A World of Possibilities
James Norton has a talent for playing unforgettable, conflicted men.
It's nearly unheard of that a television series inspires a nationwide law that targets international corruption, money laundering and organized crime.
But that's what happened in the UK as a result of the James Norton-fronted drama McMafia, an eight-part series currently airing in the U.S. on AMC after completing its British run in mid-February.
McMafia delves into the incredibly profitable underworld of criminal activity including sex trafficking, drug dealing and money laundering and how the tempting tentacles of corruption reach into the highest levels of finance and government through the machinations of global organized crime.
Norton plays the British-raised, Ivy League-educated Alex Godman, the scion of a connected Russian family who moved to England to legitimize themselves after some shady dealings in the old country. He runs a London-based hedge fund, is engaged to his girlfriend, played by Juliet Rylance, is a model son to his parents and a loving brother to a troubled sister. In other words, the perfect hero, until he gets drawn into a series of scary scenarios that see him evolve from proverbial choirboy to criminal.
McMafia's tales of intrigue kick into high gear with the murder of Godman's uncle Boris, who, unlike the rest of the family, is still actively involved in the Russian mob.
To avenge the killing, Godman teams up with a powerful Russian-born Israeli businessman and politician, Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) to battle the crime boss behind the killing, a brutal kingpin known as Vadim. Kleiman and Godman, first introduced by Uncle Boris and after overcoming their initial suspicions of each other, develop a sort of father-son relationship and conspire to take territories, including ports in India and Croatia, where Vadim has a "free pass" to ply his illegal commerce—and thus, take him down.
Some have compared the character of Alex Godman to that of The Godfather's Michael Corleone, the once-legitimate businessman who becomes the powerful head of a massive criminal enterprise.
But unlike The Godfather films, which were based on Mario Puzo's best-selling novel, McMafia is inspired by investigative journalism. The series is based on the 2008 nonfiction book McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld by Misha Glenny, who also serves as an executive producer.
The crime drama was created by Hossein Amini and James Watkins and is a coproduction of the BBC, AMC and Cuba Pictures. The series premiered in the United Kingdom on January 1 and created a huge amount of buzz, including the aforementioned "McMafia Law," more formally known as the Unexplained Wealth Order.
It requires that rich people who come to Great Britain from elsewhere must prove the legitimacy of their wealth. If found to be acquired from illegal activity, their assets can be seized and liquidated, with the money going to law enforcement. Great Britain's National Crime Agency estimates that £90 billion a year (about $126.5 billion) is now being laundered in the UK, twice the amount of the nation's entire defense budget.
The problem is so severe that UK security minister Ben Wallace recently wrote an op-ed in The Sun newspaper which stated, "McMafia has brought home to millions of viewers the nature of serious and organized crime in the 21st Century. Sharp suited people swan around the nation's capital while all along they head up networks that trade on the back of the misery and suffering of others. It is time the flashy McMafia mob felt the long arm of the law."
Already, two £11 million London mansions, believed to be bought with "dirty money," were seized by court order in February.
Norton's Godman is in almost every scene of McMafia, whose story unfolds in multiple picturesque international locations including Belize, Istanbul, Belgrade, London, Prague, Zagreb, Cairo, Qatar, Russia and Israel.
"Alex Godman is not necessarily always likeable, but James brought such a sense of humanity, especially in scenes with his family, that counterbalanced the coldness of the character," says Watkins, who directed all eight episodes.
"James was very brave in committing to such a withheld character. In creating the antiheroic Alex Godman, we wanted to maintain a deliberate ambiguity as to his motivations. Is he acting out of revenge or out of survival? Or, somewhere within him, seen in occasional glimpses, is there a will to power at work, a seduction by the dark side?
"James is a very attuned actor and worked forensically at finding those little micro-details. One of the wonderful things about James's performance is the very subtle way in which he lets emotion leak through the mask, especially in the last episodes as events spiral out of control."
The 32-year-old Norton is well-known in the UK after leading roles in numerous prestige productions including War & Peace, Grantchester and Happy Valley. He also co-starred in last year's reboot of the feature film Flatliners.
Norton will appear again on the big screen toplining director Agnieszka Holland's Gareth Jones as the title character, a Welsh journalist who exposed genocide in the Stalinist Soviet Union, secured access to Hitler and Goebbels and was murdered in 1935.
We caught up with Norton by phone on location for the film in Ukraine where he said he was shivering in -15°C (5°F ) weather. The conversation was anything but chilly as we explored facets of his career and the echoes of McMafia in real life.
Tell us about the evolution of your character Alex Godman on McMafia.
It was a most exciting part to play with. During 150 days, we shot out of sequence and it was a huge challenge. Most of the conversations about Alex revolved around where we were in his arc- from clean-living man and golden boy to his fiancé Rebecca, and then how he becomes a linchpin in shady deals with Mafias.
James [Watkins] and I would try to understand his motives. We wanted to leave a lot of it open, to leave muddy his motives. You can claim to understand them but there are a myriad of reasons.
We were clear about protecting his family and then making a choice as he began moving away from fortuitous, virtuous reasons to avarice. While the creators- and audiences- are realizing Alex was being sucked in, Alex didn't realize it soon enough. Suddenly he surprised himself, and he's loving it, and it's incredibly sexy and seductive.
