James Norton is currently the bookies’ runaway favourite to take over from Daniel Craig as James Bond but, in his new tearjerker, Nowhere Special, which premieres at the Venice Film Festival today, he plays a Belfast window cleaner. For much of the movie, the dashing star of McMafia, War and Peace, Little Women and Happy Valley is up ladders with his cloths, wipes and scrapers, trying to bring some gloss to panes of glass while ungrateful customers look on.
Nowhere Special is as far removed from the world of 007, or from the romantic leads Norton often plays, as you can imagine. The ex-public-school boy and Cambridge theology graduate is cast as a working-class, tattoo-covered Northern Irishman who often wears his baseball cap back to front.
There’s no baseball cap when we catch up on Zoom. In fact, with his tousled hair, he looks better suited for a part in a remake of Brideshead Revisited. He is well-spoken and polite, apologising for being late; he’s just got back from a walk. Self-effacing and humorous one moment and solemn the next, he talks about a project that he describes as the “purest” piece of filmmaking he has ever been involved with.
Not that the role came without its challenges. Writer-producer-director Uberto Pasolini (the man behind 1997 smash hit The Full Monty) made heavy demands on his star’s ability to deliver lines while perched high up on his ladder. Norton had to embark on a crash course in window cleaning before production began. “I had a professional window cleaner [as teacher],” the 35-year-old says, joking about the lengths he had to go to in order to master a profession which has previously been depicted on screen by the likes of George Formby and Robin Askwith. “We had sessions. Uberto was very, very keen that I look authentic in my craft. I really didn’t know what I was doing so he made me take home all of the kit. I would walk up and down my street. I think that people were a little bit perturbed that I was offering them free window cleaning.”
Norton’s character is a single father bringing up a four-year-old son, Michael (Daniel Lamont). The huge twist here is that Norton’s John has brain stem cancer and only a few weeks left to live.
“The script broke my heart. It was such a powerful read. I don’t think I’ve ever read a script like it, the simplicity of it,” he remembers. “I kept on trying to explain the story to people. It was simply just a young man preparing his son for death.”
Instead of taking on Blofeld or shooting enemy spies with a Walther PKK (as might one day happen if Norton actually wins the Bond role), the actor is shown baking cakes and clearing up toys, teddies and spilt milk. The closest he comes to a fight is when he lobs eggs at the windows of a customer who has insulted him. There is no romance for him either. His wife has walked out and he has too little time left to go on dates. His only concern is finding the little boy a suitable foster family.
It’s a testament to Norton’s excellence that we don’t question the casting for an instant. He plays John with quiet and very affecting dignity and restraint, keeping his emotions under wraps at even the most fraught moments. His Belfast accent is spot on too.
Don’t expect scenes of hair loss or dark, melodramatic moments in doctors’ surgeries and hospital wards. The cancer is referred to in only the most oblique and subtle way.
“The illness, we did talk about at length obviously,” says Norton. ”It’s an incredibly important part of the film. We didn’t want the film to be about the illness. We talked about the way cancer is often portrayed on screen and [about] avoiding clichés.”
Instead, the focus is primarily on the father’s relationship with his son. The Ballymena-based child actor Daniel Lamont is one of those doe-eyed, scene-stealing kids the camera adores.
“Never work with children or animals,” curmudgeonly comedian WC Fields famously advised. Norton admits that he was “totally reconciled” to the fact that his four-year-old co-star was bound to “eclipse me and steal the whole movie”.
They were only allowed to work with Daniel for four hours a day. Strict rules were in place to make sure the child actor was not exploited. Norton was fascinated by Daniel’s approach. “To begin with, he really didn’t understand what it was to step into another person. He didn’t know the difference between rehearsal and filming. Half way through the shoot, he turned to his mum and said, ‘When do we start the film?’ It was amazing to see him over these four and a half weeks learn this process of filmmaking, acting and storytelling.”
Soon, the child actor was able to respond whenever Pasolini called “action” and, as Norton puts it, “to go into this other head space, this character Michael”, learning he is about to lose his father. Then, when Pasolini called “cut”, Daniel would immediately turn straight back into the mischievous, loveable little boy who had caught the casting directors’ attention in the first place. “He didn’t even know what he was doing. It was completely extraordinary to witness. I don’t know how he did it.”
When he takes on a role, Norton is famously diligent in his preparation. For McMafia, for example, he learned the complex Russian martial art Systema which equips its practitioners to cope when violence is unavoidable, “It’s used by the Russian military a lot. People who practice it apply it to all facets of their life, not just conflict training,” he told the BBC.
In Nowhere Special, the subject may be paternal love and bereavement, but he shows the same dedication. “The challenge was to find that very powerful, poignant and traumatic journey in the everyday, in the mundane,” Norton reflects on a film in which his character is shown going about his daily life as death inches nearer. Pasolini tries to make sure the audience is always aware of the character’s predicament. John may be performing banal household chores but if the director felt that Norton wasn’t conveying John’s inner uncertainty and angst, he would make him shoot the scene again. “He [Pasolini] gave me this quite heavy black rock on the first day of filming, put it in my pocket and said every day you are going to carry this with you. It is going to be there as a reminder, a physical weight, of what you are going through.”
Despite sometimes being described as quintessentially English, Norton is one of the most versatile actors around. He can go from playing a psychopathic rapist in Happy Valley to a Russian aristocrat in War and Peace or a crusading Welsh journalist in Stalin’s Russia in the film Mr Jones.
“The further I can get away from James the better,” Norton says of his constant desire to escape himself. “I’ve made an active effort to not play the classic romantic lead throughout my career. Every time I’ve come close to that, I try to make an active choice to take a totally oblique angle somewhere else. I recognise the risk of pigeon-holing and will always make every effort to avoid that.”
As ever, Norton has multiple projects in the pipeline. He is half way through shooting Joss Whedon’s new HBO TV sci‑fi drama, The Nevers. No, he jokes, he doesn’t play a window cleaner. His character, Hugo Swan, is a “crazy, pansexual posh boy who runs Satanic orgy clubs”. He has also recently set up his own production company, Rabbit Track Pictures, which he is running with producer Kitty Kaletsky. Their first project, Chasing Agent Freegard, stars Norton himself in the true story of British barman Robert Hendy-Freegard, who posed as an MI5 agent. It could therefore be very useful practice for Bond. However, if Norton really wants to continue appearing in offbeat, naturalistic dramas like Nowhere Special, I wonder if it might be wiser to avoid 007.
“This film couldn’t be further from Bond and I had one of the most special and memorable experiences I’ve ever had on a film set,” Norton states of Nowhere Special, although, he insists, he has enjoyed his previous experiences on bigger budget, spectacle-driven movies and TV dramas. “There’s cranes, Russian arms and hundreds of people. It’s all stunts and it’s sexy. That’s very fun. I’ve had a little experience of that [but] I think for me, what I really love – I hope I don’t sound overly earnest – is that it is all about character. Often, when you put too much stuff in the way of that, you deny the actor, the director, the storytellers, their opportunity to excavate character.”
The dilemma, then, is obvious. Is it possible to play Britain’s favourite spy without becoming so identified with the role that the public simply will not accept you moonlighting in character roles as Belfast window cleaners and the like?
“You would have to ask that question to Daniel Craig,” says Norton, “but if that choice [playing Bond] did preclude films like Nowhere Special, then it would be a hard thing for me to swallow.”
‘Nowhere Special’ received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on 9 September