Actor Jim Norton tells Caroline Bishop why meeting playwright Conor McPherson has led to the best decade of his life.
The government should thank actors. Specifically, for the fact that in this era of pension crises, rising retirement age and increasing burden on the young, actors such as 73-year-old Jim Norton have no plans to retire. In fact, just try and make them.
It was at the 2007 Olivier Awards when Norton, having just won Best Performance in a Supporting Role for The Seafarer, told Official London Theatre that his grandson Josh, then eight, had asked him if he could have his job when he retires. “I’m going to go and call him now and tell him he’ll have to wait a while longer!” quipped Norton.
After all, why would he retire when the past decade has been “like a renaissance” for Norton, “both in my life and as an actor”?
This renaissance was inadvertently initiated by the playwright who has secured Norton’s return to the National Theatre this month, fellow Dubliner Conor McPherson. His new play, The Veil, an eerie drama set in 1822 Ireland about a séance that goes wrong, is the seventh project that he and Norton have collaborated on.
The first was The Weir, McPherson’s bar-room-set ghost story trilogy which won the playwright the 1999 Olivier Award for Best New Play and Norton a Best Actor nomination. “When that came along,” Norton tells me when we meet at the National Theatre, “I was at a point in my life when I thought, gosh, do I really want to go on working in the theatre? It’s such hard work, maybe I should be sensible now and start doing more television. I read The Weir and thought, this is such an unbelievable play. We did it, it was a huge hit; we ended up on Broadway, which opened a whole new career for me.”
“Luck is the residue of design. It’s all about preparation”
Twelve years and six productions later – including The Seafarer, Port Authority and Dublin Carol – so mutually fruitful is their relationship that McPherson now writes parts with Norton in mind (“I hesitate to say it but I think so,” says Norton modestly) and Norton agrees to the job before even reading it. “I trust him so much. I admire his work so much. I just love the fact his plays, all of them, are about loss and redemption. He writes about really serious, interesting subjects, with an alarming comedic ability; it’s a wonderful balance he gets in his plays.”
In The Veil, McPherson has written Norton the part of a former Church of England minister who was defrocked for taking an interest in the occult. Summoned to Ireland to chaperone his niece back to England for an arranged marriage, he becomes fascinated by his niece’s ‘visitations’ from beyond the grave, which started after she found her father hanged. “He is like a bee to honey, to this young girl who has these amazing abilities, this capacity to hear voices. So he arranges a séance to seek any helper to communicate with the voices and also to eliminate them from her life.”
Growing up in Ireland in the 1940s, the spirits or ‘faeries’ were very real to people like his grandmother, says Norton. Does he believe in ghosts himself? “No,” he says quickly. “But when Conor writes about them then you begin to doubt!”
The parts McPherson gives him are always meaty, more so, he feels, as he gets older. “He says, ‘I want you to drive the play, I want you to be the engine of the play.’ For example in The Seafarer I never stopped, I’m blind and drunk! Falling down stairs and doing all those stunts.”
Playing irascible old drunk Richard Harkin in The Seafarer was a tough experience, he says, not least because he had to learn to play poker blind. “I had to learn the whole thing by rote. I remember sitting with my head in my hands saying ‘I can’t do this.’ Then you do it and you wonder why you ever wondered why you couldn’t do it. But you have to go through that painful phase.”
Being hard on himself is something that comes with age, he feels. “I think the more you know the harder it is then to achieve it. Because one is trying for perfection, and we all know we can’t achieve that, so it’s just this constantly trying to be better.” Later, he adds: “I’ve never had any sense that I’ve got anything going for me as a person, I had to work hard. I’m very hard on myself. So it isn’t as much fun as it should be, until I get it right. And then it’s glorious. It’s wonderful.”
The hard work has paid off, both in London and New York. The Weir gave him his longed for Broadway debut, and he has since returned there with The Seafarer – for which he added a Tony Award to his Olivier – Dublin Carol, Port Authority and a musical (not by McPherson, needless to say), Finian’s Rainbow. Judging by the grin on his face and the shine in his eyes as he regales me with stories – about fans rushing the stage, going to an after-party in a limo, sharing a beer with Meryl Streep – his experience of Broadway has been one of unmitigated joy. “It was mesmerising,” he says of Finian’s Rainbow. “I can’t remember ever being so happy.”
