James Norton treads the boards at our London Houses
Above: jumpsuit, Hermès; sunglasses, Oliver Peoples; chain, Norton’s own
The British actor is currently on stage in the capital for the hit adaptation of ‘A Little Life’, so we took him for a post-show Picante crawl in Theatreland
By Hanna Flint Photography by Edd Horder Styling by Rose Forde Grooming by Petra Sellge Creative production by Juliette Clarke James Norton was photographed at Soho House 40 Greek Street and Cafe Boheme in London
Sitting still for a long time is not something that comes easily to James Norton. The chipper British actor tells me as much at Shoreditch House on a late Tuesday afternoon in spring. I’ve secured us a private table for two as you walk into the main bar on the fifth floor. It’s a good spot for people-watching; the buzz of members taking meetings, catching up and enjoying an end-of-day glass or two of Picpoul vibrates around us. Norton, however, has sworn off alcohol since January, so we’re sipping on fresh lemon and ginger tea as he opens up about his deep-seated desire for exploration. ‘I love to travel,’ he says. ‘I love jobs that get me around the world. I’ve had a nomadic thing forever.’
We’re about 45 minutes into our chat, so I’m impressed he hasn’t already skedaddled. Fortunately, he not only arrived 10 minutes early, but he sticks around for an extra half an hour so we can talk in candid, sometimes earnest, detail about the career he’s steadily built over the last 15 years. It’s been a riveting journey.
Above, from left: coat, Connolly; jumpsuit and shoes, both Hermès. Jacket, Zegna; shirt, Studio Nicholson; watch, as before
‘I don’t feel like I was born into some period drama, but producers like to categorise people because it makes their life easy’
On the small screen, Norton’s roles have ranged from a delightful sleuthing vicar in ITV’s Grantchester and a mournful prince in the BBC’s adaptation of War & Peace to a British-raised son of a Russian mafia boss in McMafia. And, of course, there’s his chilling turn as the psychopathic killer Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley, the BBC’s celebrated crime series, which returned for a third and final season this year to huge acclaim and record viewing figures.
In film, he’s appeared in glossy Hollywood fares including Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and the 2017 Flatliners remake. He also recently charmed in the intimate indie drama Nowhere Special. All the while, Norton’s maintained a love affair with theatre, which began after leaving the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before graduating to star in the original 2010 production of Posh at the Royal Court Theatre. He last trod the boards in 2018, garnering rave reviews for his performance in Belleville at the Donmar Warehouse opposite British actor Imogen Poots. Despite playing a newlywed American couple in trouble, they have been happily together ever since.
So far, Norton has plotted significant points on his professional and personal map. But to be able to go to so many places – physically, emotionally and creatively – building a home has become a vital anchor. ‘Even if I’m never there, to know that it’s there is a big stabiliser for me,’ he explains, pointing to his childhood experience at boarding school. ‘You have a very specific relationship with home and space. You go away from your home, and the stability of your family, to spaces which are quite hectic. For me now, when I go away on a job, I find myself doing coping mechanisms that I used to do when I was a teenager.’
Suit and shirt, both Giorgio Armani; chain, as before
Such as? ‘Telling a room that I’ll be back,’ he offers, slightly embarrassed, before deciding not to divulge any further ‘weird idiosyncrasies’, as he puts it. Luckily, Poots has no qualms with his quirks or nesting habits. ‘She lives more in a cerebral space,’ Norton smiles. ‘She’s very happy with a book and I’m more in the physical space. I’m probably overly officious when tidying up. It’s why we work so well together, because we come at life from slightly different spaces. As a result, I’m certainly house proud.’
As the floor lamp next to our table dims for the evening, the Soho House member says he’s enjoying the perks of having access to the Soho Home collection. ‘There is an amazing range of furniture – it’s f***ing great!’ The couple were in the throes of renovating their Peckham property, but that has been put on hold for now as he embarks on his greatest acting challenge yet in the play adaptation of A Little Life.
