James Norton: 'Cerco di presentarmi come amichevole e le persone vedono qualcosa di più oscuro'

Jl'ultimo film di ames Norton, Da nessuna parte speciale, ha una premessa così tragica che dovrebbe essere completamente infilmabile. Lui interpreta John, un padre single di 35 anni a cui vengono dati pochi mesi di vita, e deve trovare una nuova famiglia per suo figlio di tre anni. Ancor prima di considerare l'incredibile performance di Daniel Lamont, che aveva solo quattro anni quando è stato girato il film, suona troppo evidentemente strappalacrime, especially from Uberto Pasolini, un regista noto per Still Life, un disegnato molto finemente, film sobrio in 2013, che arriva alla morte da un angolo molto più obliquo.

Infatti, il film scivola abilmente oltre ogni evidente intensità per creare qualcosa di molto più complicato, con le straordinarie esibizioni di Norton e del suo piccolo co-protagonista. “Bisogna dare credito al regista,"Norton insiste, su Zoom dalla sua casa di Londra. "Egli ha detto: 'Non voglio che questo sia brutalmente triste, Voglio che questo riguardi la vita tanto quanto riguarda la morte.'” Questo potresti caratterizzare come una risposta attoriale standard, generoso e modesto. Poi c'è di più: “Il mio gusto è allineato a quel tipo di performance. Ma il soggetto è così carico e universale, a volte senti la responsabilità come attore di dimostrare che riconosci quanto sia operistico e triste tutto questo. Ogni volta, Gli darei una prestazione che è stata grande, e sdolcinato e appiccicoso, e lui era come: 'Sì, So che ti è piaciuto molto, ma non lo userò.'”

Norton ha questa ricerca, approccio leggermente autoflagellante – quello che ha detto si riduce a: “Ho quasi rovinato questo film cercando di dimostrare al pubblico quanto sono empatico, ma per fortuna il regista mi ha fermato». È la cosa più cattolica che abbia mai sentito. Norton ha un retroterra religioso idiosincratico, educato dai benedettini, poi prendere una laurea in teologia prima di andare a Rada. Ma più avanti su Dio e sui monaci.

Viene fuori come una serie di sottili contraddizioni; è molto a suo agio nella sua pelle, eppure odia parlare di sé. È come una lezione di cortesia, ma non è un simpaticone. I suoi ruoli distintivi: il mostruoso Tommy Royce in Valle felice, il torturato Sidney Chambers a Grantchester, un languido Duncan Grant in Life in Squares – indica un approccio abile a una carriera di attore, incasellazioni di lato, estendendo sempre il suo raggio d'azione. Ma se qualcuno scrivesse una parte comica direttamente per lui, sarebbe un personaggio che odia il banale ma ama il carnevale, chi odia le chiacchiere ma ama essere a una festa. Immagina il caos che quella persona causerebbe.

Nato a 1985 nel sud di Londra, sua madre un'insegnante, suo padre un docente, Norton si è trasferito con la sua famiglia nel North Yorkshire da bambino, e sono andato ad Ampleforth, un collegio benedettino che potresti definire “rinomato” o “famigerato”, a seconda del tuo umore. (In una storia tristemente familiare su prestigiosi collegi, Ampleforth era vietato prendere nuovi alunni a novembre 2020, dopo un inchiesta che ha trovato decenni di abusi sessuali su minori; il divieto era sollevato ad aprile.)

Norton parla del suo intenso legame con il paesaggio intorno alla scuola (il villaggio di Ampleforth è ai margini del North York Moors). “C'erano elementi dell'ambientazione che erano molto potenti. È una parte così bella del mondo, e tre volte al giorno, ci sedevamo, e contemplare, e prega. Ero grato per questo. Non era una terapia, ma è stato un momento di pausa e meditazione, in questa valle incredibilmente lussureggiante.” fa una pausa, poi raggiunge per ulteriori prove, come se non credessi che la valle fosse rigogliosa. “La gente va in vacanza lì!"

Veramente, se avessi qualche scetticismo, non si trattava dello Yorkshire, era perché spesso sembra che ci sia qualcosa che non sta dicendo. “What do you think I’m hiding – my dark obsession with some cult of Catholicism?” he asks, winningly. Not exactly. But particularly when he talks about his religious phase – “I was very religious as a teenager, which coincided with a hard time at school” – there’s often a shadow of quite a brutal atmosphere, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

That burst of faith led to his studying theology at Cambridge, even though he had lost it (o, come dice lui, “sort of changed”) quando era 18. “Lost faith” is too strong a term – but “still pretty spiritual” is too vague. “There are moments when I’m at my most extreme, with pain or trauma or joy – then maybe you’re crying out for any guidance or wisdom," lui dice.

Going back to that “hard time”, he often talks about bullying, but in the most glancing way. L'anno scorso, when there were rumours that he might be the next James Bond, Egli ha detto: “I do have moments when I’m being shot by a great photographer, wearing great clothes, when the little unattractive bullied kid in me is laughing his fucking head off!” In our conversation, it happens when we talk about the difference between a bad review from a reviewer, and a bad response from the audience on Rotten Tomatoes. I tell him I’m surprised that actors ever look at Rotten Tomatoes. “To be honest, I don’t. I did a couple of times, and I know that one or two of my movies have got like 4%. We have this weird, sick fascination with reviews, but to combine that and the audience into one metric, it’s like getting every bully that’s ever existed in your life, putting them all in one room and then throwing you into it naked.” Thinking about the one through-line connecting very different performances, Norton is incredibly – maybe uniquely – good at suggesting buried pain with the tiniest flicker of his features, which maybe he learned through the Lord of the Flies re-enactment that is the English public school system. “I would never send my kids to that,” is how he concludes this elliptical exchange.

