So I find Norton’s comparison of himself to Hugo an unexpected one. He certainly doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who needs to keep himself “in check”.

But apparently I’m wrong. “I’ve had a weirdly indulgent double lockdown and then this week I decided impulsively to take a month off drinking. It’s the worst timing. The world has just started up again, but I’m gearing up for this job. The character is someone who doesn’t drink, so I thought I probably should.”

Norton stresses that he doesn’t drink heavily anyway, but that he occasionally likes a glass of wine to relax. I’m not sure about Norton’s confession that he’s like Hugo Swann. He might be a glutton, but he strikes me as considered and mild-mannered. A modern-day gentleman, if you will.

James Norton for Square Mile magazine

I’m not the only one to get this impression. With a flop of hair and classic good looks, Norton’s initial notoriety came as a period drama prince, with roles in War & Peace and Little Women. But look a little closer and you’ll quickly see Norton’s CV is well-seasoned with high-profile, varied roles that suggest an actor who refuses to be typecast and is keen to try things outside his comfort zone.

He credits one role in particular for helping him break free of his posh boy image: that of Tommy Lee Royce, the villain in hit crime drama Happy Valley, which earned him a Bafta nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 2015. A third season is in the works, and Norton is on board.

“I think lots of actors struggle and fight for the right to play something completely different and go on that transformative journey. That role gave me a lot of confidence. I did a lot of work, I took a big swing at it, it paid off and people responded well to it. And so I thought, wow, actually, I can go there and I can be brave and confident. Since then producers have entrusted me with other roles which have required that same sort of transformative journey.”

Norton went on to get his first starring role in Grantchester alongside Robson Green. (“I’ve never laughed as much as I have on that job. I’d go home with aching stomach muscles.”)Alongside this year’s The Nevers, his other recent project is 2020’s Nowhere Special, which sees him play a Northern Irish window cleaner with a terminal illness, trying to build a future for his four-year-old son. Yes, it’s as heart-wrenching as it sounds. And a far cry from the breeches and boots of War & Peace.

And for the past few years, there have also been rumours he might take the hallowed ‘next Bond’ spot (although given Daniel Craig’s final outing at the iconic spy is still yet to air, these speculations have died down). So yes, that big swing has paid off.

Refusing to give up is something that Norton has had to build into his DNA, and, I suspect, might have something to do with his diagnosis with type 1 diabetes when he was just 22 years old.

“I’ve been very, very stubborn in not letting it limit me. My consultant’s mantra was, ‘You control the diabetes, it doesn’t control you’. And I’ve definitely lived by that. When someone says something’s probably not going to happen because you’re diabetic, I then make it my mission to say actually ‘Fuck that, I am going to do it despite being diabetic.’

“I’ve strived to make sure that it hasn’t limited me, although I think it’s probably made me more conscious of my own health and that wasn’t the worst thing in my mid-20s. I probably had a little moment where I went, ‘Actually, you know, you are fallible and mortal and everything else.’”

This is where I first see a hint of the steely determination underpinning Norton’s personality. Throughout the interview, he’s been, well, lovely – considerate, inoffensive, chatty. But I realise that you don’t follow the path that he has without some grit. He could have spent the rest of his career riding off his period drama pieces, but he steadfastly refused – with the result that it’s quite hard to pigeon-hole him, both professionally and personally.

James Norton for Square Mile magazine

Norton came into his acting career in his mid-20s, which he says, “suited me. Some people have managed to maintain sanity and the real perspective, but I don’t think I would have fared that well, had I gone in at 18. I was still working a lot out.”

Instead, Norton went from school to studying theology at Cambridge to study Hinduism and Buddhism – “not your conventional route into acting”.

“I really found the theology and faith and the idea of belief in all of the various interdisciplinary parts of theology – the music and the art and the metaphysical – really interesting at school, so I wanted to carry on that particular study. I went to monastic school, so theology was very much top of the list of subjects.

"But I acted all the time throughout school. All my holidays were spent at youth theatres, but it was always the kind of hobby which I was a little bit afraid to take on as a whole career.”

Lily James and I were just dancing in the middle of the night in the room where the czars would have had their ball

Norton still credits his studies for helping him get to where he is now. “In theology, you meet some incredibly eccentric people – half the people on my degree were studying from a point of interest, and most of them were quite eccentric, but then there were people who were going into their respective faiths, training to be leaders in their church or institutions. It does take a lot of empathy to be open to quite extreme beliefs. And that’s what acting is about – understanding other people.”

