I was well-prepared for life. I’m inquisitive. I have a happy life. If I can give that to someone else—what a gift.

James Norton has been riding a momentous wave. The actor’s body of work includes Bob Marley: One Love and the Greta Gerwig Little Women remake, and he is perhaps most treasured in the UK and places further afield these days for having portrayed Tommy Lee Royce in the BBC crime series Happy Valley. Broadly speaking, the Englishman was the chilling embodiment of pure evil. Of course, Norton isn’t anything like that guy, who’s also worlds away from the aching vulnerability of his character in Uberto Pasolini’s intimate father-son drama Nowhere Special.

In Nowhere Special, Norton plays John, a single father with a terminal illness who’s faced with the most important task of his life: finding the perfect family to raise his four-year-old son Michael (Daniel Lamont). Pasolini’s film is eons better than the TV film-of-the-week logline suggests. It’s moving and poignant, thanks to Norton, who gifts the material with a performance of incredible depth and empathy. Gimmick-free, the cogs turn slowly around this well-intentioned man who’s staring down the barrel of his own existence as he attempts to make a legacy-defining decision.

Nowhere Special opens at the Quad Cinema in NYC and the Laemmle Royal in LA on April 26.

Hi, James. It’s been a minute since we last saw each other.

Nice to see you again! It feels like a few months ago, but it was during the pandemic, wasn’t it?

This movie is such a gem, and you’re fantastic in it. I’m one of those people who like to cry at the movies and I definitely cried watching this. But I also know that you don’t want people to think this film is unbearably sad. It’s a touching love story between a father and his son.

Totally. Often, when I describe the movie, the subject matter is so loaded that people make very quick assumptions about how depressing, bleak and unrelentingly sad this film must be. And the truth is, that’s not the case. I mean, the making of the film was one of the most happy and buoyant experiences I’ve ever had, partly ‘cause we had a delightful four-year-old who was there every day and keeping everyone’s mood soft. The story is about a man dying and preparing his child for that death, but really, as you say, it’s a love story. The way the father loves his son changes. The father learns to listen. The father learns how to be vulnerable. In a way, the father becomes the patient and the child becomes the carer. With that, obviously, there is the threat of loss and pain, but most people describe watching this film as a reminder to go hug the people they love and spend time with them. That, for me, is a very important thing to take away from watching any movie.

How have you been feeling, fielding questions about future fatherhood? People ask you that.

[laughs] Yeah, they do. Look—one day, it’ll happen for me. I’m in awe of parents. My sister’s got two boys and a lot of my friends have kids now. It’s a very special thing. I have enough good relationships in my life to know that. When you fall in love, whether it’s with a family member or a lover or a friend, there’s always this risk that, at some point, one of you will fall out of it. One of you will move on or die, or whatever the case may be. So there’s pain when you put yourself up against that kind of risk. But I’m just all for it. I feel like that’s what life is about. You climb those heights and find those beautiful views, knowing that you’re gonna come down the other side. It’s all worth it. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m excited to, hopefully, at some point, fill my life with that new love, new dependence and all the complications that come with it.

You know—Uberto [Pasolini] speaks a lot about how this film changed him as a father. He’s got three daughters and thinks this film made him a better father because it asked real questions about how to love. He was saying that he loves from a practical place, and John learns that he can’t practically prepare Michael for his death so he just has to be quiet and listen. The four-year-old will guide him. It’s a profound rumination on parenthood without really telling you how to do it.

So tell me about your adorable costar Daniel [Lamont].

Daniel is brilliant in the film, isn’t he? He’s so instinctive when it comes to the camera. We thought we were gonna have to cut around him and edit something together. He just knew to hold my eye contact and be in those moments. Luckily, he was literally going through the process of learning about death in front of me. It was quite extraordinary watching a four-year-old come to grips with what it is to be an actor, really, ‘cause he’d never been on a film set before. At the beginning, he didn’t know what it was. He didn’t really understand the idea of leaving Daniel, entering into a different headspace, and coming back to Daniel. By the end, he totally knew what was going on.

Were you thinking about acting at Daniel’s age?

It’s really funny you should ask me that! Weirdly enough, I was talking to my mum and dad about this recently. My first-ever play was the school nativity. I was in class one, which is for four or five year olds. I played Joseph. Even at that very young age, I knew that I really enjoyed it. But the hilarious story is that I walked in, dressed as Joseph with my Mary next to me, and I couldn’t see my mum and dad in the audience so I just burst into tears. I cried my whole way across the stage.


Yes, life is really intense. [laughs] As for Daniel, the last I heard, he was concentrating on his karate and his football. So he’s putting acting on the back burner at the age of six.

He’s got time to sort all that out. By the way, I checked out the behind the scenes featurette for Nowhere Special. It was neat to see what Daniel is really like outside of the film.

He definitely has a different temperament to the character. Being a typical four-year-old, he would be cheeky and having a lovely time. Michael is, in comparison to Daniel, much more thoughtful and quiet—being affected by what’s going on, of course. Michael is obviously aware of his father’s suffering, which causes him suffering. You can tell in the movie that Michael is carrying a huge weight for a four-year-old. Daniel wasn’t like that at all. After doing these drawn-out scenes where we would hold the camera on us and share connected moments, he’d be back to being Daniel. I don’t know how he did it. It’s a weirdly transformative performance for a four-year-old boy.

Where did you guys find him?

