He’s James Norton, latterly of Granchester, Happy Valley and War And Peace. OK, he doesn’t quite have the much sought-after film role (yet) as incumbent Daniel Craig is doing one more movie, but he has done a spectacularly good audition for the British spy character in his latest TV outing, called McMafia.
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In it, he flashes his torso, wears a tuxedo and beats up assailants with cool efficiency; he looks neither shaken, nor stirred.
The first two episodes of the Russian gangster/oligarch drama go out tomorrow and Tuesday but what exactly is ‘McMafia’?
It’s not a Scottish outlaw. It’s actually the title of a book written by former BBC correspondent Misha Glenny in 2006 who says the term is similar to a “McJob” and was applied to the Chechen mafia during that period. Any notions about their inadequacy have been disproven over time, with accusations now of money laundering, racketeering, extortion and arms trafficking.
Glenny believes his book has been prophetic. “Ten years later on, it couldn’t be more timely because everybody now knows that this is going on under our very noses, and indeed at the very heart of Washington DC.”
Alex (James Norton) finds his safe world turned upside down
There is a brutality and ruthlessness of Russian/Chechen organised crime seen in this drama that will leave you breathless, drawn as it is from real-life figures in the book. The gangsters won’t have any difficulty in seeing themselves in this adaptation. Nor will Barbara Broccoli have much difficulty in judging whether Norton would make a good Bond.
“I warned [the director] James Watkins,” says Norton, “and [the screenwriter] Hossein Amini that, if they wrote the first scene as me getting out of a cab in a tux, they might stir some of it.
“Personally, I’m very thankful Daniel Craig is going to do at least one more film, two or five, I’m a big fan of his.”
As you were for now. But he’s certainly getting into shape. Norton, 32, Alex Godman, in the drama. He undertook classes in the Russian martial art “systema” for the eight-part series.
He says: “I went to these classes run by this amazingly eccentric man called David, whom I became very close to. The first thing he said to me was ‘The thing about English people, when they meet fear they run away; in Russia we meet fear, we shake him by the ****ing hand!’. I had hours of this man punching me. It’s all about taking the pain and relaxing through it. It was terrifying.”
The drama has many of the qualities that made The Night Manager such a big hit, this time two years ago. For Hiddleston read Norton. It also has glamorous locations (12 in all), desirable-ish characters who can’t help being villainous, car chases and bomb blasts. It’s big budget too, with backing from BBC, Amazon, and AMC, an American channel, so it looks, according to Norton, “like an eight-hour movie”.
But what of his central character? He is complex. “Alex Godman”, explains Norton, “is the son of Russian parents who were exiled from Moscow. He’s a young hedge fund manager living in London with his beautiful girlfriend Rebecca. He’s spent most of his life turning his back on his mafia past and establishing himself in the world of finance. Over the course of the show, for various reasons, he’s forced to confront his past and the show is his story as he delves deeper and deeper into that criminal underworld.”
This involves meeting a top organised crime boss in Israel who makes it impossible for Alex to avoid more nefarious activities.
While Norton doesn’t immediately strike you as a “method actor”, he has used some similar techniques. “I did this bizarre thing where I spent time as Alex doing really mundane stuff, such as buying milk or brushing my teeth, in his headspace with his demons, his conflicts, desires and passions. It meant when I was on set and they called action, the headspace became quickly familiar to me.
“I think it freaked people out when I walked about as a schizophrenic Russian banker and then would go back to being me but that’s my process!” He adds: “One day I would go to their shops as me and the next day I’d be someone really different. I have a theory that as an actor you should love the person you are playing, however abhorrent their actions might be. Alex is a good man, certainly at the beginning of the show, and sees the best in people. As the story goes on, certain demons emerge and that’s what I had to understand and was part of the challenge – not just understanding but loving him despite his faults.”
James Norton has been tipped to be the next James Bond
The drama doesn’t flinch at controversy. As it opens there’s a discussion between Alex and his father Boris about who may have killed Princess Diana and Dodi. Conspiracy theorists will be delighted.
One great challenge on set for the director was that the cast spoke two languages, Russian and English. In the drama, Russian is spoken but subtitled, including that uttered by Norton.
“It was a surprise when they mentioned I’d need to speak it. Alex speaks it badly as his parents are both Russian but he moved to the UK when he was nine, so he has a grasp but doesn’t speak it well. It was fun to play with, particularly in regards to his relationship with his father where they were sometimes speaking two different languages. I had a few Russian lines and I learned them phonetically with the Russian translators on set. It’s a beautiful language even though I had no idea what I was saying!” Norton believes it’s not just the palatial houses, champagne and caviar that will appeal to audiences.
“I think McMafia is unique,” he says, “because it’s a story about the mafia and there is something compelling and timeless about organised crime which makes great drama. The mafia has changed, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union: it’s become a globalised corporation essentially. McMafia tells the story of the sexy side of the mafia which people are attracted to but also the cost of the lavish lifestyle, how it’s paid for and who pays for it.
James Norton starring as Alex Godman in McMafia
“The most important asset, though, is it’s a great story. Alex is sucked into this dark twisted criminal underworld and you desperately want him to turn around but as is often the case with good drama he makes bad choices along the way.
He believes we’re afraid to confront this dark world. But when you watch the drama you will understand why.
“I hadn’t read Misha Glenny’s book before I got the role but that was an eye opener. I was amazed and disturbed. It’s so pertinent and it’s an important conversation to have.”
It will also have you transfixed for eight hours if the first episode is any guide.
McMafia, BBC One, Monday and Tuesday, 9pm