“Some people have asked me if I’m worried about getting death threats for exposing how the Russian mafia works,” James Norton says casually over dinner. “That would be nothing new. Playing Tommy Lee Royce, I’d get death threats buying milk in my local shop.”
Happy Valley’s dangerous psychopath has been one of Britain’s favourite baddies of the past few years, so it’s exciting to imagine Norton, 32, suiting up to play Alex Godman – the British-raised son of Russian mafia exiles who is dragged into the criminal underworld.
Godman is the complicated hero of McMafia, the BBC’s big-budget crime drama that started on New Year’s Day, starring Norton and Juliet Rylance alongside a host of Russian, Israeli and Serbian actors playing mob bosses from their home territories.
It’s based on journalist Misha Glenny’s 2008 book of that name – a forensic account of how the end of the Cold War produced a trans-national criminal class that effectively franchised out its cigarette, drugs and people smuggling businesses. That illegal trade may account for up to 15 per cent of the world’s GDP. (Hence the title – nothing to do with the Scots and all to do with the franchise model.)
The TV drama, on the other hand, is a brooding international thriller that blends The Night Manager’s stylish globetrotting with The Sopranos’ take on family values. “We took the book as a backdrop,” explains the show’s co-creator, Hossein Amini, who was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for The Wings of a Dove and whose other credits include the films Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman. “For Alex Godman I mixed in a little of my background – I came to London as an Iranian just after the revolution – and a bit of Michael Corleone in The Godfather… the innocent trying to escape his family’s past.”
Norton’s character Godman is living a decent life in London, running an ethical hedge fund and hoping to marry his girlfriend, Rebecca (played by Rylance), until Vadim, a Russian oligarch, arrives in town dealing out murder. The plot echoes the deaths of exiled tycoons such as Boris Berezovsky (a businessman and opponent of Putin’s who was found dead at his home in Berkshire – the inquest recorded an open verdict) and Arkadi Patarkatsishvili (a Georgian billionaire whose death from a heart attack was surrounded by rumours that he’d been assassinated). Godman is drawn further and further into his family’s dark past and soon finds, to his surprise, that he’s pretty good at it.
“The thing about Alex is, he’s neither a villain nor a hero,” Norton explains, sitting outside a hotel in Croatia as the evening draws slowly in. The country doubles for everything from Tel Aviv to the south of France, and he’s been here filming for a few months. He is working harder than he expected, and having dinner with Israeli, Russian and Brazilian actors – “We’re muddling our way through slightly confused conversations”. It’s his day off today, so he’s having one small glass of beer. It’s the kind of control you’d expect from Godman – whose calm smile and cold eyes mean even his uncle can’t understand what he’s thinking.
“Alex is trying to do the right thing, but he’s being screwed up and twisted and turned and he gets into this spiralling mess,” Norton says. “He’s not really in full control of each choice. You identify with him, you want him to succeed, you want him to survive – but then the darkness starts to take hold. He’s complicated.”
Researching the role had a huge effect on Norton. “There’s something about the mafia that is quite compelling – it’s an anarchic, subversive world, with money and fast cars and yachts and beautiful women and all that stuff,” he says. “But we also tell the story of the cost – like human trafficking and drug dealing and junkies in Mumbai. I was aware that there are components in my smartphone that are unethically sourced, but I didn’t know how deeply criminals are involved. All our lives are in some way affected by this corruption – the food, the petrol, the minerals in your phone mined by children in the Third World – even if you aren’t aware of it.” He pauses. “But I’ve still used my phone every single day, which is probably not a great example to set.”
If the role has had a personal impact on him, it’s going to have greater repercussions for his career. The former Cambridge theology student, born in London and raised in Yorkshire, has had a range of roles since he waltzed on to the small screen as Henry Alveston in Death Comes to Pemberley in 2013. The next year, Sally Wainwright picked him to play Tommy Lee Royce, the dark villain to Sarah Lancashire’s troubled cop Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley. The role of crime-solving vicar Sidney Chambers in ITV’s Grantchester came shortly after. Norton has popped up since in War & Peace, Flatliners and Black Mirror.
“I didn’t have long between Grantchester and McMafia,” he says. “We finished Grantchester only a couple of weeks before I started McMafia in January 2017. I was mixing thoughts about my sermon with books on the mafia.”
Surprisingly, he says the theology degree helped with both roles. “I enjoy chewing over the big questions of what it is to be, and to live. Both Granchester and McMafia are about that – about the inner wranglings of each man. Although Alex is cooler and more anguished.”
With McMafia already picked up in the US by cable network AMC and showing in almost 200 other territories, Norton already has Hollywood knocking at his door. “Actually, Happy Valley started it,” he says. “It’s on Netflix and it’s become a cult hit in the US.
“McMafia feels so relevant – it feels as if the world wants to look behind the curtains of what’s going on in America and Russia. Selfishly, it feels a step up. The budget we have, an Oscar-nominated writer, all the talent… It’s terrifying in a way because there’s nowhere to hide.”
The series certainly does nothing to dispel the rumours that he’s being lined up to play James Bond after Daniel Craig. Norton’s opening scene even had him sweeping up to the V&A in a tux and tie.
“I did say to James Watkins, the director, are you just baiting me and stoking the rumour fire with scenes like that?” He laughs. “When it’s reported in the press, people assume that I’ve co-ordinated the scene, but I promise you I didn’t. The truth is that it’s total speculation. It’s really humbling and flattering, but to have my name [talked up for Bond] next to the likes of Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender is just mad. If you’re thinking of putting a bet on me, keep your money in your pocket.”
And then he’s off to spend time with one of the artists with a cameo role in a Tel Aviv nightclub scene – his father, Hugh, who has appeared in all of Norton’s TV series and is gathering his own following.
“I’m trying to encourage him to do less of it – The One Show did a piece on him and my publicist was like, ‘Enough is enough – you’ve got to stop!’” He laughs as he pays the bill. “But my parents are both retired. They came to Croatia for four days and this time he’s playing a sugar daddy in a Tel Aviv gay bar. He has a suit and a cravat and is flirting with these young boys… It’s very funny. For the first time he wasn’t an extra; he was a featured artist so he was on the call sheet – which is probably framed at home by now.”