On a balcony, high above a Cannes preoccupied with its film festival, James Norton is raising his eyebrows.
‘Wow,’ the actor smiles. ‘What a question.’
What a question indeed. And one that, in all honesty, had got away from me. We had been talking Flatliners, the campy horror remake in which Norton starred last year as a medical student obsessed with death, when, out of my mouth — and out of the blue — came the question: ‘Do you believe in the afterlife?’
Too profound? Perhaps, judging by the actor’s eyebrows. But not completely unfounded. You see, Norton has impressive form when it comes to religion.
In 2014, he slipped on the dog collar of Reverend Sidney Chambers, the sleuthing star of ITV’s murder mystery drama Grantchester. And before he became an actor, Norton studied religion; taught by Benedictine monks at a Catholic school in Yorkshire, and graduating from Cambridge with a First Class degree in Theology.
Today, however, the actor has left his clerical robes at home, instead joining me atop the Hotel Martinez in Cannes, dressed in a light summer suit and lost for words.
‘I miss asking the big questions,’ Norton finally says, wistfully. ‘It’s true, I do. I feel I was much brighter and much more in control back when I was studying. I read essays that I wrote when I was 20 — on metaphysics and Dante and Hinduism and Buddhism — and I don’t have a clue what I was saying.’
But it’s not all bad, he adds, stretching back in the sun. Despite no longer writing essays, or tussling with theological problems day-in, day-out, Norton still feels he is learning.
‘You don’t immerse yourself so intensely and so constantly as you would a degree,’ he explains, taking the first sip of a coffee he seems to have conjured out of nowhere, ‘but you’re also allowed to spend three months in one world, then move to another. It’s like taking mini little crash courses in things you’d have never learned about otherwise.’
"I miss asking the big questions..."
And Norton has enrolled on some truly compelling crash courses. From his brief stint as a Formula One racer in Ron Howard’s Rush, to a longer stretch as a famed Russian prince in War and Peace, each of Norton’s roles has benefited from his dedication to learning. And none more so than those linked to his previous academic interests of theology and morality.
From his embodiment of the Church in Grantchester, to Happy Valley, a crime drama in which he played – to critical acclaim and the tune of a BAFTA nomination – the murderous psychopath Tommy Lee Royce, the actor’s career so far has been spent, like his time in academia, exploring the relationship between good and evil.
‘2014, when Grantchester and Happy Valley both first aired, was a great year for me,’ confesses Norton. ‘Because, as an actor, all you want to do is to transform. You don’t want to only play versions of yourself, because then it gets boring, you stop learning.
‘That is,’ he adds, ‘unless you’re an actor who is just doing it for the fast cars and clothes. In which case, feel free to play one character your whole life.’
That may sound a little sanctimonious, holier-than-thou even, but Norton reveals that most of the time this mentality puts him on the back foot, and that producers actually prefer actors who are willing to be typecast.
‘They’d rather the character walked through the door at the audition,’ he explains, ‘fully-formed so nobody has to do any work. But 2014 was the moment in my career that I was allowed to show producers and potential employers that I love going on that transformative journey.’
It was an odd year, however, Norton continues. Happy Valley aired while he was filming Grantchester, and the cast and crew were shocked to see the man they knew as evil taking a literal leap of faith into the role of a reverend. ‘They saw me as a psychopath. I’m sure they were giving me less food at catering,’ laughs Norton. ‘It was like two worlds colliding.
‘But that’s where being an actor offers more than being an academic. Rather than just studying and learning about the facts and understanding things from a place of empirical fact, you get to also approach it from an emotional, empathetic angle. You learn to love your characters, even the evil ones.
‘Acting is about giving people the benefit of the doubt – in a really extreme way.’
Norton has an air about him unlike that of any actor I’ve ever met. The 32-year-old lacks the devil-may-care attitude of Hollywood A-listers or histrionic stage thesps. Instead, he seems at once cool and considered, comfortable in his own skin — the legacy of a lifetime of philosophical deliberation, perhaps or simply the unconditional support of a close-knit family. “They ground me”, he remarks of his parents.
