The name is Royce. Tommy Lee Royce. Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley finale had viewers biting their knuckles in suspense. But it also served as the ultimate audition tape for James Norton, whose devastating performance as the psychopathic Tommy Lee Royce has put him in the frame as the potential next James Bond.
Norton can act – and has a lot of charm. This was evident from Grantchester and McMafia where he worked wonders with often substandard material. In Happy Valley, however, he’s backed up that charisma with a searing intensity that certainly marks him out as a star in waiting.
That was never truer than in the last episode. Tommy’s nerve-wracking kitchen confrontation with Sarah Lancashire’s Sergeant Catherine Cawood transcended the Sunday night BBC One slot with an intensity that felt like it could burn a hole in the screen. Still, it was earlier in the episode that Norton confirmed he has what it takes to take over the Bond baton from the exciting Daniel Craig.
Tommy was in a car surrounded by heavyweights who worked for mobster Darius Knezevic. Darius was supposedly on Tommy’s side. But Norton’s character smelled a rat – and saw a gas canister (perfect for burning a body). After sticking a kitchen knife in his sleeve, he took out the gangsters one by one.
This was a Hollywood action scene on a BBC budget. And Norton sold it – even the potentially silly bit where he and Darius’ brother Zeljko wrestled on the grass next to the crashed car. It was a display of stone-cold brutality (he finished off Zeljko with a stone). These are qualities that could prove crucial as Bond continues Daniel Craig’s brooding take on Ian Fleming’s super-spy.
Norton, the handsome scion of a posh family (his grandfather was a colonial administrator in what was then Tanganyika), has been part of the 007 discourse for some time. In the run-up to the Happy Valley final, he had been neck and neck, according to the bookies’ estimate, with Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page.
But just as Tommy made it out of the cratered remains of Zeljko, he’s now outrunning his rivals. In the aftermath of the Happy Valley final, his chances have been lowered. He’s now the second favorite behind Henry Cavill – who, admittedly, is looking for a new gig after leaving The Witcher and Superman franchises in the space of a few months.
The question of whether he could ever slip into the cinema’s most iconic slim-fit tuxedo has long been brushed aside. Asked if he’d be “up for” Bond, he recently replied with mind-boggling tact. “It’s hard to answer that question,” he told the Radio Times. “They’re thinking about which direction they want to go in and they haven’t called me to be part of that conversation.” (He repeated this line in an interview published before the finale.)
He had little to add in a new interview with GQ published after the Happy Valley finale. Bond did not come up. However, Norton did talk about the challenge of fleshing out a character like Royce, who could have possibly been just a two-dimensional monster.
“I recognize there are absolutely despicable acts that he has committed along the way,” he said. “But on that journey, I’ve been with him for 10 years, I feel deeply sorry for him. I feel immense pity and empathy and I actually really love him.
It takes a certain talent to see the humanity in a villain like Royce. And it’s easy to imagine Norton slipping under the skin of Britain’s favorite secret agent and bringing out something new. Imagine: a conflicted womanizer, a steely killer with a soft side. How invaluable could that be as the Bond franchise tries to update its starchy action hero for the 21st century.
Happy Valley also quashes the idea that Norton lacks the dark magnetism essential for an actor playing Bond. That was the charge against him when he was the star of Grantchester, in which he played a dull, handsome minister. And in McMafia, in which he was the dull, handsome son of an oligarch who also happened to look good in a tuxedo.
He was born in 1985 in Lambeth, to teachers Lavinia Norman and Hugh Norton in Lambeth. Norton attended Ampleforth, a Catholic school run by monks. “I had a rough time at school,” he recently told Virgin Atlantic’s Vera magazine. “It didn’t help that I was bullied. But I owe a lot to that school. I loved theatre, I made good friends”.
From there he went to Cambridge, where he received a first-class degree in theology. He also joined the Marlowe Society theater group. In 2007 he portrayed Posthumus in a production of Cymbeline directed by Trevor Nunn in celebration of the society’s 100th anniversary. Norton was accepted into Rada and left six months before graduation when he began taking up theater work, starting with Posh at the Royal Court Theatre. Small TV parts, including one in Doctor Who, led to Happy Valley in 2014.
Norton has credited the Sally Wainwright thriller for taking his career to the next level (“I owe Happy Valley everything,” he recently said. It’s certainly been the perfect showcase. On the surface, camaraderie, just below the surface, Tommy is a Sarah Lancashire’s ruthless adversary Sergeant Cawood.
He is a predator and a deviant, but fueled by a combination of psychosis and twinkling charm. Season after season, Norton has built Tommy into a fascinating contradiction rather than just an icky bad boy. That’s quite an accomplishment considering the character’s penchant for torture and murder (and his manipulation this year of his naive son, Ryan).
Norton’s chances of becoming Bond depend on what his trustees, the Broccoli Dynasty, are after. If it’s another Daniel Craig, Norton can get back to working on that man bun he cultivated when Tommy was in prison. He has none of Craig’s coldness or grumpiness.
But if the Broccoli like to go in a different direction, Norton might be just what they need. On screen and off, he’s the anti-Daniel Craig. The most recent 007 was a sourpuss with a cuddly heart. He grumbled his way through his career as Bond before demonstrating hidden comedic talents as Benoit Blanc in Knives Out. Norton’s Tommy is the complete opposite: outwardly sympathetic but cold as a knife in the back on the inside. In that way, he might hark back to Sean Connery’s original Bond – a ruthless charmer who murdered without a conscience.
The real question is whether Norton is actually too famous for Bond. All the way back to Connery, the franchise has chosen actors who are headed for the big time. Already on the front pages, Norton is about to star in a West End production of Hanya Yanagihara’s grueling novel A Little Life (“one of the most terrifying things I’ve taken on”) and as Island Records founder Chris Blackwell in a Bob Marley biopic.
The Broccolis should forego the brownie points that come with resurrecting an actor from obscurity and remake them in Bond’s image – as they did with Craig. It could even be argued that they need Norton more than he needs Bond.
But if they had any sense, they would at least sound him out. One unique quality he brings is kindness. He is a cheerful presence on Twitter. A few weeks ago, he promised his followers that “the next few [Happy Valley] episodes are insane”. Then, immediately after the show’s finale, he tweeted a picture of himself and Sarah Lancashire on social media.
Never in a million years would Daniel Craig take to Twitter to share his enthusiasm with fans or throw exclamation points around like confetti. Norton thinks nothing of it – and that would certainly suit him well as 007 generation tries to win TikTok. Could his license to charm, after more than a decade of brooding Bond, be just what the franchise demands?