Not long after his chilling performance as psychopathic Tommy in Happy Valley, James Norton makes a complete U-turn with his new role. The actor tells Susan Griffin why playing a vicar doesn’t mean he’s holier than thou
You might not know the name James Norton, but chances are, he terrified you to your core, if you were one of the millions who tuned into Happy Valley earlier this year.
London-born Norton starred as psychopathic killer Tommy Lee Royce, who tormented Sarah Lancashire’s policewoman and was responsible for one of TV’s most disturbing death by motoring scenes.
“He was a nasty piece of work,” admits the handsome 29-year-old, grinning. “I’d spent the last couple of years being offered period dramas, and nice, wholesome English guys, so it was a joy to play Tommy. I know you’ve got to be a bit careful, saying how great it is to play a psychopath, because people get weirded out, like the psychopathy is rubbing off on you.”
In preparation, he read up on the subject, and watched other performances including The Take with Tom Hardy and See No Evil: The Moors Murders, which starred Maxine Peake as Myra Hindley.
“That was for the Northern accent as well,” admits Norton, sounding like a well-spoken Southerner, despite growing up in Yorkshire, where he attended “the posh [boarding] school” Ampleforth College.
“Everyone was very clipped and would go, ‘You’re such a Northerner’. Before that, all my friends back home thought I was a posh t***, so I was screwed either way.”
At Ampleforth, his housemasters and teachers were all Benedictine monks, “inspiring, bright human beings, but like we all are, filled with conflicts,” says Norton. In short, the perfect inspiration for his latest role, as vicar Sidney Chambers in ITV’s new six-part series, Grantchester.
“It was a lovely transition to get Tommy out of my system, although there wasn’t a lot of time between the projects,” says Norton, who studied theology at Cambridge University, but never had aspirations of entering the priesthood. “Half the [people on the] course are studying from a belief-based perspective, and half are studying with academic interest,” he explains.
He hopes people won’t be alienated by the fact Sidney’s a vicar. “He’s a very normal guy, doing normal things. He loves his booze a bit too much, women, jazz. There are temptations around him, taking him off course slightly, and the backdrop of the war is very significant, too. Like many, he fought and killed and has experienced his own fair share of horror.”
Adapted from the novel by James Runcie (and based on his own father, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie), the drama’s set in 1953, in the Cambridgeshire hamlet of Grantchester.
“It was lovely to be back, home from home, to a certain extent,” remarks Norton. But as picturesque as the setting is, “this isn’t like Father Brown or Miss Marple”.
“It’s not sugary or chocolate boxy, it’s grittier than that. It can be quite gruesome, it’s not sanitised,” he adds.
Sidney turns detective when one of his parishioners dies in suspicious circumstances, and an unlikely partnership is forged between him and the gruff, overworked Police Inspector Geordie Keating, played by Robson Green.
“Sidney’s trying to do the right thing, but realises he can get into places and into people’s lives, and open up confidences where a policeman can’t, and Geordie realises he can use that,” explains Norton.
“Sidney’s looking for adrenaline after the war as well. It’s sort of a mutual, quiet understanding between the two of them. They’re stepping out of line slightly, but they’re a dream duo.”
He and Green got along well. Norton speaks highly of his co-star. “Robson’s a lovely man, the best known person in the cast but so down to earth, and that filters through. There were no egos – and it was the same with Happy Valley,” he says.
There are already expectations that the drama will do well in the US, and the timing couldn’t be better for Norton. “It’s a good time for young British blokes, as the awards showed,” he says, referring to actors such as Luther’s Idris Elba and Homeland’s Damian Lewis, who’ve enjoyed huge success in the States in recent years. “We’re so in vogue, the Brits out there, so it’d be stupid to miss on that opportunity.”
He’s already started “nudging over there” and landed representation. “I go for a few months every year,” reveals Norton, who loves Los Angeles.
“It’s just the fact you can be skiing in the morning, surfing in the afternoon, and then spend the evening in the desert,” he says. “But the industry is very gruelling, especially if you’re not known out there and don’t carry a certain financial worth.
“You go into these endless meetings and they just don’t give a s*** about you. You’re one of a hundred, and you’ll sit in a corridor with 25 other people who look exactly like you, and they read out your name like a doctor’s waiting room.”
He tries to not to dwell on the ‘what ifs’. “If you start looking backwards, you’re going to drive yourself mad,” he says. “But I do watch things I missed out on, and I can’t deny if it’s rubbish, there’s a little part of me...” he says before stopping short, leaving his cheeky grin to fill in the rest of the sentence.
After a brief appearance in Carey Mulligan’s breakthrough movie An Education, and various TV series, in 2013, Norton was cast in the F1 film Rush. “I spent two or three days on set, but greedily, I would’ve loved to have done more,” he says.
Working with director Ron Howard was an eye-opener, he reveals. “He wanders around with this cap and a slightly high, nauseating voice, with a cast and crew of hundreds, but he commands total respect.”
Parts in the period projects Death Comes To Pemberley and Belle followed, and he’ll soon be seen in the upcoming biopic Mr Turner and Northmen - A Viking Saga.
The diverse roles have been a nightmare for his hair. “I had extensions, then I did Tommy where it was peroxide.” Norton ended up spending four hours in a salon in an attempt to make it brown ahead of filming for Grantchester. “And then every Monday morning, I had to come in 45 minutes early for a tint!”
But the varying hairstyles make for a great disguise - something you suspect he’ll soon be in need of.
EXTRA TIME - WHO’S WHO IN GRANTCHESTER
Twenty Twelve’s Morven Christie plays beautiful heiress Amanda Kendall, whose love for Sidney, although reciprocated, doesn’t have a future, as her father wants her to marry an aristocrat.
A familiar face to Only Fools And Horses fans (she played Raquel), Tessa Peake-Jones appears as Sidney’s housekeeper Mrs Maguire, who does her best to keep him in check.
EastEnders’ Kacey Ainsworth stars as Geordie’s loving wife Cathy, a busy mother-of-three with a fourth on the way.
Al Weaver, from Southcliffe and Secret State, appears as Sidney’s moustachioed curate, Leonard Finch.
German actress Pheline Roggan plays the stunning and enigmatic widow, Hildegard Staunton.
Grantchester begins on ITV on Monday, October 6