McMafia: Can James Norton really speak Russian?

The Grantchester and Happy Valley delivers some convincing Russian in his new drama

James Norton in McMafia (BBC, HF)

New crime drama McMafia is full of eye-catching violence, opulent wealth and beautiful scenery – but the thing that most caught our notice was star James Norton’s adept use of Russian throughout the drama, with his character Alex Godman frequently conversing fluently with his family members (generally played by Russian actors) despite Norton’s own lack of Russian roots.

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So, we had to wonder – how did he pull it off?

“I’m a very committed actor and have learnt to speak Russian,” Norton joked on the set of McMafia earlier this year. “No, we learn bits.

“We have these extraordinary Russian actors here [playing Alex’s parents], so we have translators on set. Alex was sent to school over here when it felt family were in trouble, in line with reality, when people turned against the oligarchs. That’s the time when the family was in jeopardy and Alex was sent with his sister to be educated privately in England.

“So living in London he wants to establish his roots here,” Norton continued.

“He speaks English, his dad Russian, so there’s constantly a battle but when they want to give each other a gift or are speaking affectionately, he might speak Russian to his dad.”

And in scenes where he had to engage in lengthy Russian dialogue, Norton explained, he had a trick to make it look convincing – learning key words so he knew at what point he was supposed to reacting or replying in a certain way.

“A scene we’re shooting now, [Alex’s dad] speaks a lot of dialogue all in Russian, and I sit there an go, ‘Hmm,’ pretending,” Norton laughed.

“I have to learn both his and my lines, so I hear a word which I know in English so I know I have to react. It is quite a weird experience.”

Still, Norton’s co-stars told us that he was coping admirably with the challenge – and his use of the language is sure to only increase his already considerable fanbase in Russia itself.

“I’m very happy that James Norton, who plays Andrei in War and Peace, I’m very happy to have him as my son,” Mariya Shukshina, who plays Alex’s mother Oksana, told us through a translator.

“When I was coming over here, a lot of ladies were telling me to say hi to him, and give him a kiss. Did I? Of course! He has a big following in Russia. A lot of fans.”

And now, he’ll be able to respond to their messages much more easily. Just as long as they include some of his keywords….

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McMafia begins on BBC1 tonight (Monday 1st January) at 9.00pm and continues tomorrow at the same time