James Norton is bonding with a family of gangsters

James Norton dodges the 007 rumours as he tells Gemma Dunn about his role in crime drama McMafia, which begins on BBC One tonight

EMERGING from the shallows in a pair of swimming trunks, sipping on cocktails in a tux and jetting around the globe in pursuit of bad guys, James Norton is doing little to derail the Bond rumour mill.

But he insists his latest brooding role in new BBC One drama McMafia is far from an intended audition.

“I did warn creators James [Watkins] and Hoss [Amini] that if they wrote the first scene [with me] getting out of a black cab in a tux, they would stir it!” he says with a laugh.

Masterfully dodged, the 32-year-old adds: “To be honest, for me, and for all of us, I am personally very thankful that Daniel Craig is going to do at least one more film. Or maybe two or five. I’m a big fan of his.”

Inspired by Misha Glenny’s factual book of the same name, McMafia - an eight-part hriller - charts the journey of Alex Godman (James), an English-raised son of Russian mafia exiles who has spent his life trying to escape the shadow of their past, building his own legitimate business.

However, what starts out as a story of survival and revenge soon becomes an epic tale of a man’s struggle against the lures of corruption in modern society - and in himself.

It’s a realm the actor knew little about. “It’s a world we’re aware of but afraid to confront,” he says. “I hadn’t read Misha Glenny’s book before I got the role, but that was an eye-opener. I was amazed and disturbed. It’s so pertinent, and it’s an important conversation to have.

“It’s that slightly subversive, dark world. It’s that anarchic fatalist, those people that live on the fringes of criminality which we, as law-abiding citizens, find fascinating.

“But the great thing about this show,” he claims, “is it’s so much bigger than just a mafia show. There are these incredibly intimate portrayals, so it felt very, very familiar.

“The fact that they were exiled gangsters, in a way, was irrelevant to the actual nitty-gritty of our domestic relationships. Which was incredibly reassuring and wonderful to play.

“It’s been an extraordinary eye-opener in terms of how far-reaching this corruption is and how complicit we are,” notes Norton, who was born in London but grew up in Yorkshire.

“Hopefully McMafia is going to be a catalyst for a conversation we’re desperately in need of having.”

Luckily, if anyone is likely to get audiences talking, it’s James.

In the last three years alone, the heart-throb has terrified millions with his portrayal of murderer Tommy Lee Royce in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley; impressed as crime-fighting vicar Sidney Chambers in Grantchester, and broken Hollywood in sci-fi psychological horror Flatliners.

Inhabiting his characters’ headspace, he confides, requires collecting data and forming the world that surrounds them. For the role of Alex, however, Norton did far more than just read.

“I did this bizarre thing where I spent time as Alex doing really mundane stuff, such as buying milk or brushing my teeth, in his headspace with his demons, his conflicts, desires and passions. It meant when I was on set and they called, ‘Action’, the headspace became quickly familiar to me.

“I think it freaked people out when I walked about as a schizophrenic Russian banker and then would go back to being me - but that’s my process!”

In true 007 style, he also took up Systema, a martial art used by the Russian military. “I went to these classes in London,” he recalls, smiling. “They’re run by this amazingly eccentric man called David, who I became very close to. We would meet in a room, on our own, and we would roll around and punch each other.”

“The first thing he said to me in my first lesson was, ‘The thing about English people is when they meet fear, they run away. In Russia, we meet fear, we shake them by the f*****g head’. I thought, ‘Oh God!’

“I had hours and hours of this man punching me and it’s all about taking the pain and relaxing through it,” he says, recalling a gruelling eight-month shoot that called for a healthy regime. “That’s when you find the control and the calm. It was terrifying.”

Another tick on the CV, then.

  • The first and second episodes of McMafia will air on BBC One tonight and tomorrow. Thereafter, the show will air on Sunday nights



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