At some point during the first series of Happy Valley, which aired on BBC One in 2014 and was watched by more than seven million people, James Norton found himself being mistaken for a murderous psychopath. On the one hand it was a compliment, suggesting that his portrayal of villain Tommy Lee Royce was so convincing, people thought the character was real, but it was also disconcerting.

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"I was at a gig and some people turned round, saw me and screamed. Another time, a woman came up to me on the street, grabbed my neck and shouted, 'You’re a monster!' She then caught herself and said, 'I’m so sorry, that was really inappropriate.'" He pauses. "It was quite funny." It’s easy to see why the character provoked such a visceral response. Across two series, whether his hair was dyed blond or cut brutally short, whether his eyes were a piercing blue or utterly indifferent, Royce was terrifying.

James Norton in Happy Valley series 3
BBC/Lookout Point/AMC/Alex Telfer

It’s been six long years since the second run of Sally Wainwright’s brilliant cop drama Happy Valley in 2016 and the recap at the start of the third series will make the hairs on your neck stand on end. There’s Sarah Lancashire as Sergeant Catherine Cawood, fiercely protective of her grandson and mourning her daughter, who took her own life after being raped by Royce. And there’s the man himself, newly out of prison after going down for drugs offences, determined to befriend his young son (who resulted from the rape) and make Cawood’s life a misery – both mentally and, ultimately, by kicking the living daylights out of her.

Of course, James Norton isn’t anything like him; in fact, he’s playing against type. His TV soulmate is more likely to be Sidney Chambers, the empathetic, tortured vicar he played in four series of ITV’s Grantchester. Norton is talking by Zoom from Dublin, enthusing about the cold showers he enjoys at the start of most days and the swim he’s going to take in the Irish Sea after our interview. He is thoughtful and engaged, his hair gelled into a kind of Mr Whippy quiff. But for the new series of Happy Valley, Royce has long hair and a beard, which everyone will assume is a nod to a Messiah complex.

Norton, 37, attended Ampleforth, a Benedictine boarding school in North Yorkshire, before studying theology at Cambridge (he went to Rada, but left before graduating in order to take an acting job). Did he feel comfortable exploring religious imagery on screen?

"The more we interrogate religion, the better," he says. "That’s why I studied theology: religion is such a significant part of our lives, whether you’re religious or not. It underpins so much art, literature and music. But Tommy’s look might be misleading…" He stops in his tracks, clearly wondering if he’s about to drop a spoiler. I wait, hopefully. "You’d be wrong in thinking Tommy is suddenly a born-again guy," he goes on. "Sally is so elegant in her storytelling, it’s much more mysterious and subtle."

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Tommy Lee Royce
Tommy Lee Royce BBC

What about the hair? Did he really grow it that long? "Haha! Well, the beard is all mine. And it’s a lot of my hair, but also a lot of extensions. I quite quickly acquired these weird tics of someone with long hair. I found myself coming out of the shower and doing this" – he waves his head around as though he’s in a shampoo ad – "and wrapping the towel on top of my head."

It seems odd to be joking about a rapist and murderer, but Norton points out that the darker the role he takes on, the greater the need to find humour wherever he can. He starred opposite Amanda Seyfried in the 2021 Netflix horror film Things Heard & Seen: "I’ve noticed that the atmosphere on a horror movie is often more playful than a normal set, because you’re desperately trying to offset the darkness."

Norton insists he is able to "dip in and out" of Royce and it’s very much make-believe. But after thinking some more he admits that he’s not inured to Tommy’s shocking behaviour. He recalls the "particularly violent" scenes in which Sgt Cawood rescued police support officer Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy) from the cellar in which Royce had her imprisoned. "When we filmed those scenes, they were much more violent – they were tamed down in the edit. I remember having really weird dreams for quite a long time after that."

