Maureen Coleman hears the inside story of how Grantchester actor James Norton bonded with his young co-star in a moving new Northern Ireland-made film
He’s played a dangerous psychopath, a tortured vicar and the British-raised son of a Russian mafia boss.
But in his latest film, Nowhere Special, James Norton portrays the most ordinary of men dealing with extraordinarily tragic circumstances.
The London-born, Yorkshire-bred star of Happy Valley, Grantchester and McMafia takes on the role of 35-year-old Belfast window cleaner John, who looks after his young son Michael single-handedly.
When John discovers that he only has months to live, he sets about trying to find a replacement family to adopt his little boy. But who can he trust and how can he protect his son from the heart-breaking truth? As roles go, it’s a world away from the glamour and drama of many of Norton’s previous projects. Uberto Pasolini’s Northern Ireland-set tale steers away from huge scene-stealing moments. Instead, it’s a quiet, tender two-hander, mainly, between 35-year-old Norton and his six-year-old Ballymena co-star, Daniel Lamont.
“When I read the script, I burst into tears,” Norton tells me. “I knew it was something special.
“It arrived randomly on my desk and initially I wasn’t able to do it because of scheduling. But when a television show I was due to work on was delayed, I was able to ring Uberto and say ‘ok, let’s do this’.
“I think we both share a taste for understatement and allowing the drama of the story to carry through performances that are private and restrained.
“When Uberto writes films like this and Still Life (2013), he finds such incredible poignancy.”
Arriving in Belfast to shoot Nowhere Special in the autumn of 2019, Norton’s preparatory priority was to get to know his young onscreen son and establish a bond. To this end, the Bafta-nominated actor befriended the Lamont family, spending time with Daniel, who was four at the time, to gain his trust and show off his fun side.
But the connection wasn’t just for the cameras; Norton developed a genuine affection for the youngster, his older sister Erin and their parents Kasia and Geoffrey. He visited their home in Ballymena for family dinners, hung out with Daniel at the local park and is still in contact with them. Kasia keeps him up-to-date with Daniel’s life and just this week, Norton met up with the Lamonts in London, ahead of a special screening.
“The most important piece of preparation for me was making sure that Daniel and I had a genuine relationship,” explains Norton.
“We played with his toys, his bike and skateboard. We went to the park. I wanted him to see me as a friend but also that I was up for fun.
“He took to calling me his ‘fake daddy’. But I think he saw me as a fun friend too. We knew we needed him to look forward to coming to work. There was a real risk that after three or four days, a four-year-old would get bored and go home, which would have been understandable.
“But what was incredible was that Daniel thrived in that environment, not only in terms of the performance aspect, but also, he had this intuitive understanding of what it was to leave Daniel’s exuberant, quite bouncy, young kid behind and turn into this very thoughtful, restrained, quiet young boy, Michael.”
Much of the poignancy in the movie is down to the unspoken words between the pair — an affectionate look, a little boy’s hand reaching out to comfort his terminally ill dad. Daniel’s hugely expressive face conveys confusion, frustration and compassion, as he tries to understand what is going on. In one scene, that frustration gets the better of him, but teasing that performance out of the child wasn’t without its challenges.
“In that scene he was really crying,” says Norton. “He was saying ‘but I don’t want to be nasty to James. I don’t want to have to shout at James.’ It was so sweet.
“We explained to him that it was ok, we were just playing. It was just a performance; he wasn’t really being nasty. We told him it was Michael not Daniel.
“When it came to doing the scene, he cried. It was beautifully moving because it was so honest.
“It’s really hard to put a finger on how he managed to create magic. When you work with children and animals, it’s always unpredictable. You don’t know what you’re going to get. What we got from Daniel was such pure, honest, authentic instinctive reactions and emotions.
“He’s a very intelligent kid.”
In Nowhere Special, father and son go on a journey together. Michael almost takes on the role of the dad as he looks out for John, who, in turn, becomes more like the child. In their final months together, John learns that love overrides any other emotions he might be dealing with. And as his death approaches, he takes control and makes the weighty decision about the family he wants his young son to live with.
Away from the cameras, Norton watched Daniel go through his own transformation. Not only did the schoolboy learn about the performance aspect of the craft, but also, what it meant to be an actor.
“By the end he was calling ‘action’ and ‘cut’ and basically had everyone on set cooing over him,” laughs Norton.
“You always knew when Daniel was on set. You would hear everyone saying ‘aw’. He stole the show really.
“And I have to say, all credit to his wonderful parents. We would not have been able to do the film had they not been so understanding, patient and generous with their time and his.”
