James Norton McMafia Episode 1
James Norton as Alex Godman in "McMafia." AMC

McMafia — which premieres Monday, February 26 at 10pm on AMC — might look familiar as far as dramatic mafia pieces go, there are a few things that set the new series apart.

 

One of those things is James Norton. The 32-year-old of War and Peace and Grantchester fame, plays Alex Godman, a young banker caught between his aristocratic, British upbringing, and the undertow of his family’s involvement in Russian organized crime.

 

Thankfully, IRL Norton is lovely — and excited to wax poetic about his new role. “We’re all in a weird way drawn to the world of the mafia,” he says over the phone. “I think it’s a slightly anarchic, subversive thing, but there’s also a romance and a glamour and a sort of honor almost to it.”

 

Especially when it comes to corruption. “Any mafia tale in itself is obviously compelling, but what feels rare about McMafia is how on point it is," he says. "A lot of [things] happened whilst being on the set: things with the press, the collusion between the White House and the Kremlin, the conversations around corruption. To do a show which is a great piece of drama but also an important catalyst for an important conversation was a big, big draw.”

 
 

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McMafia manages to bring the mafia — that very popular cornerstone of popular culture — and give it a modern twist. Instead of sex and and a sense of integrity, Norton says, it’s all about money and power. “It’s pretty brutal,” he says. “The romance and honor is out of the window.”

So how did Norton manage to strike the balance with Alex between British sensibility and a Russian family linked to organized crime? By going method, of course. Well. Kind of.

“Ultimately you’re going to be in this person’s head for eight months. You have to know and love that character. [But] I don’t know, I don’t think I’m a method actor.” he says, laughing.

“My approach is pretty similar to most people,” he continues. “To prepare for it, I spent as much time as I could in his head. Doing relatively mundane things like brushing my teeth or walking around, going to the park, usually on my own. Just familiarizing myself with his head, his thoughts. I’m not hardcore method by any means, but I think some of the people from some of my local shops might think I’m a little bit freaky.”

In the end, Norton is certainly happy with his portrayal (for which he learned some Russian and practiced systema, aka hardore Russian martial arts). “For me, a good piece of writing will explore that wonderful, messy grey area,” he says. “Right now in this world there are a lot of people like Alex who have been tempted. And it was really fun and exciting to play a character like that.”