Meet Britain’s latest breakout star – James Ian Norton – a 30-year-old actor who is bright, extremely talented, hugely polite, able to laugh at himself and much more!
When you’re as naturally good-looking as James, you get used to strangers staring at you. When members of your family do it, it can be upsetting – rude, even.
“I was sitting opposite my great-aunt Grania at a family lunch the other day and she was staring at me, in a quizzical way. Then she said: ‘Honestly, James, I just can’t understand why you look so good on the telly. In real life, you’re just so bland and normal-looking…’”
In person, Norton is tall, blond and every bit as handsome as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in the BBC adaptation of War & Peace, where he revealed he was specifically directed to look suitably brooding for this role: “I was told ‘Stop smiling’ over and over again,” says James. “He is a bit brooding, there is so much stuff going on in Andrei. There are these long passages where Andrei is in a carriage, looking at an oak tree, pages and pages of conflict and very existential, deep thought.” He revealed that, during production, he received reactions of horror and shock from Russians that he was attempting to take on one of their great literary characters.
“They were really excited we were there, but I did have one encounter with a Russian… he asked how old I was, I said 30, he said good age, no man under 40 has ever taken him on, because the circles of contemplation are so complex.”… which is all very interesting, I’m sure, but, for many of James’ fast growing numbers of fans, it’s all about the brooding looks and the white breeches.
Norton says he is unconcerned about being “objectified”, though: “Well, it’s been so long, hasn’t it, that women have found themselves in that position? And so now, it feels right that it is happening the other way round.
“From a personal point of view, when people go on about the way that you look or how attractive you are what they’re seeing isn’t really you. It’s the character.”
“Prince Andrei, for example, was set up to be a romantic hero, but that’s not who I am. If people saw me through a keyhole, as my life really is, they’d go: ‘Oh!’ The risk is that you start to read this stuff about yourself and engage with it and believe it. Then, I think, you’re really in trouble.”
As to those steamy romantic scenes with co-star Lily James, he revealed how she sparked their on-screen chemistry: “In between takes Lily loves listening to Whitney Houston so when you have these romantic moments she comes over and goes, ‘James, listen to Whitney. It changes the mood a little bit.”
Asked about his decision to start an acting career he said: “It takes a lot of courage, when everyone is asking you what you want to do, if you say that you want to be a musician or an actor, as people can be condescending and say, ‘Oh, that’s so sweet. Good luck with that.’ So for a long time, I thought I’d be a lawyer, even though I harboured this dream to act.”
Born in London but raised in rural North Yorkshire, he’s the son of two teachers, Hugh and Lavinia, with a sister who does “a proper job” as a doctor. “Because none of them is anything to do with the industry, they’ve always been slightly bemused by the fact that I wanted to act ever since I played Joseph in the nativity play at the age of four.”
“After that, I’m sure I was an annoying, precocious little kid who just wanted to dress up and get all the attention. I’d write all these weird little plays and force all my friends to act in them, when they probably just wanted to play football. But, amazingly, everyone has always been incredibly supportive”, shares Norton.
His family takes equal pleasure in all of the roles, he’d played, he says, even Tommy Lee Royce – the sociopath he plays in Sally Wainwright’s Bafta-winning drama, Happy Valley. A character so malignant that during the first series, Norton’s own mother found herself on her feet, screaming at the telly, before remembering that it was her own son.
In the new series, Royce is in prison awaiting trial for rape and abduction. He’s shaven-headed, tattooed, physically pumped up, with a malevolent energy that seems to make the very bars at his window crackle. Given Norton’s posh credentials -a former public school boy who went to Rada via Cambridge, it’s a wonder, he says, that he was ever cast in the role of this consummate, working class thug.
“Mostly producers worry about casting against type,” he says. “They want the character to walk through the door because that makes everyone’s life easier. But, as actors, that’s frustrating because it’s our job to transform. So it’s pretty wonderful that they were willing to take a risk with me and, hopefully, I’ve shown that the way you look or sound, or the class that you’re from, doesn’t limit you to a certain kind of role.”
On his style he shared: “My style is quite classic. I wear a lot of jumpers and brogues, and I love a good suit. I’m really into vintage, too; for a long time, I had a market stall where I sold men’s vintage clothing”
Norton feels things deeply – just one in a package of qualities that would make him attractive to the modern woman, although right now, he is single, living in Peckham, south London, with a male flatmate who’s a primary school teacher.
He says, though, in time he’s looking forward marriage and fatherhood: ”I definitely want that, because my sister and I were raised in a really close family and my parents are still very much in love and living in Yorkshire. That’s the kind of end game that I would love, too.”
Photos: REX, BBC1