It’s the first time Norton, who studied theology at Cambridge before training as an actor at RADA, has worked so intensely with a child. In Sally Wainwright’s award-winning Yorkshire-based crime show, Happy Valley, he played psychopath Tommy Lee Royce, who has a son, but Nowhere Special saw him spend much more onscreen time with his young co-star. Not long after he filmed in Belfast, he landed another dad role. He puts this down to his age. And past work experience as a children’s party organiser is now coming in handy.
“I’m at a time in my life where a lot more roles I’m being offered are dads with young children,” he says. “In a few years’ time, I’ll have teenage children but right now I’m a dad with toddlers.
“Prior to that, I worked with a dog in Grantchester and that was always challenging.
“My pockets smelled of sausages all the time because I used them to train the dog.
“I used to work as a children’s party organiser when I was in my early 20s. I picked up a few tricks of the trade, about how to distract a child who’s maybe fallen over or is upset about something.
“It’s about having the energy of a Blue Peter presenter and having the confidence to bring yourself away from the learned behaviour of an adult to regress back to being a kid.”
I wonder has playing a dad made him broody now.
Norton, who has been in a relationship with actress Imogen Poots for three years, says: “I love children and I look forward to maybe having some of my own one day. But not just yet.”
It was while dating a previous girlfriend, Irish actress Jessie Buckley, that Norton first visited Belfast. Buckley was shooting a drama in Northern Ireland and Norton popped over to see her a few times. He says he was really taken with the city and when the part in Nowhere Special came up, he was more than happy to come back.
He climbed the Mourne Mountains, visited the Titanic Quarter and became acquainted with Belfast’s restaurants and pubs. He was struck by the city’s ‘inclusiveness and vibrancy’ and felt ‘that sense of hope and healing and jubilation’ that is often a part of a post-conflict society.
“I got on board with that and I loved Belfast,” he said. “In London, everything seems much more in order, maybe a bit more repressed. I really enjoyed my time in Belfast. I was there for six weeks on my own, so spent a lot of the time with the crew, going out for beers.”
While at RADA, Norton decided to work on his Northern Irish accent. There wasn’t a particular reason; he hadn’t been offered a role. But he liked the ‘fluidity’ and the ’lyricism’ of the dialect and gave it a go. For the part of John, he studied under dialect coach, Brendan Gunn, picking up new phrases such as ‘keep er lit’. I ask him if he had used the phrase since.
“I have, you know, quite a few times. No one knew what I was on about,” he laughs.
The crew in Belfast were amazing, he says. He’s remained in touch with Nowhere Special’s producer Chris Martin and is full of praise for his make-up artist on set, Polly McKay. It’s testament to her skills that the ruggedly handsome actor, whose name has been mooted to play the next James Bond, managed to look increasingly unwell as the storyline progressed. His physical transformation throughout is an integral part of the story.
Norton shares a funny anecdote about a night out in Belfast with the crew.
“I was covered in fake tattoos, had slicked back hair and even when I wasn’t on set, spoke in a Belfast accent,” he says. “I did that for consistency. It’s much easier to do that than bouncing back and forth.
“The first time we all went out, I turned up with floppy hair and sounded like this real lovey from London. I remember them saying ‘who the f**k are you?’ It took an hour or two to work out that I wasn’t who they thought I was. I guess that’s quite a compliment really.”
In his latest project, Freegard, Norton has had ample opportunities to practise his Belfast accent again. The film, which wraps in London next week, is being directed by Belfast duo Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson, from a screenplay they co-wrote. Norton plays Robert Hendy-Freegard, a conman who masqueraded as an MI5 agent and fooled several people into going underground for fear of assassination by the IRA.
The thriller is being produced by Norton’s own company, Rabbit Track Pictures. It’s the company’s first movie and the feature length directorial debut for Lawn and Patterson, so there’s a lot at stake, Norton says.
“We really believe in this project,” he says. “Declan and Adam did a wonderful job writing the script and directing. They’re great guys and everyone on set was trying to emulate their accents.”
Did they approve of his own attempt?
Norton breaks into Belfast brogue: “Aye, they saw the movie and said it was pretty good.” Then he adds: “But they only gave me 91%. I was furious! I was like ‘what happened to the other nine?’.
“But I’ve been working with them now for six weeks and at least when I say, ‘keep er lit,’ they know what I mean.”
With another series of Happy Valley in the pipeline, Norton is looking forward to getting back up to Yorkshire, where his parents still live.
But he says he would jump at the chance to work in Belfast again.
“Doing the movie was a really special experience,” he says. “Going to the Venice Film Festival and sharing that moment with Daniel’s family was something I’ll never forget.
“I’ve promised them we’ll hang out again when all the madness calms down. I’d love to come back to Belfast for a nother film , playing a Northern Irish man again. I’m a big fan.”
Nowhere Special is released on July 16.