When we meet, Norton is five weeks into rehearsals for Ivo van Hove’s latest stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s renowned bestselling novel. The actor takes the lead as troubled lawyer Jude St. Francis, and to say his protagonist is dealing with trauma would be a gross understatement. Life has, and continues to come at Jude hard, pounding him with physical, psychological and emotional abuse as he navigates work, relationships and personal demons alongside his college friends in New York. To prepare for the role, van Hove told Norton everything he needed was in Yanagihara’s 814-page novel, which was a small relief. ‘The pressure isn’t so much about finding the character, writing the biography, going into the backstory and knowing what my bedroom smelled like or what my favourite colours are, all that sh*t,’ he says. ‘The challenge is trying as much as I can to honour the character people have already fallen in love with.’
Norton took his time reading and digesting the story after being cast in October 2022. It was a ‘profound experience’ and he believes the story could only be successfully adapted for the stage. ‘It’s so big and sprawling, and there are elements of abuse that I don’t think can be adapted with a child actor playing it,’ he explains. ‘The medium of theatre allows us a sort of abstraction. We have a string quartet playing the whole way through. It’s very non-linear – it’s this wonderful, choreographed milieu with only specific sections [of the book] chosen. It’s 50 years of these people’s lives and you want to go on that journey.’
Above, from left: shirt, trousers, boots and tie, all Paul Smith; watch, as before. Jumpsuit and shoes, both Hermès; sunglasses, Oliver Peoples
Having a safe space to go home to has never been more essential. For three hours and 40 minutes each night, over its nearly four-month run at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, he will have to shoulder the heavy burden of what that tormenting performance will require. He’s anxious.
‘I’m going through it,’ the actor admits. ‘I have to put an insane amount in every night; there’s sexual violence, there are beatings, there’s self-harm. I don’t know what the cost is going to be.’ Yet Norton has long strived to draw a firm line between fiction and reality. ‘There’s an expectation that I’m going to go to hell and back in order to give this book its due justice,’ he says. ‘I will be using all the tools available to me to get as close to it as I possibly can, but I’m going to come offstage, grab a beer and I’m going to hug my
friends and be James.’
Strange dreams are currently a byproduct of this theatrical endeavour – though it’s nothing new. While shooting Happy Valley, Norton’s sleep went to unusual places due to spending each day in the mindset of a murderous manipulator. Now, as he gets to grips with the play alongside castmates Luke Thompson (Bridgerton), Omari Douglas (It’s A Sin) and Zach Wyatt (The Witcher: Blood Origin), Jude is bleeding into his subconscious. But that’s the only way he will allow his characters to come home with him – especially when they are so dark and tortured. It’s why he’s not one for method acting. ‘I’m not from that school,’ he says. ‘I do not begrudge anyone if they want to do that. There’s a line; this is as much as I can give and if I give more than that, then it starts to really hamper my own life and my relationships suffer.’ The antisocial element is also rather unappealing: ‘One of the best parts of a stage rehearsal process or film set is hanging out. The idea of spending every coffee break and every lunch on my own in character? F**k that!’
Managing his food intake is a major part of Norton’s creative process. He has Type 1 diabetes, which can complicate things when doing stage work especially, but he and the production team have a plan: sugar tablets and his insulin pens hidden onstage, and his blood sugar levels monitored by a Bluetooth device attached to his body that someone can track from his phone offstage. ‘We’re working in a way where we can have a cue light just in my eyeline, so if it goes red, it means one thing. If it goes green, it means another,’ he says. ‘If I need to eat some sugar or to inject, I’ll just surreptitiously do it.’
Coat, Valentino; shirt and trousers, both SS Dayley; necktie, Margaret Howell; sunglasses, Oliver Peoples
The subject reminds me of the diabetic drug Ozempic, which Hollywood types are using to stay slim. He whips out his phone and scrolls to a message from a friend with a link to
a viral The Cut article on the topic. He’s not had time to read it yet, so I give him the bullet points about the massive expense to secure versions of the drug to stave off hunger, the high demand from non-diabetics and the problems this causes for those who actually need it. A perplexed look washes over his face. ‘I’d never heard of it and I don’t want to suppress my appetite,’ he says. ‘I f***ing love eating and having a drink! Luckily my diabetes is well-controlled and totally manageable.’