His breakthrough roles on stage – Posh, at the Royal Court, e un zinging revivification of Journey’s End in 2011 – were cast to the type that he describes: “I was a Londoner from a well-to-do family with floppy hair.” A kind of Hugh Grant reboot, you might say, except “I’m not as bumbling as Hugh Grant,” he objects, then corrects himself, fast. “He has this great comic sensibility.” Having recently set up a production company, Rabbit Track Pictures, with the producer Kitty Kaletsky, he’s very understanding about the urge to always keep actors in the same kinds of roles. “I get it – I get why it makes everyone’s life easier. If you’re thinking about the whole canvas, not one actor going through a transformative experience, pigeonholes make the money safer.”

It’s an interesting swerve, from performing to producing (though he has by no means given up acting); quite rare to go from the creative side to the money side, especially when you’re so successful at the first. But it’s part of a longer play, “to take the helm and direct my own stuff. As actors you don’t have that many goes at it. People pay attention when you direct and you have to get it right.”

Norton veered away from his acting pigeonhole quite dramatically playing Tommy Royce in Happy Valley, a powerful crime drama from Sally Wainwright at the top of her game. Broadly speaking (no spoilers), he plays the incarnation of pure evil. Talking about his process, once, to the New York Times, he said he tried to inhabit each character in his daily life, which was a trial when he was doing Happy Valley, having to wash up in a broodingly psychopathic way. “I never said that! I can’t believe I said that.” “You definitely said it,” I insist. “It’s the New York Times. They have this whole accuracy thing.”

“I’m not one of those actors who turns up on set in character," lui dice. “I do my work, I do my research. I’m all for commitment. If it helps you to be completely consumed for days on end, Grande. When other people aren’t able to do their work because your process is so extreme, that’s selfish. I’m not that kind of actor at all.”

He seems plagued by the idea that he might once, quite a long time ago, in passing, have sounded like a wanker. “You just can’t take yourself too seriously. This industry is full of overly earnest people who think we’re God’s gift to mankind. We’re entertainers, we’re storytellers, there’s a lot of play and childishness in that.” A pause. “I’m sure I didn’t say that.” Maybe, I suggest, you were just trying to be polite. “I was probably just trying to keep my teachers at drama school happy.” This has a cacophonous ring of truth; he comes over as a person who puts a huge amount of thought into keeping people happy.

On the subject of sheer entertainment, Norton has also recently starred in The Nevers, a show I absolutely loved that had a rocky beginning after its creator, Joss Whedon, was accused of creating “toxic environments” in his past work (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, dopo, Justice League). What should have been the first season was turned into two mini-seasons – the second, expected to air in 2022, will have a new showrunner, Philippa Goslett – and the reception has been quite muted. “I’d never seen a show like it,” Norton says. “Female-driven, these warriors in Victorian London, so indefinable and genre-bending. My experience of Joss was all great. I know that I can speak for the cast that we had a great time. I don’t know what happened in the past, and you have to listen to those people’s voices. All I know is that we loved working with him and it was a shame to see him go, but Philippa will pick it up beautifully.”

“Starred” is a moot point, by the way – The Nevers is the ultimate ensemble drama; everyone in it gives a transfixing performance and there are about 100 of them. Norton plays Hugo Swann, a dissolute young aristo possessed of a Wildean wit who runs orgies and – this somehow feels more transgressive – drinks in the morning. Norton groups a collection of his roles loosely as “the nice guy who’s quietly sociopathic underneath … I don’t know why they see that in me,” he says wryly. “I try to present myself as friendly and they see something darker.”

The role that seems, from the outside, most like him was Sidney Chambers, the crime-cracking, heavy-drinking cleric in Grantchester, and he agrees: “My headspace is a 1950s priest. That was also my first role out of the gate as far as carrying a show and the responsibilities that involves.” Part of what was interesting about that show was not just Norton’s performance – which is really humane – but also Robson Green’s, which is idiosyncratic, understated, rilassato. They obviously had a rare chemistry.

Nothing compares to acting with a four-year-old, tuttavia. Norton says of Nowhere Special: “It was one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had on a film set. The classic thing is you avoid animals and children. Not only is Daniel the lead, there are loads of other kids in it and loads of animals. There was always some rabbit, or a dog.”

It really is a move of breathtaking ambition to try to do anything sensible involving a four-year-old, but Norton makes it sound like a cakewalk. “When you’re doing improv with a fellow actor, you’re constantly aware of this sabotaging voice.” He means, I suppose, the sabotaging voice of self-awareness. “With Daniel there was no voice; he was going through the process of understanding death in real time.” To underline the point, he recalls that at the end of the shoot, Lamont asked his mum when they were going to start filming; he thought they had been rehearsing the whole time. “Most of the preparation was going to his house, having dinner, playing with his toys. Had Daniel not responded to the filming, it would have been a disaster. But it was amazing. I really did have a very genuine affectionate relationship with that boy. We really did get on. He just gave himself to me as a friend.”

Did it make him want children? “Oh yes. I was going back to my girlfriend [the actor Imogen Poots], saying this has definitely kicked me into dad mode. Sai, I’m mid-30s, I’ve always wanted a family, my sister has kids, my broody barometer is kicking off anyway.” He laughs. “I suppose that’s your headline?"

With the tragedy of a global pandemic still so fresh, this might be a dicey time to launch a film that is itself so tragic, and that fact hasn’t escaped Norton. “It’s interesting to work out what appetite people have right now – whether blockbusters or arthouse movies are going to dominate the cinema. Is it going to be a summer of love and escapism? Or are we a bit quieter and more reflective, because we’ve had to be?” It feels like a question about something larger than film, quite an idealised dichotomy from an anguished idealist.

Nowhere Special is in UK cinemas from 16 luglio

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