Broadway led to another aspect of his renaissance. Roles in films The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and Water For Elephants have come his way on the back of it – “I think they wanted Robert Duvall but he was too expensive” he says of the latter – while he’s just filmed a small part in Stephen Daldry’s latest, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. “All kinds of wonderful things have come from The Weir, at a time when perhaps I would be putting my feet up.”
“It’s my vocation. It’s really how I make sense of being in this world”
This golden era follows a long and varied career that started in radio at the age of nine. Once upon a time Norton had – and I laugh to hear this from someone with a voice so deep the treble barely registers on my Dictaphone – a soprano singing voice which won him various competitions in Ireland. That led to a radio show where he had to sing, and then long-running radio soap The Foley Family. “I did that for years, [then] my voice broke and then suddenly I woke up one morning sounding like [American bass-baritone] Paul Robeson and thought this is it, I’m finished as a child actor.”
But it wasn’t. He soon joined a repertory radio company, “a wonderful training ground”, where he did everything from introducing sports programmes to acting in Sunday plays and children’s shows. Then television came to Ireland in the 60s and opened up a whole new world. “It was a great learning experience. Everybody was learning because we started from scratch.”
He worked constantly in the theatre, too, subsidising his wages with radio and voiceover work. He remembers his debut theatre job at the Gate, Dublin, in which he was assistant stage manager. “I had two salaries; I had my radio salary and I was working in the theatre. I just thought life could not get any better than this!” he smiles. “I love it. Without being too pretentious, it’s my vocation. It’s really how I make sense of being in this world. I just feel so grateful that I’m able to do what I love doing and make it my living. I’ve never ever done anything else.”
But life did get better. He came to London in the late 60s – “I was just very ambitious and I felt I want to get out there and see how good I can be” – and became part of the National Theatre company when it moved into its current South Bank home in 1976, under Peter Hall. He played Laertes to Albert Finney’s Hamlet, and took roles in Hall’s productions of St Joan and Tamburlaine. “It was fabulous,” he recalls. “I had had quite a lot of experience in Ireland before I left but nobody knew me when I came to London so it was like being discovered all over again. I loved being part of the company.”
Part of his success must be down to his tenacity and his willingness to work hard. “I’ve always believed there has to be a job somewhere,” he smiles. “I can do radio, I can do voiceovers, I can read audiobooks, I can do film. I guess I just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Is that the key to a successful career? “People talk about luck,” he adds later. “Luck is the residue of design. It’s all about preparation. If someone comes knocking on your door and says, ‘we’re doing this musical, can you dance a bit and sing a bit?’ and you say ‘yes I can’. People say ‘oh you’re so lucky’. But the luck is because you can do these things. I say to young actors, invest in yourself, read all you can, see all you can, get interested in the arts generally. Because everything that you see and read can help you become a better actor.”
“I’ve never had any sense that I’ve got anything going for me as a person, I had to work hard”
It’s valuable advice, and he’s proved it right many times over. His one regret, he admits, is that he didn’t continue his singing training after his soprano morphed into a baritone, mainly because he didn’t think he was very good. Apart from a production of South Pacific at Cork Opera House many moons ago – “I was blond and blue-eyed, with lots of man-tan” – his singing was confined to cameos such as Richard’s drunken crooning in The Seafarer. But it was enough to pique the interest of the producers of Finian’s Rainbow, who created a new number for the usually non-singing part of Finian, just for Norton. “I’m actually on a CD of musicals, which I’m really thrilled about,” he says.
The plan was to bring the show to London, but it didn’t materialise. Equally, he’d love to go back to Broadway, and with McPherson’s track record, perhaps The Veil is the one to take him there. “It’s in the lap of the gods as to how it goes,” says Norton. “If not, something else will come up. Maybe another Conor McPherson play!”
It’s inspiring to talk to someone who, in his 70s, remains so enthusiastic about his job. “As long as my health keeps up and I can keep going it’s wonderful to do a job that you truly love,” he says. “Working with someone like Conor is a great gift, and being at the National, one of the greatest theatres in the world, with the nicest people.” He’s been lucky enough – or prepared enough – to have many great experiences in his career to date, but perhaps he’s even luckier still to be able to say: “It couldn’t be better than it is now.”