His health condition has not prevented him freedom to work, but in the past he did worry that being typecast as a ‘privately educated, floppy-haired period drama guy’ might limit his opportunities. ‘I don’t feel like I was born into some period drama, but producers like to categorise people because it makes their life easy,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to be that. If people think I’m that, then fine, but I’ll do everything I can to fight against it because it’s not as interesting as all the other roles out there.’
To be fair, he does have a great head of hair. And he was privately educated. Born in Lambeth, London, Norton’s teacher parents moved him and his sister to Malton in the Ryedale district of North Yorkshire, where he attended the fee-paying Ampleforth College with some financial support from his grandparents. ‘I feel very lucky,’ he says. ‘My mum and dad worked hard and my grandparents worked hard, so I owe them a lot. But I’m aware that a lot of people work hard and can’t afford private school.’
Peppered throughout our conversation is this self-conscious acknowledgement of his privilege. ‘It might appear to some people that I’m apologising for my past, but I’d much rather run that risk than feeling like I was entitled,’ he says. ‘I guess it’s like, “Why me? Why do I deserve this?” I don’t deserve it. I think what I do is far less than most people.
I got lucky. People ask me for advice for young actors and that question is hard, because I didn’t do anything different from thousands of other actors who work hard. I got some great gigs early on, the right people saw me in the right role and that bred more work.’
‘[Diversity] is not about forcing tokenism on people. It’s about acknowledging that a role will be massively improved by someone who’s lived that experience’
Coat, Connolly; shirt, Studio Nicholson, necktie, Margaret Howell; trousers, SS Dayley; shoes, Grenson; sunglasses, Persol
He also finds the negative framing of diversity as the industry ‘untangles ourselves from old attitudes and structures’ reductive. ‘I do believe that all industries are massively benefited by listening and educating ourselves,’ Norton says. ‘Does every single role need to be played by someone who has lived that experience? No. But there are roles which do require [that]. It’s not about forcing tokenism on people. It’s about acknowledging that a role will be massively improved by someone who has lived that experience.’
Time, place and unconscious bias are important things to consider when looking at certain actors’ success stories, but there’s no denying that talent is a major factor in Norton’s case. He’s a transformative performer who brings emotional intelligence and physical depth to his roles. During the season three finale of Happy Valley, I caught myself welling up as I watched his ill-fated monster deliver his final few words opposite Sarah Lancashire’s formidable police sergeant Catherine Cawood. He’s pleased to hear it. Tommy is a role he cherishes and the series represents a community he fondly remembers. ‘There’s a temperament and that world of endless cups of tea around kitchen tables was familiar to me – I grew up in that,’ he says. ‘Although some people did get upset, saying I wasn’t a Yorkshireman, and reviewers said my accent was bad. I was like, “F**k off!” – I came from Yorkshire. I literally had the accent until I was about 13!’
Now 37 years old, the actor excitedly credits himself as a producer through Rabbit Track Pictures, which he cofounded with Kitty Kaletsky. Their first feature Rogue Agent, with Norton in the eponymous role, launched to acclaim on Netflix in 2022, but it’s not ‘one of those vanity projects built around an actor’. Actually, he tells me, 70% of their current projects in development won’t feature him.
Norton’s not done with acting, of course. But after a growing awareness of the small part actors play in the grand scheme of filmmaking, he’s plotted a new path to bring him closer to the world he loves. ‘I would arrive on a film set and so much of the creative process was all pretty much done, and I just had to facilitate someone else’s creative dream,’ he says. ‘This is definitely a much bigger contribution. I’ve learned a new skill set as a producer and, in development, script editing through Kitty and just being thrown in the deep end. Three years in, I love it.’