James Norton wants to be known as more than a pretty face. Or a pretty chest.
Grantchester isn’t making that easier. The series about a hard-drinking young Anglican priest who solves mysteries in 1950s Britain features an episode that opened with the Rev Sidney Chambers (Norton) and his police inspector friend Geordie Keating (Robson Green) stripping to their shorts for a dip in the River Cam.
Britain’s Daily Mail, which last fall published photos from the shoot, compared it to Colin Firth’s impromptu swim in the 1995 Pride And Prejudice (a touch that came not from Jane Austen, but from screenwriter Andrew Davies).
It didn’t help when Davies, who adapted Tolstoy’s War And Peace for the mini-series that recently ran on Lifetime Channel in the United States, described Norton’s character, Andrei, as a “Russian Darcy”.
“It would be really sad if the sort of image thing eclipses the work,” Norton said after a news conference in January.
“If the camera’s kind to you, and you have a good bone structure, if that’s the reason you’re cast,” he said, “that’s really sad”.
Anyone who has seen Happy Valley knows Norton can pull off not-so-pretty, too. He’s terrifyingly versatile and a face, yes, to watch.
In the West Yorkshire-set crime drama, Norton plays Tommy Lee Royce, a manipulative thug – with, admittedly, good bone structure – who has made a lifelong enemy of police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire).
Norton, who showed up in Los Angeles with his Happy Valley shaved head to do press for Grantchester and War And Peace, said his work on the contemporary series “really took people by surprise”.
The show debuted in Britain while he was filming the first season of Grantchester, he said, “and I got quite a lot of people looking at me in this bemused way, like … ‘the psychopath wearing a dog collar?’ ”
And then there was the young woman who found herself dancing between Norton and a friend at a music festival, “looked up in my face, and just let out a big scream”.
Terrified screams aside, Norton’s happy to surprise people.
“The thing about Happy Valley, what’s lovely is that producers are often afraid of taking a risk with someone. And, as an actor, it’s very frustrating because you think, ‘That’s our job. Our job is to transform.’ Just because I don’t sound like a thug doesn’t mean I can’t play one,” he said.
“The shaving of the head is kind of symbolic of getting rid of all that period drama, the floppy hair,” Norton said.
The hair, happily, remains as floppy as ever in Grantchester’s second season, which takes a darker turn after the river frolic, as Sidney and Geordie find themselves on different sides in the resolution of a capital case.
Norton shares more than looks with Sidney, a creation of novelist James Runcie, who based the character in his Grantchester novels on his father, the late Robert Runcie, archbishop of Canterbury.
Both the actor and the character studied theology at Cambridge, and Norton’s a fan of Sidney’s favourite jazz musician, the American Sidney Bechet, whose work, he said, has the rhythms of his character, “fast, vital, and young”.
Will Sidney, who has been less successful with women than with detective work, ever catch a break?
“There’s so much love and affection for Sidney, and there’s so much self-doubt … and torture,” Norton said. “He really doesn’t do himself any favours.” – Philadelphia Daily News/Tribune News Service