James Norton. Image: David Levene / Guardian / eyevine
James Norton loves a challenge. Physical or mental, he’s there for it. Move over Wim Hof, Norton freezes his fear on a daily basis with an ice bath, cold shower or, ideally, a cold-water swim. The actor, most recently seen producing a career-best performance in the final series of Happy Valley, began the year swimming in the sea every day. “I do believe in it,” he says. “This is not a fad.” Now Norton is immersing himself in something equally exhilarating and exhausting. The actor is taking on the role of Jude in a stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel, A Little Life.
This is a book that means so much to so many people. A depiction of love, of friendship, of survival and the scars of abuse that is so beautifully written and so captivating that it elicits extreme reactions.
“This is the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” says Norton. “The role, the pressure, the expectation.
“I saw a couple of friends at a party the other day. We started talking about A Little Life and one of them just burst into tears. The reaction to the book and the experience people go through reading it is so profound. So to know fans of the book will come and watch our show – the pressure is enormous.”
Having been approached about the role of Willem, Norton asked to be considered for Jude – the more complex role, a man haunted by a history of extreme abuse. And he had to prove he was up to it in auditions for Hanya Yanagihara and director Ivo Van Hove.
“Then there was a decision to be made. Did I want to take that risk?” he says. “I remember thinking: What the fuck are you doing? Why are you putting yourself through this? There’s this huge voice in your head – it is self-preservation mode. I remember talking to my partner, saying, this is going to be torturous. I’m going to have to go to these depths.
“You borrow as much as you can from your own experience to inform your performances but at some point, you can’t go any further. I hope I will never know what it was like to have gone through the abuse Jude has.
“So to go there, you have to mine everything you have. All the darkness in your life. Why would you volunteer yourself for that? My partner said, ‘that’s the reason you can’t say no’. It’s the most terrifying thing in the world.”
To take on the weight of fan expectation, the extreme physical challenge of a near four-hour play – heightened by Norton’s Type 1 diabetes meaning he needs sugary snacks on stage to avoid hypoglycaemia, and the emotional depths of playing Jude is a serious test.
But Norton is, he says, competitive to a fault – though he is not sure where the steely spirit beneath his charming, affable, generous exterior comes from. A keen cyclist, as we saw in Happy Valley during Tommy Lee Royce’s break for freedom, he is also getting back into running.
“I’m trying to strip some weight for A Little Life because Jude is described a ‘stork like’,” he says. “So I want to be lean.”
But James Norton is resisting the urge to enter races. The 35-year-old recalls the agony of doing his one and only ParkRun… and treating it like an Olympic final.
“I can’t do it regularly because I’m so competitive. When I was a kid, I did cross country and was the kid who always won or was runner up. But I would be throwing up afterwards because I would push beyond the pain barrier. It’s something in my psyche. I guess that is good?” he says, hesitatingly.
“But as a result, running can be dangerous for me. On my only ParkRun, I tucked in behind this guy and pushed and pushed. It was great. Yeah, I took him at the end, of course. But at the cost of the rest of my weekend!”
So is A Little Life a post-lockdown challenge? Is the hardest role of his career the result of reappraising while his industry, along with so many others, shut down?
“It’s an interesting question, whether or not pre-pandemic I would have taken it on,” says Norton.
“I definitely had a moment of self-reflection. For me, it was about learning how important it is to stop and take stock. That the quiet and calm can be as valuable as the race and rush of life. I’ve always thought value is found in a new experience, going to a new place, meeting new people. That it’s all about learning, learning, learning. But to be stationary and read a book, to sit back and take stock is really valuable.
“My partner is very good at that. And I’m not. Lockdown helped me learn that. Would I have proactively fought for this role five years ago? It’s a good question. But right now, I’m at a point in my life where I’m up for it and really excited about it.”
Norton will not stop here. He grins as he delves deeper into his psyche – analysing his perceived failings, glossing over many successes.
“There are still big obstacles in my life about self-criticism and fear of risk,” he says. “I chastise myself, saying, ‘why aren’t you directing yet?’ I’d love to direct a movie but for some reason I’m afraid of putting my name to my first movie and failing.
“But A Little Life is a huge step into the unknown. So I give myself a bit of credit that I am, step by step, finding moments of courage.”
Next up, Norton will put on his producer’s hat. Alongside his friend, top producer Kitty Kaletsky, he has formed Rabbit Track Pictures. And their first movie is imminent.
“We secured financing over the pandemic,” says Norton, looking proud as punch.
“So we shot our first movie, Rogue Agent, with Gemma Arterton for Netflix. That was a professional risk that has really paid off. In an industry by nature quite transient and fickle, having a production company is a step towards control and agency.”
If Norton is ready for new challenges, he is also, he says, aware that adventures within acting are not matters of life and death.
“We spend our time prancing around in costumes and being big children,” he says, face folding into a huge grin. “My sister’s a doctor. Her husband’s a doctor. When we go home there are conversations about the NHS, strikes, the cost-of-living crisis and the real shit people are living day-to-day.
“And there I am, bouncing around, having a lovely time. But there are moments like Happy Valley or A Little Life where you feel proud of being more than just a sort of wandering player.
“Making a show or movie that will actually make a difference in its small way – or doing interviews for The Big Issue – it’s a small offsetting to that silly pedestal on which actors are placed. Because The Big Issue, especially right now, is so important.”
Norton is about to move to a new part of London – “we are doing a job on an old wreck,” he says – but, like so many, during lockdown, threw himself into his local community.
“Full disclosure, I’ve lived there for years, but didn’t know where the local food bank was,” he says.
“Then the pandemic happened. So I went down a few times with my girlfriend, like everyone did. We did a small amount of volunteering. “The amount of people educating themselves about the area, wanting to do something – I hope that continues. Because for all it was fucked up and for all the harm it caused, the pandemic did shake people out of some revelry.”
We are about to leave when Norton scurries off. His politeness and politics won’t allow him to let us buy him a coffee. He wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. And he needs his rest. He’s deep into rehearsals.
“The subject matter is so harrowing,” he says, thoughts returning to A Little Life. “But ultimately, it’s about how, in the face of the most despicable acts of cruelty, humanity does prevail.
“Jude is showered with love and help and support and care. So it is a wonderful reflection on human beings. We keep coming back to this phrase in rehearsals: A Little Life is about heroic acts of kindness.”
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