James Norton on starring in BBC1's tense gangster thriller McMafia, which begins on New Year's Day... it's nothing like Grantchester!
James Norton plays a conflicted man Alex Godman in BBC1’s McMafia. We were very lucky to catch up with James on set to hear more about Russian gangsters and filming around the world.
James Norton on McMafia – here the 32-year-old star tells us all about his big new BBC1 thriller which opens on New Year’s Day on BBC1 at 9.00pm
So tell us about Alex?
James Norton: “Alex is the son of an ex-Russian mobster. The family have been exiled back to London 10 to 15 years previous to the story, and he has set his mission to turn his back on his criminal past. He has a girlfriend Rebecca and runs a hedge fund, which is all about ethical finance.”
Does Alex still relate to his Russian roots?
JN: “He’s got this polarised contradiction where he’s Russian and identifies with his Russian roots but he’s also aware that they are tied up with this Mafia past. He’s adamant that he’s making a life in England, he was educated here, he has an English accent, his girlfriend is here and yet he spends his evenings reading Dostoyevsky and so it’s this contradiction in his own head that he hasn’t quite come to terms with. Through a series of events, he gets blackmailed and strong-armed into engaging with his chequered past.”
How much did you know about the Russian criminal world?
JN: “Not that much but I think we’re all fascinated. It’s compelling the whole Mafia thing, it’s that slightly subversive dark world. When we talk about the Mafia it’s so tied up with those portrayals we’re used to in The Godfather but I didn’t fully appreciate how the Mafia is a totally new phenomenon, totally globalised, corporate, it straddles all these different countries and financial systems. It no longer sits in a city with a protection racket. It’s Panama papers, it’s corrupt presidents, the liquidity between the Kremlin and the White House and how that’s facilitated. That was what made McMafia a real eye opener for me.”
But Alex has turned his back on all of that…
JN: “He’s aware of the past and the family but he’s spent so much of his life turning his back on it and not engaging in it, the audience are taken on that journey through his eyes. It’s fascinating because there’s this whole underworld that doesn’t abide by the rules and it’s exciting!”
Doesn’t he lead a super rich lifestyle anyway?
JN: “He’s not flashy and ostentatious although they are from a very wealthy Russian family and even though they’re exiled they live a pretty lavish lifestyle. Rebecca and Alex live in a mews house in west London and it’s very tasteful and ethical, using all kind of reclaimed wood! He’s not drinking champagne and eating caviar but he runs a very important hedge fund and Rebecca’s job is working for a man who is the figurehead of ethical finance.”
From left to right: Dimitri, Alex, Oksana, Katya and Rebecca
Does Alex reconnecting with his past put pressure on their relationship?
JN: “Rebecca knows they have this strange past and the fact that Alex is from that world but very much rejected it is something she’ll have been attracted to when they first fell in love. Now it’s all about him identifying himself with clean money and she finds that very attractive. She’s an ethically minded person and Alex is forced to face his past, which does start to challenge their relationship.”
Could you identify with Alex?
JN: “Good writing is never about villains and heroes, its about humanity – that wonderful mess in between. The people, these mobsters and bosses are all just like us looking out for each other. Of course they have a slightly warped version from ours but their priorities are the same. In a way it’s made me look at them in a different way as none of the characters are stock villains, they’re all deeply sympathetic and human. You’re never really sure where your allegiance lies as an audience member.”
Does Alex have a choice about the path he chooses?
JN: “At the beginning he doesn’t have a choice then at certain point you go, ‘would I make that choice?’ Then later you’re wondering ‘how the hell did I end up here?’ You’re never quite sure where you stand and nor is Alex.”
Can Alex (James Norton) escape his past?
As he gets drawn further and further into it, does it change him as a person?
JN: “You’re never sure how much he’s being seduced. He convinces himself it’s about protection and survival but there’s this other side to it. He is never quite sure with each choice he makes whether it’s to do with survival or is it more that he just wants go deeper and deeper and gather more control and money. It’s brilliant.”
Did the role change your mind about consumerism?
JN: “Although it does humanise the individuals we have a storyline that looks into human trafficking and the sex trade. It’s powerful and heart-breaking. The idea of these men and women causing that kind of suffering and exploitation does play with your allegiance. We all know that bits of clothing we wear can come from very, very dark places and this is a great show because it does start to question those things. What’s great is that for every character who’s living the high life you also see the women being trafficked, the drugs going through Mumbai, addicts, and that suffering so it’s always qualified with the cost.”
This is very different to Grantchester, was that exciting for you?
JN: “Yeah it’s great. There are splintered elements going everywhere, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, we’ve also filmed in the south of France, Croatia and Serbia and its great that these guys are showing London in all of its scale and wealth. It’s very, very exciting to work with all these different actors from different nationalities. We occasionally clash and have different views but it’s extraordinary and I’ve learnt an enormous amount.”
Did you have to speak Russian?
JN: “No, we learn bits. We have these extraordinary Russian actors here, so we have translators on set. Alex was sent to school over here when his family were in trouble. Living in London he wants to establish his roots here. He speaks English while his dad speaks 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.”