I remember they originally sent out a Facebook invite across Belfast to all families with kids that age. They all sent in photos. Hundreds and hundreds of potential applicants were whittled down to three. When you’re considering actors for that age, twins are helpful ‘cause you can switch them in and out. You can shoot for longer. You can only shoot for fifteen minutes at a time with little kids ‘cause they’re required to take long breaks. But we didn’t go with the twins. We went with Daniel.

In your initial interactions with him, was there a moment of realization like, “So this is how old he is” or “I think this is going to be the best way to work with this four-year-old”?

I remember being in the room with him for the first time. This was the very strange, ineffable thing about him at that young age: he was just present. There was nothing distracting him. He looked at you and held your eye contact. I could tell that he trusted me and he was open to what I was saying. He was very centered. In terms of how we prepared once he was cast, we had to work out how on earth we were gonna direct him and how he was gonna learn his lines. His parents were brilliant. They were there the whole way through. They were so generous and trusting and everything else. The most important thing for me was getting to know him. I went to visit him in Belfast a few times. I would sit on the floor of his bedroom and play with his toys. So that’s me and him playing with spaceships for hours. [laughs] That was the most important thing because he then associated me with fun and trust and joy. I was like a big brother. I wasn’t a parent or a figure of authority. I was a big play fellow, there to open up his imagination. It was the most fun I’ve ever had preparing for a film, and I knew it was important to create an authentic relationship between the two of us.

Putting myself in Uberto’s shoes, I would think he’s not only casting an actor to play John, but someone who can also take a young talent under his wing as you have. Honestly, not all actors are suited for that kind of responsibility. I’m sure Uberto sensed that potential in you.

Yeah, I don’t know if he saw that in me right away. But he’d seen and liked the work I had done. He was drawn to the type of performance I’m also drawn to, which is quiet and less demonstrative and less dramatic. It has to do with trusting the audience. The hope is that, if you go through that journey yourself, you’ll communicate enough for them to come on that journey with you. We both share the less is more attitude of minimalism. What came later was, of course, this friendship with Daniel. Uberto was more the lovable teacher. He was a bit more fatherly in his authority, and he would feed me directions to give Daniel. We found ingenious ways of directing him ‘cause I would squeeze Daniel’s hand when his line was meant to come out. I mean, Uberto is very generous when we talk about the film. He has credited me with co-directing this piece. But I disagree with that.

I think what made my job easy was just trusting Daniel. Genuinely considering the idea of death in moments, all I had to do was look at him. My throat would constrict and I would wanna cry. Many times, Uberto came into the scene to say, “I can’t have you crying in the scene. It’s too big a performance. It’s too dramatic.” He would always say, “Turn it down to volume two.” I would be like, “For fucks sake, it’s a story about cancer. Let me cry!” And he wouldn’t let me. With one particular scene at the very end with the book, I really struggled to get it out without choking up because it was just so sad to read the book to this little boy with his big brown eyes. I was very lucky to have Daniel as my scene partner. I couldn’t have wished for anyone better.

I really believe that this film could have suffered in less capable hands. It could’ve easily veered into schmaltz or felt emotionally manipulative with the wrong calibration.

Yeah, considering the operatic subject matter. John has to deal with Michael in a delicate, soft-touch way. When you’re preparing a four-year-old for death, you can’t say, “This is death. This is what’s gonna happen.” You have to be very gentle and do it in a subtle way. That’s the way Uberto wanted to treat the audience as well—replicating the father’s subtle technique with his son.

There’s a poignant scene where John is putting together a memory box for Michael to look at once he’s become older, to learn more about who his father was. It has everything to do with legacy. Big and small, we all have legacies to leave behind. What do you want yours to be?

Wow, what a lovely question. I think we are all probably a little scared by death and by being forgotten. For actors, a lot of the time, there’s a byproduct to this journey, which is a body of work. That is your voice and your everything. So, hopefully, if you do some good work, it might be watched after you’ve died. In some strange and ludicrous way, that softens death. It makes death less scary because your legacy will outlive you. In some ways, you’re kind of beating death. Of course, it’s complete bullshit. But I think actors do get preoccupied by that—me included. I often think, “It’d be lovely to know that my children and my children’s children are gonna watch my movies.” The truth is, people forget stuff so quickly. It’s really interesting just how quickly great artist have been forgotten. So it’s complete bullshit. In terms of the legacy I wanna leave alongside good work, it’s for the people who actually knew me. It’s like, “As long as they thought I was decent, kind, had fun and didn’t take my life too seriously,” you know what I mean? If I am lucky enough to have a family, it’s that I instill good values. My mum and dad instilled me with some great values, and I’m really grateful to them for that. I feel very lucky. I was well-prepared for life. I’m inquisitive. I have a happy life. If I can give that to someone else—my children, friends, or potentially some members of the audience—what a gift. I’m sorry if this is a waffly answer.

I promise you, it’s not. Nowhere Special is a great reminder of the things that matter. John is easy to root for. Even though life hasn’t exactly been kind to him, he remains kind. I read this one review where a critic summed up his life as “unremarkable.” As an individual? He’s not.

I agree, I agree. His life is unremarkable if the legacy you’re talking about are monuments built for nonsensical reasons. John’s legacy is to set Michael up with a secure and happy life. And he gets it wrong at the beginning of the film. His idea of legacy changes. He thought that if he can leave Michael with a very wealthy family, that is a legacy well left. No. It’s about values. I’m so glad you came away with these thoughts. That’s exactly the right kind of takeaway from the film. Like always, Kee, thank you for your thoughtful questions. It’s really lovely to speak to you again.

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