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Nowhere Special: ‘James Norton’s special performance of repressed emotion’

As Nowhere Special is released in cinemas, actor James Norton reflects on the intimacy of a film which deals with parental love, terminal illness and control.

Nowhere Special is a film that gets you right in the heart. A simple, stark story of a man diagnosed with a terminal illness desperately searching for the perfect family to adopt his young son.

The perfect family, of course, does not exist. Window-cleaner John’s quest here, just like in his day job, is doomed to fail. Windows are never entirely spotless; no person or family will ever be quite perfect enough for the son he is raising alone and dotes on.

But it occupies his mind, gives him a sense of mission, allows him an element of control over at least one part of the future he won’t live to see as he feels control over his body and life ebbing away.

The snapshots of John and young Michael together are beautifully played. Young Ballymena boy Daniel Lamont is a natural on screen, while James Norton has never been more raw or emotionally open.

Typically, though, Norton holds a lot of it in. This is another performance of repressed emotion, visible in his eyes, his clenched jaw, his inner thoughts heard only in the space between the words.

“I love that feeling of having nowhere to hide,” says the actor, speaking via Zoom from his home in South London.

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“There’s no spectacle, stunts, toys, money– it’s just you and the kid and the great script – and Uberto [Pasolini, the film’s writer-director] behind the camera, usually sobbing his eyes out.”

We have seen Norton in many guises since he first broke into the public consciousness in 2014 as psychopath Tommy Lee Royce in Happy Valley, Sally Wainwright’s superb slice of Yorkshire noir.

His roles have ranged from the crime-solving vicar in Grantchester to dashing Prince Andrei in Andrew Davies’ sexed-up War and Peace, playing Stephen Ward – the osteopath at the centre of the Profumo scandal in The Trial of Christine Keeler to the kindly tutor who marries Meg March in Greta Gerwig’s terrific adaptation of Little Women and the louche pansexual breakout star of cult Netflix hit The Nevers.

Throughout his career, he has always heard the same thing from the directors taking charge of the shoot.

“The piece of direction I get the most from directors is give me a bit more,” he says. “Because my instinct as an actor is to do less. But here, the subject matter was so inherently moving.

“I’d want to give Uberto a version of each scene which is like the actor’s version. Where I would go ‘let me let it rip, let me do a big one for you’ almost to prove to the audience I’m capable of crying or whatever. But every single time he’d be like, ‘No. Don’t need it, won’t use it, don’t care.’”

Instead, we have a father-son bond in intimate close-up. “This is why the film is so special to shoot because in real time I was with this little boy Daniel, teaching him about death – both as the character Michael but also Daniel himself,” says Norton.

“What you get from him is pure authenticity. You always hope what you are getting back from a scene partner, what you have to react to, is real and truthful. I had this four-year-old boy with these big eyes looking at me going ‘what is death?’ It was a really profound experience.

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“I was really deeply moved every day. There’s a scene near the end I had a real struggle with. I cried throughout. And Uberto said, ‘We have to get a version of this where you’re not crying because he needs strength and stoicism’. And it was hard. I’ve never been on a film set where I was asked to rein in the emotion. But it was coming out in floods.”

Norton reveals the director gave him a small black rock to carry around in his pocket – to represent death.

“He told me, the film is not about death, it’s about life. It’s about the love between the father and the son– but I want death to be present in every scene. And it really worked. I still have it upstairs.

“Generally we don’t spend much time actively thinking about death, and maybe we should. To spend a couple of months really confronting my mortality was oddly calming and cathartic. You want every experience, every job, to change you in some way. You want to carry a bit of it with you – whether it’s a Black Rock of Death or something more abstract.

“We shot this quite close to the first lockdown. And I think life has taken a turn where everyone’s a little more contemplative, we’ve had time to think and breathe and pause and take stock. The film, along with that, definitely had a profound impact. It’s also definitely made me broody.”

Norton has been thinking about the future. And it’s not just about the idea of nurturing and helping a child of his own – though he is even more keen on this idea post-filming. He is also working with using his status as a producer to bring through new talent.

“I’m so impressed by Gen Z,” says Norton, who is midway through producing and starring in Freegard, the true story of a con artist masquerading as an MI5 agent.

“All these kids I’m speaking to on the film set – when I say kids, they are like 20 or 21 – but those young men or women who were hit so hard by Covid and graduated or did their A-levels in that unprecedented mess.

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“A lot of them had to go home to their families, and their life in London was uprooted. They’ve come back and I was worried that they would feel a sense of entitlement because their moment, that rite of passage as you turn from a kid to an adult and you let rip, had been denied them. So it’s extraordinary to see them come back and be so mature and politicised and galvanised.

“It’s deeply humbling to think that we fuck their lives in order to really protect the older lot – I’m a diabetic, so I was one of the vulnerable people their sacrifices protected. For them not to come back and be angry and entitled is astounding. Anyone 35 and above needs to acknowledge that and reach out and do everything we can to help those young adults.”

Norton has spoken to The Big Issue before about bringing a social conscience into his work. Now he is keen, he says, to find the sweet spot of telling stories that pack a punch, while still giving us the entertainment and escapism we need more than ever.

“One thing I’ve learned recently is you can convey a message and be part of the conversation from a place of empowerment and positivity and emboldening,” he says.

“In order to make a point, you don’t have to just shed light on the shit of society. I was amazed working with Greta Gerwig on Little Women. She made a movie which was an incredible piece of entertainment but at the same time inspired thousands if not millions of young women to write and take control of their own destiny and do a Jo March.

“Right now we need films and TV shows to bring a social conscience and messaging in both the way they’re made – making sure we are conscious of diversity and access and inclusivity in the way we cast our films and hire our crews – and also in the message they’re conveying. Equally, we need entertainment to remind us what life is worth living for. To tell us about love.

Nowhere Special is another example. We could have made a movie about the shortcomings of the adoption system. But this is not that film. It’s a movie that will hopefully encourage you to reach over to your loved one or your kid or your parent and give them a hug. And that is what we need right now.”

Nowhere Special is out in cinemas from July 16. Click here to find a screening near you

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