When Wainwright first talked to Norton about playing Royce, almost a decade ago now, she said he was a very sad, troubled man. "She didn’t say he was a psychopath. The implication very early on was that I could decide how to define him, if at all. I was sent to talk to a criminal psychologist at the Priory who’d read the script. We tried to get deep inside Tommy. Everyone thinks of him as a psychopath, a vicious, murdering, raping, horrible monster, but of course that’s not his truth. He was badly abused as a child, he sees the world as inherently dangerous and hostile. So my way in was through the sheer wretchedness and desperation that young Tommy would have felt."

Norton has the empathy that Royce lacks, but he also found a certain freedom in portraying such a heinous character. "Aside from the violence, there was an element of Tommy I absolutely loved playing. I overthink everything and worry that I’ve said the wrong thing. Tommy is the ultimate anarchic rebel who doesn’t need any affirmation. I’d have to say that Tommy exploded my experience of the world by taking me to sad places and enhancing my compassion."

And it made Norton famous in a way he hadn’t been before, both here and in the US, where Norton says Happy Valley has cult status. "I owe the show so much creatively. It gave me confidence and showed that I can’t be pigeonholed as an actor." He is clearly at ease both in contemporary crime dramas such McMafia and period classics such as War and Peace (in which he played Andrei Bolkonsky). But it’s still strange to think that he played both a psychopath and a postwar vicar at about the same time.

Does he still watch Grantchester? "I don’t… and I feel bad because it’s such a lovely show and Robson [Green] is one of the nicest men in the world. I had more fun than I’ve ever had on the set of Grantchester. When I read about it, my heart slightly aches. I’ve been replaced by Tom [Brittney]. Which is fine…" Still, he looks a little sad.

Tom Brittney [L] and James Norton [R] in Grantchester
Tom Brittney (L) and James Norton (R) in Grantchester Kudos/ITV

Filming Grantchester in and around Cambridge may have been idyllic, but Happy Valley was shot in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, a community that has been largely abandoned. Norton nods. "It’s a beautiful part of the world with a rich cultural history, but there’s also a lot of poverty and a sense of injustice. The textile industry was decimated in the 1980s and '90s, then the yuppies moved up from London with money to renovate houses. The lack of levelling up is so starkly represented by those two aspects of the Valley. Happy Valley is partly about communities being left behind, but also about the humour and warmth at the heart of Catherine’s family."

The third series of Happy Valley will be the last. Norton has already moved on – in March he will star in a Harold Pinter Theatre production of A Little Life, adapted from Hanya Yanagihara’s bestselling novel, while Norton’s production company, Rabbit Track Pictures, has "more than ten exciting projects" at development stage. He also remains one of the top five actors mooted to succeed Daniel Craig as James Bond, but when I ask if he’d be up for it, he simply smiles and says, "It’s difficult to answer that question. They are thinking about what direction they want to take and they haven’t called me to be part of that conversation."

For now, he’s looking forward to his cold-water swim and a stretch. Since his fiancée, actor Imogen Poots, treated him to a massage, he has discovered his back is badly knotted. In fact, he says, that’s his New Year’s resolution – stretching every morning. But first there is Christmas to consider. Norton grins. "I usually spend it with my family and it involves a walk, food, booze and games – except everyone’s so drunk they can’t actually play. This will be my first Christmas without my family. I’m not married yet, but I’m going to spend it with my partner’s family, which I’m excited about."

And the new series of Happy Valley, kicking off 2023? "It hit the bull’s-eye in the first and second series, so we’re feeling the pressure of expectation. We’re all aware of the incredible love people have for it and we really have to deliver. But I’m pretty sure that, by the time you get to the finale, you’ll be reeling."

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This interview originally appeared in Radio Times magazine. Happy Valley season 3 will premiere on New Year's Day at 9pm on BBC One and BBC iPlayer. The first two seasons are available to watch on BBC iPlayer now. If you're looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide and Streaming Guide, or visit our Drama hub for more news and features.

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