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James Norton: Joining the big league

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James Norton may be only 26 years old, but his career so far can only be described as a run of triumphs. As he prepares to take on the role of Geoffrey in the Lion in Winter, alongside the likes of Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsay, he talks to Jonathan Watson about his career progression

Most actors say they have an experience that makes them think, ‘Right, yeah, maybe this is for me after all’. For some, it’s the story of a heartbreaking, impossible romance, for others, witnessing a phenomenal performance, and, for a few at least, it’s just blind luck. For James Norton, it was Cambridge University and the Marlowe amateur society.

“Every college there is a theatre,” he says, beaming as we sit down on the Young Vic’s balcony to discuss his rising stock as an actor. It’s a bizarre, sweltering October afternoon and the well-groomed, wide-eyed actor from Yorkshire is raring to go.

“Every night, there’s about five or six plays going on. It’s a brilliant arena for trying obscure versions of classic plays. It does mean you can flex your muscles, direct, produce and act in this little microcosm of the theatre world. Yes, there’s a really tragic ‘celebrity’ side to it, but when you’re there it feels like it’s your life.”

In 1960, Trevor Nunn was walking round the same halls harbouring the same ambitions, perhaps not to be on top of the university’s infamous Varsity 100 list, but certainly to crack the industry. And why wouldn’t he? In that year, as a member of Marlowe, he was part of a production of Cymbeline with Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Corin Redgrave.

Fast-forward to 2007 and Nunn returns to the same society to mark its centenary and to direct the same play that had ignited his passion all those years before. Only this time, Norton was cast in the lead role. It’s a meeting that would change Norton’s life, and one he remembers with great fondness as his major role in Nunn’s production of The Lion in Winter at the Theatre Royal Haymarket – alongside Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsay – fast approaches.

“That opportunity at Cambridge was truly amazing. We had four and a half weeks with this master. It was a massive boost and a massive validation of everything I wanted to be. And now it’s come to this.”

It’s not as if he hadn’t dreamed of being an actor before. With hindsight, he says lowering his guard for just a second, perhaps his introspective years at boarding school played a part. That, or dressing up when he was six years old at his parents’ house started it all off.

“Primary school was all theatre, theatre, theatre. Kids used to come round to my house and I’d force them to do a play in the bay windows of my house and get all the mums and dads to sit and watch. I’d write the programme, write the play and be the star.”

But jokes and his shared narrative with Briony from Ian McEwan’s Atonement aside, there’s an earnest glint of ambition in Norton’s eyes. When he talks at breakneck, excitable speed, barely pausing for breath, about his evolution from the sham celebrity of Oxbridge to this role, it’s hard to believe he ever thought of anything but a life playing this game.

Thus far, his career also reads like drama school mythology. After graduating from Cambridge, Norton immediately went on to study at RADA. He then got a bit part in An Education with Carey Mulligan (as that foppish, cute boy at the closing credits), secured a role in the acclaimed Posh at the Royal Court, starred next to Frances Barber in That Face in Sheffield under the “blinding, brilliant” direction of Richard Wilson, and then landed the lead in the touring behemoth that is Journey’s End, a role he’s only just put to bed.

With such a run of triumphs you’d be forgiven to expect Norton to be arrogant, superficial even – we are meeting to discuss what it’s like to join Lumley and Lindsay in the big leagues, after all. Fortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Vulnerability is, he reminds me on a number of occasions, vital if the kind of succinct ensemble The Lion in Winter requires is to work.

It’s also something he can’t help but admire in Lindsay and Lumley – that in the build-up to the production they can let their guard down and be so “down to earth”, “so Jo and Robert”, and so willing to let the seven-strong cast grow into the squabbling, fractious 12th century royals, fighting over England’s future at Christmas time, that the text requires.

“In the first few days it’s weird,” he admits. “Weird to start pointing your finger and going up to Joanna Lumley and saying ‘you’re a crap mother’ and thinking you’re going to spit in her face (I bet I’ll do that now). But if there was a certain pervading sense of them and us, that we’re the young inexperienced actors and they are the stars, then that would stop things working. There has to be a trust generated, and it has to be done by Trevor, Robert and Joanna because they are kind of the ones who have to even out any status.”

Is that true? Surely Norton also has to rein in something, such as the temptation to be a sycophant? Lumley, Lindsay and Nunn are pillars of the theatre community after all.

“What’s thrilling with James, with this young group of actors,” an ebullient Lumley insists two days later during a rehearsal break at the Upstreet Rooms round the corner, “is that they look after their own characters, come with the text prepared, and have the book down. I’m still stumbling about with my text. They also look you in the eye, and that’s rarer than you think. I didn’t know them before this, am beginning to love them, and as their mother, their stage mother, I’m as glad as can be.”

Lumley’s talk of the younger cast as “kids” is also a reminder Norton is only 26. He has been working non-stop for two years and, while it would be foolish for him to put the breaks on his career right now, his peripatetic lifestyle must be taking its toll. His last role, lest we forget, in the touring production of Journey’s End, required him to suffer the agony of trench warfare night after night. It was a run of more than 200 shows. But when I ask whether he had to develop a coping strategy to put himself on the line like that, he shrugs, drums the table with his hands, and that nonchalance returns.

“Early on, any fresh-faced, bushy-tailed actor will dive headfirst in, and I did the same. Those first few weeks were very intense, I was going home and I would dream constantly of being in a trench. Then I realised if I was going to do that, every night, to take that three-hour journey, I’d go mad, so I had to learn to pull myself back.

“And even though I was doing that,” he continues coyly, “the beauty of those kinds of parts is that you’re always going to be taken in by the audience. You’ll always be at an absolutely crunching level of truth.”

His new part, Geoffrey, however, is a completely different challenge, and the audience will bring with it a different expectation, of the history of the characters, the play’s anachronistic tone, and the lofty cast around him.

Is he ready? “The challenge is not to climb the emotional peaks of say, Stanhope [lead in Journey’s End], and his raging, shouting tears. It’s more cerebral, working out where Geoffrey is, how he fits into the huge chess game of this play – the 12th century history of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the alliances, the broken relationships, and all that spying on each other. I can’t wait.”

I realise I’ve forgotten to ask if he’s worried what Nunn, with the added pressure of their history, will make of his performance? “When I first read the play I told Trevor I didn’t quite get the tone,” he answers, leaning forward. “He looked at me sternly, and I said of course I was joking.”

And was Nunn convinced? “This is part of Trevor’s genius, he has made something quite difficult into something dark, with peaks and mountains, where the stakes are high, where a lot of modern Europe was shaped. So, although it’s a joke that we’re bickering as a family, one that I’m part of, what Trevor has managed to do is marry that joke with a very epic and serious undertone that, hopefully, I can help unlock.”

* The Lion in Winter is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, from November 5-January 28

* For Joanna Lumley and Robert Lindsay’s advice for young actors see this week’s print edition of The Stage

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