Profile – James Norton

happy valley
James Norton as Tommy Lee Royce and Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley Photo:IMdB

As a director I’m always looking for great performances and versatile actors in both film and television. Actors that can make me smile or hate their characters on a whim.  While there are many actors that have caught my attention lately, my first profile piece will be focusing on British actor James Norton.

Born in London, England to teachers Hugh and Lavinia Norton, James is quickly becoming the actor everyone wants in their films and series. And why not? He’s an incredibly versatile performer that convinces you of his pain, his hate, his love and his happiness.

I was first introduced to Norton in the Amma Asante’s Belle a beautiful film in which he played a posh aristocrat with no fortune vying for the love of mixed-race heiress Dido Elizabeth Belle. His charming portrayal of a high ranking socialite effortlessly seducing what many in that time would consider exotic and taboo was captivating.

The next time I saw him was in Happy Valley – in a role that was vastly different from Belle’s Oliver Ashford. His performance as a murdering rapist was disturbing, so disturbing it took me three episodes to realize that he was the same man who had portrayed such a charming character in a film I love.

Equally mesmerizing was his portrayal of eternally depressed and painfully heartbroken Russian Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in the epic television adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s historic drama War & Peace. I often found that when he shared the screen with Paul Dano, who I also think is an amazing actor – he stole the show with his gloomy personification of Bolkonsky.

The fact that Norton has the ability to portray all types of characters in what seems to be effortless performances is quite unique – even more unique is that I believed each portrayal and I hated him, and loved him, then hated him again, then loved him again.

Most recently I had the pleasure to watch this versatile actor in PBS’s Grantchester as a young vicar who is inadvertently thrust into a series of murder investigations as he deals with faith, love and PTSD from serving in WWII. Again, his performance is entirely believable. He’s raw at times, and at others you can see the vulnerability and naiveté of a faith-abiding man who just seeks justice for his parishioners and is trying his best to do the right thing. While I haven’t had the opportunity to watch his performance in Lady Chatterley’s Lover I’m sure that it won’t be a disappointment since Norton is good at playing every character.

As a lifelong fan of film, one of the many things that I look for is the way actors perform – I often get turned off when a character is miscast and begin to think about another actor who could have done a better job. Not once have I done that with Norton’s performances. As a director I ask myself “Do I believe this?” and it has translated into how I want my actors to perform when I’m in a scripted film project. The ever-important question in storytelling for me is “will the audience believe this performance?” and Norton makes me believe each and every performance of his – which in my honest opinion is quite rare.

I see Norton going places and his career enduring the test of time. His star won’t fizzle with his looks because his performances are engaging, and oftentimes he transforms himself with each of his characters – something very important for the longevity of any actors career.


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