James Norton talks using Michael Corleone as inspiration for McMafia

Americans might not recognize James Norton without his vicar’s collar. The British actor rose to prominence stateside for his portrayal of Sidney Chambers, a vicar turned amateur detective in 1950s Cambridgeshire on Grantchester on PBS (originally on ITV in the U.K.).

Now on AMC’s new mini-series McMafia, Norton is trading in his cleric’s robes for designer business suits and a place on the wrong side of the law as Alex Godman, the son of a Russian crime family who finds himself dragged back into the family business when tragedy strikes.

If you think it sounds an awful lot like The Godfather, only set in the present day and with Russian mobsters, you’d be right. Norton says he drew upon Michael Corleone and that epic series for inspiration throughout filming. But McMafia is also a lot more prescient for modern-day audiences, telling the tale of shadowy, corrupt global organizations that trade in blood money and influence driven by avarice and a lust for power.

Produced by AMC and BBC, the series is based on Misha Glenny’s nonfiction book of the same name and created by Hossein Amini (Drive) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black). It also stars David Strathairn (The Bourne Ultimatum, Good Night, and Good Luck), Juliet Rylance (The Knick, Frances Ha),  and a wide-reaching international cast that includes Aleksey Serebryakov (The Method, Leviathan), and Mariya Shukshina (Yolki 3, Terrorist Ivanona).

Ahead of its Feb. 26 premiere on AMC (10 p.m.), EW called up Norton to get the rundown on playing the reluctant heir to a mafia family, why he’s fascinated by stories of the criminal underworld, and what it was like making a series that felt almost prophetic in light of recent world events. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve done several lengthier mini-series, including War and Peace and Death Comes to Pemberley – what is it about mini-series that keep you coming back for more?
JAMES NORTON: The U.K., in recent times, has really nailed that mini-series format. It wasn’t an active choice. There are quite a lot of those in this country, and there are some fantastic writers and directors of the mini-series. We’ve kind of nailed the medium. From the point of a view of an actor and a storyteller, it is wonderful to have six hours to really settle into that headspace and flex the muscles…[Co-creator] James [Watkins] was always saying we’re going to make an 8-hour movie. It’s wonderful to have six or eight hours because you’re so much more in control, and you have time to really indulge in those moments, which in the movies would probably end up on the cutting room floor…As an actor, I’ve never felt so confident. That’s a really empowering feeling when you feel you know someone so well you can put them in any situation you like and you know ostensibly how they would react.

What was it specifically about McMafia that drew you in?
The world of the mafia is really compelling. We’re all into it and series like The Sopranos and The Godfather and things. There’s something about the modern-day mafia, which Misha Glenny’s book so clearly portrays as something very different, but it kind of maintains whatever it is — that compelling, anarchic nature. There’s a certain romance attached to the mafia in the past. What differentiated our story is that that romance is gone and it’s a very brutal, financial money-driven world, which lacks the honor and the sort of family which those previous portrayals have focused in on. I’ve never felt like a show has been so much on the zeitgeist. We were virtually on set and the [rumored] collusion between the White House and the Kremlin was breaking – we felt like we were on a show which was, in some ways, prophetic. So, that was a huge draw.

As far as the character, he’s a gift — because he has this wonderful complex mix of conflict and contradiction. You never quite know where he stands. I don’t think he quite knows where he stands. He’s constantly explaining to himself that his motivation is honorable and worthy, and it’s all about family and protecting his family and his girlfriend who he loves. Of course, like the most interesting characters, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather or Walter White in Breaking Bad, there is a whole myriad of motivations, whilst the audience perhaps are more aware. Alex is kind of the last to realize he’s being seduced and he’s in it for other reasons — less worthy reasons of avarice, greed, [and] out for power, revenge. To have all those to play with and never quite land on an answer is the kind of role I love. It’s true to life. People never really fundamentally know themselves – they try and that’s what life is about, trying to know and understand yourself, but never quite getting there. Hossein and James wrote a beautiful, textured character in that regard. We never ever lost interest in his journey and his motivation. We would constantly spend lots of time on set mining where he is in the story, why he’s choosing this, how much he’s aware of his true motivation. When you are able to mine a character to that extent, it’s really a testament to how wonderfully written they are, and how much of a joy it is to play for sure. 

Todd Antony/BBC/AMC

This series has strong Godfather vibes with its tale of the son of a crime family trying to go straight and getting pulled back in because of family tragedy – was that something you actively discussed on set or that played a hand in your research?
For sure. We definitely had our main resources. The John Williams book, Augustus, was also a resource which we talked about. James recommended it because it’s about a young man who very slyly and quietly and innocuously manipulates his way to the top of the pile. Michael Corleone was definitely a source, just because it has a similar-ish structure to The Godfather story and a bit like what I was alluding to before about motivation. What is it that’s driving Michael’s demise into the underworld of corruption? He’s constantly saying it’s “family, family, family,” but early on, somewhere in Part Two when he kills his brother, you realize it’s gone way beyond just protecting family because it’s come down to killing family. We definitely drew on him. And we had other resources — we had Gomorrah, the Italian [film], as far as the authenticity and grittiness of the mafia we wanted to portray. We wanted to show the cost of these incredibly lavish lifestyles, what it is which facilitates that type of lifestyle…Michael Corleone was definitely the most useful for tracking the conflict of the worthy, honorable motivations and the self-interested greed and avarice and power motivation. There’s no one else who does that journey better I don’t think. Perhaps Walter White is the next one, but both of them were certainly kind of the focus for us.