Of course, looking like James Norton can’t hurt. With a chiselled face that set Twitter ablaze earlier this year when he starred in McMafia, the actor surely owes his relatively easy path to stardom, in part, to his suave looks. In fact, when the producers of the BBC organised crime drama managed to get Norton into a tuxedo — under four minutes into the first episode, no less — his odds were slashed on becoming the next actor to play a particular British Secret Service agent. But we’ll get to that.
‘Unlike some of my other roles,’ Norton says of McMafia, ‘that time I slid along the moral spectrum. And that’s the most interesting for me. That’s real. Because we’re all human. We’re all flawed and we slip and we slide. There are days when we feel incredibly virtuous, when we do a good deed, or pay some money to a charity.
"We’re all human. We’re all flawed and we slip and we slide..."
‘But then there are bad days, when we’re a prick to everyone we know and exploit others for our own gain. I don’t think anyone sets out — get ready for some real GCSE theology — I don’t think anyone sets out to be evil. I don’t think we’re evil people. I think normal people act in evil ways because they’re so damaged.’
Norton himself, blessed with a background that allows him to analyse his own moral actions, has thought about where he sits on his ‘moral spectrum’ many times.
‘I think I’m pretty human,’ he grins, scooting his chair back into the shade. ‘I mean, I think I’m like everyone. I have my moments when I fuck up royally, and people who know me the most know that I have stuff that I’m constantly trying to contend with.
‘But, the older I get, I’m definitely getting better at recognising those flaws, and trying to iron out those knots. Some are inevitably more stubborn than others, and taking longer to untie, but I think I’m very lucky to have grown up with parents who instilled such a great value system in me. I’m proud of my values.’
Norton’s parents aren’t actors, and were never in the industry. Rather, the actor describes them simply as ‘good, normal people’ who still live up in his childhood home of Yorkshire. And, even though they love the madness of the world their son now finds himself in, they continue to be ‘a brilliant leveller’.
It’s a leveller Norton needs, he adds. After a slew of costume dramas, from War and Peace to Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Death Comes to Pemberley, it was only a matter of time before he was swept up into the worldwide film industry. Flatliners was his first foray into Hollywood, and next year he will star in Gareth Jones, a thriller documenting the story of a Welsh investigative journalist who broke the story of an horrific Ukrainian famine to the Western world.
‘I was in Warsaw filming yesterday, or maybe the day before?’ the actor muses, this time furrowing his brow. ‘This is the trouble, I’ve been travelling so much in the last three months. I’ve only been home for three or four nights — on separate occasions.’
Norton’s schedule is, indeed, manic. Even this stopover in Cannes is fleeting — to rub shoulders with stars such as Christoph Waltz and Mads Mikkelsen at a black tie party later this evening. But the actor is determined to always appreciate the excitement.
’And I think the day when that ceases to be the case for me will be a sad day,’ he says. ‘I tell myself that the feeling you get when you walk into a hotel room, or take off on a plane — I never want to lose that. I always try to remind myself of the kid I was before I became the man when all of this happened, how he would have reacted.
‘But, inevitably, when you travel a lot in a short space of time, you get tired, you get jaded, and just want to be home.’
Home, for Norton, is in Peckham, South London. But, on the rare occasion he does get home, the actor tells me, he only has enough time to dip in, water his plants and wash his clothes before he is packing again.
‘Even if I’m only there for under 12 hours, I always completely unpack, and put the suitcase in the cupboard – only to pull it out ten hours later, just to feel as if I’ve been home.’
Norton uses his Instagram account to chronicle his travels (@jginorton, if you were wondering). From Portugal to St Petersburg, the actor’s hectic shooting schedule is easily read from his posts. For a man who was cast in an episode of the brilliantly twisted Black Mirror back in 2016, his indifference to social media is surprising.
‘I guess it’s a double-edged sword,’ Norton says, sitting forward as the buzz of businessmen and film funders grows around us. ‘A blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s great to have a connection with the people who make this’ — he gestures around — ‘possible. And I’m so grateful to those people. We wouldn’t be telling stories if there weren’t people who wanted to listen to them.