It was a layered role. His headspace doesn't ever stop giving you revelations about his relationship with his father and fiancé, and the associated Russians with inherent criminality. But there were a lot of commentators quick to make the connection about him running away [from organized crime] and then being seduced. It was a joy to play, right until the end of the last hour.
Many of your scenes are with David Strathairn. Let's talk about his character's magnetism, and how you are drawn into his nefarious agenda and the plot to destroy Vadim.
David's a master, and the journey Alex is on is incredibly defined by his relationship with Semiyon. He becomes almost like Alex's moral compass, kind of like Rebecca. Semiyon sort of sets it up that if he wants to protect his family, he has to take on Vadim. He became a dark, sinister individual but also becomes a paternal figure. To have a relationship with Vadim—they're so different, and corrupt, but they have their allies, children, lovers and they're not stock villains.
David played it beautifully, a real character, a likeable one if not more sinister. He's a politician we all recognize, progressive and yet he's subversive and deals in human trafficking. He brought home how close these politicians are to corruption.
Off set, David was wonderful. We went walking and swimming along the Croatian coastline. He's a lover of life and I loved hanging out with him.
That sounds fun, but what are some of the most challenging and memorable scenes that you have shot in the series?
We shot in Croatia, Serbia and London in very glamorous locations but I didn't get to Mumbai. One location was a beautifully landscaped villa with a beautiful mosaic ceiling – just unbelievably extravagant in the South of France, yet nearby was extraordinary poverty. Some of the scenes, particularly with David, felt like mini pieces of theater. James gave us time to mine those scenes.
The scenes with the parents were wonderful to play, so subtle and with the human subject so rich. With Vadim, when we crossed paths in the airport lounge, it was like punctuation marks on our respective journeys. All the other storylines were leading to this. The scene's very charged, halfway through the shoot, crackling and informed.
It was wonderful, and the reason you do this, when the story and situation take on a life on their own and memories and experiences inform it. It's like a mini explosion.
With Rebecca, the first thing we shot was the apartment stuff between them in the first week. It was incredibly emotionally charged material, when she moves out after she confronts him about travel. It was a sad day, and it was harder because we didn't have the backstory. On Alex's journey, she represents where he comes from, and you suddenly remember where he was with her. The tragedy is he does set out to protect her and it's gone way too far.
The family elements are especially resonant within McMafia - and Alex is always right in the middle of everything.
The family element allows us to explore the man, seduced by the subversive and the dark side. The family is a way of seeing that component. He ends up as a gangster, but he's ultimately a family man, a good son and brother. In one of the most tragic, heartbreaking scenes he's asked to cut loose his dad, Dmitri – it's almost self-sacrifice. I have a close relationship with my own father, and that day Alex was willing to sabotage his family was difficult.
Faye Marsay, Aleksey Serebryakov, Mariya Shukshina-- we become a real family. There was a concentrated, really fun sense of unity. All of us were so invested in the warmth and affection both and off camera, and they are all such great actors. Aleksey came in with different versions, using the Stanislavski method. We Brits were far too polite.
Aleksey would come in and say, "No, we do it like this." When Dmitri says goodbye to his brother in the morgue, he paced around and genuinely threw up in the sink. It was extraordinary.
You have had key roles in a number of series including Grantchester, Happy Valley and War & Peace. What have you learned from these experiences? Is there a throughline amongst these characters?
You learn through every role, with different headspaces, time periods and genders, you get to learn and have an emotional connection. I would hate to be typecast. If there is a throughline, the characters are very switched on and inquisitive - kind of trying to work it all out or not take life for granted. They're on some quest to understand it. Maybe I am completely confused, but they're all thinking and in existential angst.
Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming starring role in Gareth Jones with Agnieszka Holland?
Gareth knew his place, and he's on an incredible journey but also on a mission. It's a true story about a young journalist, one of the first to interview Hitler in 1932 just at the emergence of Nazi-ism. He describes being on a plane with Goebbels, and then back home to the UK where he tells the British government about the emergence of totalitarianism. They dismiss this and of course we know what happens later.
Then he takes on a mission to Stalin's USSR. He was beginning to have doubts about Communism. He decided to check out the numbers and how they're paying for planes, etc. He was on a tour, went rogue and discovered Stalin's extortion at the expense of millions of lives. At home, they accused him of lying, "fake news" and being inflammatory.
It's terrifying in 1933 when they had so much less access to communications. In Ukraine, Stalin was able to get away it and millions died [as a result of famine]. Now we are using the same language. It's a very relevant story, what is truth and what is agenda. We feel a responsibility to respect his story. It's exciting, and I'm really enjoying it.
As McMafia unfolds, what do you hope viewers take away from it?
You want the work to be entertaining as we're in the business of entertaining people. But with the last few years of Brexit, Trump and populist right-wing governments coming to power, and corporations being so powerful, corruption is no long self-contained. It's straddling everything, and we're in unknown territory.
I know in the UK they want to know what that corruption looks like. In the days of The Sopranos and The Godfather, organized crime contained an element of romanticism but did not really affect us. For a show to provide understanding of financial corruption is important, to see how a hedge fund manager facilitates a drug deal. Aside from the human-driven drama, it is also about corruption and transparency, and will hopefully bring some clarity.
With the UK McMafia Law, suddenly we are part of a much larger conversation, more pertinent and crucial. I hope for those people in the audience who are fully engaged and hungry for clarify that this is a perfect show.