James Norton is grinning widely as he welcomes The Big Issue into his dressing room at London’s Donmar Warehouse theatre, where he’s starring in a new play, Belleville. A copy of our Christmas issue is propped up against his mirror.
“I have so much respect and love for it. The fact that you have put little Martin Wellstead’s drawing on the cover? It is just joyous, a wonderful thing,” he beams. “This epitomises what London should be, a city of inclusivism and openness.”
I have so much respect and love for The Big Issue
The 32-year-old made his name playing psychopathic Tommy in Happy Valley, a crime-fighting vicar in Grantchester, and a troubled romantic lead in War and Peace. The next step to propel him to international attention is new BBC One thriller, McMafia.
A truly international production, filming took place around the world: in Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Zagreb, Moscow, Prague, Mumbai, Split, London and Qatar, putting to good use co-funding from America’s AMC network.
The story, told over eight parts, could scarcely be more timely – a tale of global corruption highlighting the way organised crime has moved into the boardroom.
“I want the show to be a catalyst for a conversation that really needs to happen,” says Norton. “When you do a show that is feeding off the zeitgeist, you usually feel like you are chasing it. You are trying to create a piece of art that somehow explores, investigates or interrogates the current story.
“But we were on set and had Russian actors improvising scenes about corruption at the state level with the FSB and Putin – at the same time, stories about Trump and Putin and collusion between the White House and the Kremlin were breaking.
“It was weird, it felt like the zeitgeist was chasing us, that our show was becoming more topical as we went. And it became, as a result, more and more important. Since we finished filming, we had the Panama Papers, corrupt Iceland prime ministers, the money-laundering trail leading to Putin.
“Now there is the Paradise Papers and the huge scale of tax evasion they reveal. It’s insane, it’s in the news every day if you want to find it.”
Norton plays the expensively educated son of Russian mafia parents who has grown up in London and rejected the corruption that paid for his schooling and his family’s lavish lifestyle. Instead, he works in the city and is a darling of the ethical finance community.
His first appearance, dashing and debonair in an immaculate suit, sets the mind wandering towards another famous James. And that’s before he’s seen emerging from the sea in a swimsuit… So, can we ask the Bond question?
To be mentioned in the conversation about the next James Bond is kind of magical
“The Bond question? Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says, with boyish glee. “I knew McMafia was going to fuel that fire for sure. I did tell them when I was doing it that there is no way you are going to film me in a tuxedo and not going to get that question flying around.
“It is such an iconic role and it is so important in this country. There are not many people you will find who don’t care about James Bond. So to even be mentioned in the same conversation is kind of mad and kind of magical. It really is very cool and very flattering and a bit bizarre and surreal.”
That’s not a no, then. Although he says any speculation is just that. And he wants Daniel Craig to do a few more, as he’s a fan.
For now, his latest alter ego’s gradual, initially reluctant slide into dodgy dealings is the spark at the centre of this fiery series. “Walter White [from Breaking Bad] is a good comparison. Michael Corleone in The Godfather is another example. His story is one where he goes deeper and darker.”
Where most mob films and television shows have been highly localised, McMafia inhabits a bigger world than Sopranos, Gomorrah or Narcos.
“The whole idea of McMafia is a reference to McDonald’s, the ultimate archetype of globalisation – what we want to do is show that the mafia no longer fight and do business on the street, they do it in the boardroom.
“Since all of the globalisation, and in the multi-communicative age we live in, the cartels talk to the Russian mob, who talk to corrupt hedge-fund managers in London, who talk to Washington.”
The mafia no longer fight and do business on the street, they do it in the boardroom
According to Misha Glenny – whose book investigating global corruption and gangs gives the show its title – all roads on this journey through the global underworld lead to London.
“It can’t help but make your blood boil,” Norton says. “We are told this is an inclusive city. And we pride ourselves on openness and multiculturalism. And I do see that. A lot.
“I love London for that reason. I love its inclusivity, it is a wonderful place to live whether you are a man or woman, gay straight, from any country in the world.
“But there is this deep hypocrisy. London has very few assets in terms of resources, but we have incredible service-provider acumen. So all money and deals, most of it comes through this city. And we have very, very lax rules.
“People in the City are able to take the piss because the government are not putting the safeguards in place to prevent corruption. As a country we are on the verge of potentially becoming a tax haven if we are not careful with what is going on with Brexit.”
The government is not putting the safeguards in place to prevent corruption
The B-word is causing the star sleepless nights and sorrowful mornings. “My heart breaks every morning,” he says, dramatically. “I get a Brexit update and like a lot of people I am slightly addicted, in a perverse way, to following this story. I digest everything.
“I feel like, as an actor, if you have a little bit of a voice you have a responsibility to use that voice. To a point. But every time I tweet about that, I get people who are really angry, ‘Just stick to your fucking job, you are not a politician.’ I disagree.
“But I also think the point is always going to be more valuable if it is made through the work. Right now I am really pleased and keen to use McMafia to talk about corruption and the need for transparency. It is important to try to work in a politically, socially conscious way.
“So maybe I need to do a job about Brexit – because my heart is broken, if I’m honest, about what is happening in this country. It feels like we are spiralling out of control and no one is willing to put the brakes on.”
In the past, Norton’s politicking has been strictly local, supporting a campaign to rebuild Peckham Lido, 30 years after it fell into disrepair. But, he says, McMafia has broadened his political horizons.
“I have been talking to the NGO Global Witness, who are responsible for investigating big mining companies and governments. We have been talking about how we can use this show to start conversations about corruption. It is quite an unsexy thing to talk about.
It can’t help but make your blood boil at the deep, deep injustice
“But that’s how they get away with it. It is a world and language that so few people speak, the language that the bankers and the City and hedge fund managers speak – you and I don’t know what the fuck most bonds are. So I think it is important to attach personal accounts to these things.”
This is where, Norton feels, drama can trump investigative reporting. “I feel like it is very important right now. This sense of injustice is being fuelled, and people want to see what it looks like. What McMafia tells us is that there is a cost,” he continues.
“So you have the minority with the yacht and the fast cars and the parties, but at the same time you have women being trafficked, drug addicts in Mumbai facilitating the one up the food chain… we were very keen to make sure we didn’t just tell the story of corruption.”
Norton must get back into his New York accent for Belleville. There is just time to explain exactly why global corruption should enrage everyone.
“If you are a normal person working and paying taxes, the fact is that there a tiny, tiny number of people making an absurd amount of money at your expense. They are finding loopholes and essentially engaging in a huge level of corruption,” he says.
“Homelessness has gone up 134 per cent, and I would love to know how many properties are empty or unused. The fact that there isn’t enough money in this country to pull that person off the street is because people at the top aren’t paying their tax.
“It can’t help but make your blood boil at the deep, deep injustice and sadness. It is such a warped and sad situation to find ourselves in, and such a stain on what should be a really wonderful place to live.”