Happy Valley's James Norton on 'disturbing' new role in A Little Life (2024)

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Happy Valley's James Norton on 'disturbing' new role in A Little Life (1)Image source, Jan Versweyveld

By Rebecca Jones

Arts correspondent, BBC News

James Norton is about to star in the stage adaptation of the hugely successful novel A Little Life. The actor explains why he needed an intimacy co-ordinator during rehearsals for the "disturbing" role, and how, as a diabetic, he will handle being on stage for nearly four hours.

The Happy Valley star, 37, plays tortured lawyer Jude in A Little Life, a stage version of the 2015 bestselling, Booker-nominated novel by Hanya Yanagihara.

Ticketing websites warn of suicide, drugs, nudity, self-harm, rape and violence on stage - something which will not surprise those who have read the book.

"There are no punches pulled in this production, we do have to go places which are quite disturbing," Norton tells BBC News.

But the producers, he told the BBC, have have put "amazing safeguards" in place to protect and support the cast, including a psychotherapist and "great intimacy co-ordinators".

Norton, whose deeply troubled character will be seen self-harming and being sexually abused on stage, adds: "I do feel very supported."

Image source, Jan Versweyveld

Intimacy co-ordinators, who ensure sex scenes are acted appropriately and realistically, have become more widespread in the wake of #MeToo and Time's Up.

"Lots of people have lots of opinions about intimacy coaches and it's a relatively new job and I think people are still working out certain parameters," Norton says.

"Some people will say 'oh I don't need them' but if that intimacy co-ordinator prevents that one actor from experiencing life-changing trauma then of course it justifies the other 99 people who don't need it. I needed it on this, definitely."

Norton's comments come after the actor Sean Bean said intimacy co-ordinators "spoil the spontaneity" of sex scenes.

Last August, Bean told the Times, external he had reservations about the new way of working. "I think the natural way lovers behave would be ruined by someone bringing it right down to a technical exercise," said the 63 year-old Game of Thrones actor.

Image source, Jan Versweyveld

A Little Life will run for 12 weeks from 25 March at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. It is already sold out. But due to the unprecedented demand for tickets the BBC can reveal it will play a further five weeks at the Savoy Theatre from 4 July.

The West End premiere will mark the show's English-language debut - its director Ivo van Hove has previously staged it only in Dutch, with subtitles. And reaction has been mixed.

The Telegraph's Dzifa Benson wrote:, external "This devastating play is emotionally gruelling. But that doesn't detract from how transfixing and heartrending it is."

Reviewing a recent production in Adelaide, The Guardian's Sian Cain, external found much to "admire" but added: "Why were we all here, I wondered, as we watched Jude slit his wrists for a second, third, fourth time?"

Norton says anyone who has read the book - and it has sold more than 2.5 million copies - will know what they are letting themselves in for.

Image source, Getty Images

"Hanya wanted to write a story that was unrelenting and unapologetically dark," he notes.

He says he is "worried" about the "attritional wearing down of my body".

"I'm 37 and I have to fall and fight and get beaten and there is a worry. I don't know how I'll fare," he confesses. "I guess there will be a cost, a physical and emotional drain."

But as a Type 1 Diabetic, who has to inject insulin and monitor his blood sugar levels, he faces a further challenge. The play is 3hrs 40mins long and James Norton is on stage the whole time. So he has to plan ahead.

"I will have sugar tablets at places [on set] where I need them, if I need them, and hopefully I won't need them. I've got one in the wheelchair and there's one in the kitchen."

Norton's breakout role was in the first season of the BBC drama Happy Valley in 2014. He has also appeared in Grantchester, McMafia, War & Peace and The Trial of Christine Keeler.

But he was Bafta-nominated for his performance as murderer and serial rapist Tommy Lee Royce in Sally Wainwright's drama.

Image source, PA Media

"It changed my life," says Norton now of Happy Valley, "and it definitely helped my journey to this job, I'm sure."

So what next? After Happy Valley and A Little Life, surely he yearns to do something lighter?

"I have been thinking it would be fun to do some comedy," he says "But not because the roles or sets on Happy Valley or A Little Life are particularly downbeat or lacking in fun. Sometimes the darker the material the more warmth and fun and mutual support there is to offset the darkness.

"Doing a comedy would simply be because it's something I've not done much of, and I'm keen to stretch that muscle."

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He insists there is no truth in the persistent "bizarre and bemusing" rumours that he is one of the favourites to succeed Daniel Craig as the next James Bond.

Norton says he has not auditioned for the role. "[Bond producer] Barbara Broccoli has said explicitly that they are not approaching anyone and they won't do it for a couple of years.

"I don't envy the person who has to decide on this re-invention of the character because what a challenging and great opportunity to re-imagine the franchise."

He concedes it is "very flattering" to be part of the conversation. After all, who wouldn't want to be James Bond? "Yeah, yeah it's true," he laughs.

A Little Life will run for an additional five weeks at the Savoy Theatre from 4 July. Tickets for the new dates go on sale from 10:00 GMT on Friday.

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Happy Valley's James Norton on 'disturbing' new role in A Little Life (2024)
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