It’s proved even more useful not that Norton has moved into producing. His current project, Freegard, just started filming. Norton plays the lead, but it’s also his first time as producer. He’s been building the script with one other producer for three years, based on a true story about Robert Freegard a con man in the 1990s and noughties who convinced countless victims he was an undercover MI5 agent uncovering IRA cells in England in order to extort and kidnap them. The film tracks the master manipulator’s rise and fall.

“It’s one of the stories we can’t quite leave behind. No one has ever since been put away before or since for kidnapping by fraud. How the hell did he do it?” he says with genuine amazement. But for his first production, even though it’s a “small, small outfit”, it’s pulling in some heavyweights – Gemma Arterton plays his co-star, the lawyer who eventually orchestrates Freegard’s take down. He refers to the project several times throughout our chat, so it’s clear he’s excited.

James Norton for Square Mile magazine

As a producer, he’s had to consider entirely different things. We discuss sustainability within the film industry, and how Covid has shown film producers how they can streamline the productions without hampering their quality, but he admits the industry should be making changes.

Sustainability is clearly something that’s on his mind, whether it’s eating seasonally, recommending vegan cafés (“The Odds Café in Peckham is a really good vegan place with a great little shop, really good wine and they do fantastic food”), or balancing his travel for work with holidays in the UK.

But when he can, Norton plans to travel to America, where his partner, actress Imogen Poots, is on a long job.

“There’s a lot of transatlantic flying, which isn’t great, of course. So you have to be very mindful of that right now, and try to limit it as much as possible. And we’re talking about maybe getting a boat back one day, although I’m not sure if that’s environmentally savvy.”

I’m getting more adventurous as I get older. I’m doing it the wrong way around

He comes across almost apologetic for the luxuries his hard work has afforded him, referencing his privilege and luck to be able to shop at butchers and fishmongers, to be able to travel and do things other people can’t.

“War & Peace, you know, going to these things, sometimes they let you behind the red tape. When all the tourists went home, we shot this amazing scene at Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace. Lily James and I were just dancing in the middle of the night in the room where the czars would have had their balls. That kind of travel is unheard of.”

But instead, for now, you’ll find Norton hiking. “I love it. Last week I went wild camping in the Lakes. We went in my Audi Q5 and I had three bikes on the top of the car and tents in the back. We were a little self-contained unit. All we needed was a canoe and we would have survived the zombie apocalypse. I’m getting more adventurous as I get older. I’m doing it the wrong way around. I’m going to find myself up K2 in my 70s.”

You may have noticed, but Norton doesn’t take himself too seriously, describing himself as an “uncool dad with floppy hair” when talking about his recent work with a charity called The Outrunners, which links young people in Hackney with career mentors via a weekly running club.

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“We went out for an outdoor socially distanced meal. And I was ordering the kids some food at a place in Hackney where there’s lots of different restaurants and one of them was called Da Fish Ting. And I kept saying, ‘Right, anyone want a fish ting?’. And they found it absolutely hilarious that this floppy-haired idiot kept saying ‘ting’. I felt so old. It’s just the name of the restaurant, for fuck’s sake,” he says laughingly.

While Norton didn’t run with the charity, he met with a group of around ten kids every week via Zoom to watch movies and dissect them. “I was anxious, doing all my homework, lesson plans and that kind of stuff.”

At the end of the project, he encouraged some of the children in his group to apply to drama school. “Some of the older ones, I just found out that two of them got into the Brit school and one of them got into East 15 drama school, which is insane, it’s really competitive.”

Norton is clearly proud of his mentees, but self-deprecating about his input. “It was all them, I just watched a few movies with them.” He’s staying in touch with them and hopes to invite them to one of his sets in the future. Again, the eternal nice guy.

While Norton clearly loves his job, describing it as “just playing”, I get the sense that he’s almost uncomfortable with the fame that comes with it: “I think the public profile can be wonderful and powerful if used the right way, but it also can be a hindrance because sometimes people mollycoddle you.

“A lot of actors do amazing work for big charities. And the great thing about The Outrunners is that it’s not big at all. It’s tiny. It’s growing, which is great, but it cuts out all of the middlemen and rather than turning up at big gala dinners, and auctioning off a dinner that you might attend or something, actually it was just hanging out with a group of really excited, really passionate young people.”

Elsewhere, Norton is also active with diabetes charities, determined to show younger people afflicted by the condition that it shouldn’t stop them from doing anything.

From his philanthropic work to his love of hiking, Norton comes across as down to earth, humble and hands on; miles away from any kind of self-absorbed celebrity vacuum. He doesn’t talk about his craft, he talks about his hard work – and both his efforts and his approach are clearly paying off. And if he works as hard at his cooking as he does at his acting, I’m even more keen to go for dinner.

Nowhere Special will release in cinemas in July

Norton is an Audi ambassador. audi.co.uk

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