What do you make of the timing of this series, given the heightened presence of Russians and Russian crime in the news of late?  
It’s been very, very exciting…What’s wonderful about a show like McMafia is it really has an incredibly real and intact social conscience. It really felt like it mattered. Since the conception of the show and then the making of it, the amount of conversation around corruption and transparency has exploded. The further we move into a populist, right world, which seems to be afflicting many, many countries right now, the power is taken away from the people and the government and put in the hands of the corporations. If you don’t have legislation in place to control those corporations, McMafia happens. Not only is it a sort of warning sign to people, saying “This is what corruption at this level will look like if we don’t make a real stand against it and lobby government, particularly in America and the U.K., to stand up against it,” it also gives them a chance to see what at this point in time that state-level corruption looks like. It’s really hard if you’re not in the world of finance to understand a lot of jargon. Yet, you want to, because you know how important it is. So sitting down and reading all the speculation about the collusion between Trump and Putin, you read articles about these types of things, and it’s quite hard to really engage and follow. What we’ve hopefully done is made a drama which is accessible. It allows people to have a little look behind the curtain to see what this kind of corruption looks like. A show like this, it couldn’t be more timely. It feels great to be part of the conversation. The more we can be a catalyst for that very, very important conversation about transparency and corruption the better.

Did you learn Russian for the role?  
I didn’t learn Russian, per se. I only learned it phonetically…It’s quite challenging learning a language like that, which has very little crossover with the Western romantic languages. The sound is so different, so I had to spend a long time learning it by rote, phonetically, endless repetition. Lots of walking around London streets mumbling to myself. It was a wonderful part of the preparation to be able to express yourself in Russian and other languages. It really tapped into something important in Alex. His relationship with Russia is two-fold and very polarized. On the one hand, he’s compelled by it and that’s why he goes to Systema classes, which I did. I went and learned this very bizarre, Russian martial art, which is fascinating to get into the sort of inner psyche and what it is to be Russian. We decided he reads Dostoyevsky and he’s always compelled by his Russianness. But he’s also afraid of it because he feels like a lot of the world has this misconception that being Russian you have a predisposition towards corruption, which is absurd, but because of the world, currently, the word Russian and corruption are often used in the same sentence. Alex is afraid of his Russianness, and whether or not it’s that which is his vulnerability. Is it that which makes him more disposed to being a gangster in the first place? Is it in his Russian genes? So to tap into that was really exciting, and the language was definitely one way in.

How much research or interaction did you have with real members of organized crime?
As far as meeting proper gangsters, we had Misha Glenny. He basically knows every gangster under the sun — he wrote the original piece of nonfiction, the book McMafia. He interviews masses of people in organized crime and so he introduced James and Hoss in the writers’ room to some pretty intense, shady characters. I did meet a couple in Zagreb — some interesting characters who I was later told were pretty high up in businesses which perhaps aren’t whiter than white. But I didn’t ask them any questions because my general gangster acumen was pretty shallow. I’m definitely still the actor, not the gangster. 

The series is so international, from its exotic locales to its diverse cast. What was that experience like?
It was such a joyous job to film, partly because we had so many different, international actors coming on set and they all had different energies and different approaches to the craft. It was a really, truly international gig, more so than anything else I’ve ever done and I’m not sure many other shows can claim to have been shot in 12 different countries, with 150 different actors in massively different countries. It was wonderful to have Merab Ninidze, who was the Georgian actor who played Vadim, and Aleksey Serebryakov, who was Russian, and their energies were so different, yet they were speaking Russian to each other. Then you had the Israelis and the Brits. It was magic in that effect. Most of it was filmed in Croatia, U.K., London, and then Serbia and a bit of Slovenia, but that was wonderful to be able to explore…The Dalmatian coast is just ridiculous. There were a couple of lunches I remember where it was beautiful sun; we were outside standing on a villa; and most of the crew sacked off lunch in order to take off their clothes and swim at the lunch break. A couple of times I was able to join them. It’s rare that you get such extraordinary locations to be able to jump in the water.

It was so glamorous because we had yachts and beautiful villas. We filmed in one location in Croatia which was [authoritarian Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz] Tito’s old villa — lavish beyond lavish, quite dark because it was paid for with blood money and dirty money, but it was extraordinarily beautiful and again, how often do you spend shooting days jumping in the water and going for a swim outside this sensational villa in Croatia? It’s pretty special.

Additionally, it seemed like you often were shooting in places like the Victoria and Albert Museum or the British Museum – what was that experience like as a Brit?
I’m a Londoner and I love this city, and to show London in all its glory really was wonderful. By definition when you show a tale of gangsters and very wealthy people you get to show their incredibly lavish lifestyle. As I said, we were very keen to show the other end of the spectrum and the cost of what it is to facilitate that kind of lifestyle. For every day in the V&A, we had other scenes that were, on the whole, more shocking scenes, but it was great to show London in all its glory.