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2024-05-29 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine The Long Road to Nowhere Special

The Long Road to Nowhere Special

The long road to Nowhere Special

Actor James Norton’s career is swiftly on the rise, from playing Chris Blackwell in the Bob Marley biopic One Love to his deeply felt role in the critically acclaimed Nowhere Special. DAVID GRAVER catches the British thespian between takes.

James Norton, photographed in London by Edd Horder

In the nearly four years between its September 2020 premiere as an official selection of the Venice Film Festival and its April 2024 theatrical release in the United States, the quietly emotional cinematic masterpiece Nowhere Special has continued to garner attention for the performance of its star, James Norton. During that time, Norton himself has undergone an atmospheric rise — affixed to the fiery conclusion of his character, Tommy Lee Royce, in the beloved British crime series Happy Valley, to his raw performance as the tormented Jude St. Francis in the West End stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s acclaimed novel A Little Life.

Both roles demonstrate Norton’s intuitive capabilities in bringing a character to life. Happy Valley, which ran for three seasons stretched out over 10 years (debuting in 2014, with a second season in 2016 and a third in 2023), marked a turning point. “It’s such a huge part of my life and my career,” Norton tells Avenue. “When you add in this eccentric, confident choice to delay the third season so that the whole experience spans 10 years,” he continues, “we all began to realize how significant the series was. In that seven-year gap, I grew up. We all did. Our lives changed. We had the opportunity to come back and apply those changes to the characters and see how they evolved.”

Norton credits his portrayal of the character with breaking him out of typecasting. “I got that role when people did not know who I was or how I sounded. It proved I was up for and capable of transformative roles. I owe it to Sally Wainwright and the team. People can refer to it and see that I will put in the work,” he says. “I learned, by playing that role, the depths that I could go to and the way to approach character relationships. The whole show is about family and blood and the deep ways we all relate as human beings.”

A Little Life also provided a turning point — one where Norton mined his past to inform a character defined by immense trauma. “It felt like an insurmountable challenge,” he says. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever taken on, in terms of creating the life of a character, and I did it with a great support group.” The run time of each performance was roughly four hours — and the physical and emotional demands were extreme.

Norton at a café in London (photograph by Edd Horder)

Though the subject matter of Nowhere Special, which is inspired by the true story of a single father in Northern Ireland preparing his son for an adoptive family following his own death, carries gravity and complexity, Norton’s performance is reserved and transfixing. The film — written, directed, and produced by Uberto Pasolini — is populated by quiet, and quietly moving, moments between Norton’s character, John, and his four-year-old son, Michael, who is played with curiosity and wonder by newcomer Daniel Lamont. “I was looking for someone who could embrace the language of the film, where thoughts and emotion are rarely articulated and never emphasized, but still need to be communicated, and someone generous enough to adapt to the unpredictable needs of a four-year-old performer without any previous experience (as I didn’t want a ‘child actor’ for our Michael),” says Pasolini. “The film really could not have happened without him. He understood that our story would only work if we believed in the boy and his relationship with the father, and it is his limitless generosity towards Daniel that enabled that relationship to be truthful on the set and on the screen. His readiness to spend time with Daniel and his family ahead of and during the shoot gave birth to a real friendship, real affection between them, and I was just lucky to capture it with our camera.”

James Norton lensed by Edd Horder in London

“I knew it would be a challenge to have a dialogue with a four-year-old who hadn’t yet confronted death and didn’t really know what death was,” Norton says. “This is the story of a man preparing his child for his death both in a practical sense — by finding the best foster family, and the best future — but also in an emotional sense, as he introduces him to the ideas of separation and loss and grief.” Norton’s bond with Lamont is evident — and their process began simply by talking to one another, playing with toys, and hanging out.

As Norton gently introduced the themes and concepts of the film to Lamont, Pasolini began to roll. “I could see this open, innocent face looking at me and he was computing what I was telling him,” Norton continues. “We thought we were going to shoot this in piecemeal chunks and cut it up and grab a line here and a line there, but the truth is Daniel went through something and I went through something. The director was able to let the camera roll and we’d have a long two-shot and he’d just capture everything. Magic happened.”

For the role, Norton — who was born in London — adeptly adopted a Northern Irish accent. His other transformations were subtler. There’s an expressive minimalism to the performance that allows the viewer to dip into pools of immense grief. “Every actor loves to show what they can do in terms of a big acrobatic, emotional dance, but I didn’t do that,” he says. “For me, it was a challenge, as is always the case with good writing, to trust what it takes to tell the story. This is about a depressed man who is not used to showing his emotions. I had to trust that my eyes could tell the story.”

Norton believes that the heaviness of the subject matter should not deter people from watching it, because it’s really a story of love, and the evolution of a father who wants nothing more than the best future for his son. “A film can give you so many things, but if it encourages you to hug someone a little tighter and love a little deeper, that is the perfect reason to immerse yourself in a movie,” he says.

“I am so proud of this film,” he adds. “If a job has successfully contributed to the growing and learning process, as an actor and as a person, that job is a great privilege. Nowhere Special was such an important moment in my life because it was an opportunity to meditate on something that I am afraid of — dying, death — and leaving someone behind. And from it, I found love, kindness, and compassion.”

In addition to the cinematic release of Nowhere Special, Norton also featured in this year’s Bob Marley biopic, One Love, where he played the producer Chris Blackwell, who first took a risk on the Jamaican recording artist. Norton spoke to Avenue from his home in London, which he had just returned to from Iceland, where he was shooting the television series King and Conqueror. The show was developed by his own production company, Rabbit Track Pictures. “I have been lucky that every job has built my career in an organic way,” Norton says. “It’s been a ladder of a career — and I’ve been excited to spend time on every rung. I started in theater and then did small roles in television, before Happy Valley. I did it all quietly and had time to make mistakes. Now that people are paying attention, I feel more confident.” With such disparate, compelling performances, that confidence has been earned.

James Norton by Edd Horder

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