Finding my voice – Glass interviews British actor James Norton


James Norton is a part of the new wave of British actors that’s slowly but surely knocking at the door of the acting world. From 2009, his career seems to have hit the ground running; with work including a small role in the Hollywood garnished Rush directed by Ron Howard. Accompanying this was a leading role in the movie Belle, starring alongside another British up- -and comer in Tom Felton. James will be gracing our screens once again this Christmas for the BBC produced Death Comes To Pemberley, the sequel to Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice.

From looking at your recent ventures, Dr Who, Rush and Belle have been quite high profile lines of work. How have the experiences differed from your earlier works?
I don’t think they differ from earlier works acting wise, but experience wise I’d say so for sure. The only thing is, the moment you start trying to differentiate your current job from the other work you’ve done, it creates an unnecessary pressure on yourself.

So I pretend it’s like every other job, for instance Dr Who, which at the time I hadn’t watched much of, but I only realised afterwards how big of a deal the show is culturally and how well of an established drama it is.

So the scale of the roles never fazes you at all?
I wouldn’t say that, but when at drama school, I did mostly theatre before going into TV. That transition makes you see how the worlds are ultimately one and the same. As I said before, if you think of the scale, it could be counter productive.

It has been lovely to work with some of the people I’ve worked with, there’s a daunting aspect, I mean on [Death Comes To] Pemberley you’re sitting across from actors like Philip Martin Brown or on Belle, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, there’s a daunting aspect within that, but I take it as a positive. To have that calibre of actor around is a good thing, it’ll drive you on to perform.

James Norton. Photograph: Justin van VlietJames Norton. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

You made it onto the 2013 Screen Daily UK Stars of tomorrow list. How does it feel to have that kind of recognition?
It’s a great thing; it’s a well-respected magazine. The admirable thing about those lists is it takes months compiling them, I know it’s hard work, so it’s an honour to be on it.

Do you think it helps your career prospects to be included on those kinds of lists?
It definitely helps to be included in those things. In this weird, unpredictable industry, it’s good to have an indicator of where you’re at on the career ladder. So those types of things help you map a trajectory of where you’re going.

James Norton. Photograph: Justin van VlietJames Norton. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

From Rush, Belle and Death Comes to Pemberley, it offers quite distinctly different roles. Is there anything specific you do to transition between characters?
I find that I have to immerse myself within each role; I don’t seem to take any traits from each character once I’m done, which makes it easier. I take more what I learn from the other actors, but the roles themselves you tend to go in full throttle and detach once you’re done.

Does the role in question affect that ability to transition?
In terms of role, Rush was such a big movie even though I had a smaller part. The experience of being around incredible guys such as Ron Howard and with the overall height of the production, you’ll find it’s its funny how quickly you have to move on from role to role.

I’m going through such quick waves at the moment, I’ve got another role coming up playing a psychopath, so I’m having to see a psychiatrist (laughs), not literally for me of course, but you have to be able to take yourself out of your general state of mind and find ways to adapt to each new character you’re presented with.

What can you tell us about Death Comes to Pemberley?
It’s a sequel from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; a few years have passed and everyone has matured since the events within that book. Some of the iconic characters such as Mr and Mrs Bennet and some of the other main characters are still there.

James Norton. Photograph: Justin van VlietJames Norton. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

But PD [James] is a crime writer, so it becomes a whodunnit.
My character is a Mr Alveston, an ambitious lawyer at the centre of a love game. We’re all there for the grand ball and I’m quickly set up in a love triangle with Georgina. For the purists, it’s Mr. Darcy’s younger sister.

There’s a well-rounded cast alongside you on Pemberley. What was it like working with them?
The cast were totally lovely, Trevor Eve, he’s great guy to work with, Juliette Towhidi has done a great job of writing it and Daniel [Percival] brings a natural direction with his style.
It’s quite modern, beautifully shot with lots of rich colour. It has this film like quality; so it doesn’t feel like your usual period drama. With Dan’s style we were really able to find the depth of the characters, I just hope it comes across on screen because we were really able to get involved with these characters.

Was there anything specific you had to do for the role?
Horse riding was a big part of it; I did a little as a kid but hated it, probably because my sister was so good at it. Though when the producer asked me if I could ride and I nonchalantly agreed “Yeah of course, I rode lots as a kid”.

In Windsor where we filmed, I was given a beautiful racehorse called Jupiter. Once I’d done it, I couldn’t understand what my initial aversion to riding was – it was joyous, especially riding up to Chatsworth – taking in the iconic Pemberley location was one of the great moments.

That must have been quite the experience.
Absolutely, we definitely used it as our own little Pemberley, costumed in top hats and period attire. It was an amazing summer. Now I just hope the audience enjoys it on their screens this Christmas.

James Norton. Photograph: Justin van VlietJames Norton. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

So what’s Next for James Norton?
I think I can say this since press has been released, I’m playing a Viking in Northmen: A Viking Saga, it’s got Ryan Kwanten from True Blood, one among a really talented cast. Now I’m off to Yorkshire to play a psychopath, hence this crazy peroxide look I’ve got at the moment (laughs). From period to a working class psychopath, it’s a welcome change.

It’s nice, because in this industry you have to find your voice and I think I’ve got a feel for mine.

 by Kashman Harris

Photographs: Justin van Vliet

James can next be seen in Death Comes to Pemberley  on BBC 1 on Boxing Day.

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Glass Online culture writer

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