"We wouldn’t be telling stories if there weren’t people who wanted to listen to them..."
‘So, in that sense, social media is a blessing. But I try to tread the line very carefully. Because the other side of that, especially as an actor, is that you have to try to maintain a level of mystique. If, as an actor, you start to show everybody who you are, then that breaks the spell.
‘They’d see right through me,’ he laughs. ‘They’d see that I’m not an actor. I’m just various versions of a slightly schizophrenic freak.’
Norton claims only to have ‘vague ideas’ about roles he’d like to tackle in the future. Currently, the actor reveals, he is working towards starting a production company, with the ultimate goal of directing.
‘I’ve started to see stories everywhere,’ Norton says enthusiastically. ‘You read an article or skim a book and you see possibilities. But what type of role do I want to play next? It’s hard to say, because human beings are so hard to categorise. They’re so ineffable, aren’t they? I’d find it hard to say, ‘next I want to play a psychopath’. Instead, these weird, mismatched things arrive – a bit of everything, and they’re brilliant.’
He may not have a clear idea of where to go next, but villainy would seem an obvious choice. Despite making a convincing cleric, his most notable and critically-acclaimed roles, from McMafia’s Alex Godman to the killer who brought grief to Happy Valley, are bad. And so the question must be asked: Would Norton ever consider playing the biggest of bads, a Bond villain?
‘So clever!’ laughs Norton, throwing his head back. ‘Such an amazing little oblique segue into the Bond. That’s the cleverest Bond question I’ve ever had. Most people are much less well-worded.
‘You know? I would love to play a Bond villain.
‘Selfishly I love Daniel Craig,’ says the actor tipped to play 007 next, ‘and I’d love him to do a couple more films. He’s brought a whole other angle and a humanity to the character – and long may that continue, personally.
‘But people love to speculate,’ says the actor, continuing carefully. ‘Bond’s such an icon, it’s such an iconic role and he means so much to so many people who hold that franchise dear to their hearts. So there’s an inevitable amount of speculation and guessing and betting. But that’s as much as it is — speculation. Very flattering, very humbling speculation.’
As a young child, Norton tells me on a tangent, he used to amuse himself by putting on plays, forcing his childhood friends indoors on sunny days to perform in agonising, excruciating skits — the actor’s words, not mine.
‘And I often think about what that little 7-year-old boy up in Yorkshire would think of the speculation,’ he smiles, ‘being even momentarily mentioned with the likes of Tom Hardy. It’s just nuts. Absurd. Nonsense. Lovely, lovely nonsense. But say you want to be Bond once and that becomes a headline. I don’t even know if I’d want to do it.’
Astons aside, becoming Bond would elevate Norton to the status of worldwide star and man in-demand — surely a tempting prospect?
‘Would I strive for the lifestyle side of it? Not really. I don’t want to sound overly worthy, because obviously everybody loves the glitz and the glamour, and I’m not one of those actors who says ‘I’m not going to go to the party or wear the beautiful clothes because I’m an actor.
‘Where’s the fun in being so principled that you can’t allow yourself to enjoy it? It’s obviously always the acting that comes first – and that’s the way I think it should be, because I first and foremost do this job to learn and expand my horizons.’
"Where’s the fun in being so principled that you can’t allow yourself to enjoy it?"
It’s commendable that, even with Bond presented on a silver platter — the actor’s odds are the shortest in the world as we go to print, with him 11/4 odds-on favourite to take the role — the academic in Norton is still shining as bright as the Riviera sun.
‘All people are inherently programmed to ask questions about our place in the world,’ he muses, ‘and what we’re meant to do here. So I guess I’m still asking.
‘And, even though my journey towards understanding my bizarre place here started through traditional, institutionalised religion and studying theology, and even though I’m not practising anything anymore, these days acting allows me to get into those different headspaces.’
The actor pauses, raising his eyebrows once again.
‘I skirted the afterlife question, didn’t I?’ he grins.
‘If there is one, I hope it’s somewhere wonderful. Like a sunny balcony, in Cannes…’
This article was taken from the July/August issue of Gentleman’s Journal. Subscribe to the magazine here…