This week the smash hit Broadway production of John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men – starring Chris O’Dowd, James Franco and Jim Norton will be broadcast in UK cinemas.
Sarah Lafferty spoke to one of its award-winning stars, the Dublin actor Jim Norton, who’s perhaps better known to some Irish audiences as Bishop Brennan from Father Ted.
Jim Norton has had an amazing, award-winning, critically-acclaimed career in film, TV and theatre. He won a Tony and an Olivier for his role in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, he appeared in many of the biggest TV shows of the last fifty years, and he’s appeared on the big screen alongside the likes of Tom Hanks, Gabriel Byrne, Reese Witherspoon and Dustin Hoffman.
I began by asking him, if winning the two biggest theatre awards in America and the UK has in any way altered his approach to acting: “Not really. It does put pressure to keep the standard up, but it’s not something I focus on. It was great to be honoured.”
Jim plays ‘Candy’ – the tall, stoop-shouldered old man, dressed in blue jeans who carried a big push-broom in his left hand because he lost his right hand in a ranch accident – in the play and I wondered how he prepared for the part.
“Acting to me is a great imaginative leap and I’ve been doing it for a long time. I love playing people who are different to me. I’m a huge Steinbeck fan. I read him at fourteen, so years later it’s amazing to be in this production.”
Chris O’Dowd and James Franco play the leads in this adaptation. Jim talks about the enjoyable four weeks of rehearsing in Chicago, despite that winter being one of the coldest he’s ever felt.
I asked him if Chris O’Dowd joked about much: “Chris doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he takes the work very seriously. Even though he’s known to the public for Moone Boy and Bridemaids, he’s done lots of straight theatre too. A lot of people were amazed by his terrific performances.”
Irish playwright Conor McPherson and Jim have collaborated on several occasions. But that partnership first started seventeen years ago with the award-winning ‘The Weir’.
At the time Jim actually wanted to take a break from theatre, but changed his mind after reading McPherson’s play: “I thought I’m out of my mind if I don’t do this. This is one of the best plays I’ve ever read. I ended up being in it for nearly two and a half years. We performed it in London, Dublin, Canada and on Broadway. That led to Conor asking me back and I’ve been in six of his plays.”
Jim spends a lot of time working abroad, but he often gets back to Dublin: “I go there quietly and visit my sister and friends. I love The National Gallery, Saint Stephen’s Green and Harcourt Street. I grew up on the South Circular Road.” There he was a Christian Brothers boy at Synge Street CBS, the alma mater of broadcaster Gay Byrne and Irish humourist Flann O’Brien aka Myles na gCopaleen.
He does not have the fondest memories of those days or the Christian Brothers, so much so he modelled his notorious, ill-tempered, venal Bishop ‘Len’ Brennan on them.
‘It was my way of getting back at them. Some of them were very unpleasant people,’ he says with a mixture of satisfaction and a shudder.
While on the subject of Father Ted I ask him if he thinks the show had any impact on the wider Irish psyche or attitudes to the Church.
“I’d like to think it opened peoples’ minds to the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. Happily things have now changed a lot, but when I was growing up, we were under the cosh of the Church.”
As a Dubliner, Jim is especially proud to have recorded audio books of James Joyce’s four iconic works. He originally feared taking on this huge project, but then spent six months preparing.
As an eighteen year old, it had taken him a year to get through Ulysses, but reading the novel aloud led to an amazing experience:
“All these people that I’d grown up with came into my mind. I’d heard them in pubs and on the streets. Joyce’s genius was his ability to capture that.”
One of Jim’s early film roles was with Dustin Hoffman in the controversial movie Straw Dogs which was, at one time, banned in the UK because of its graphic violence. But the director, Sam Peckinpah, had intended some even more violent scenes but Jim refused.
He had jumped at the opportunity to work in a major movie but refused to portray or depict some of the violent outrages: “I could have been fired for disagreeing with the director, but I stuck to my principles.”
He talks very fondly about recently filming Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall in Sligo because “it was such a great cast and a beautiful location.”
Which takes us back to his latest cinematic release, a transmission of a Broadway play, in keeping with several recent National Theatre initiatives, the most famous of which was the Benedict Cumberbatch/Johnny Lee Miller Frankenstein and, more recently, the same Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.
Jim, who was Polonius in that production, thinks it’s great that plays are now available in the cinema: “Hamlet went out live a couple of weeks ago and 250,000 people watched it. We performed it in The Barbican where there’s an underground passage to the local cinema, so afterwards we ran over there and emerged to an amazed cinema audience.”
As the interview draws to an end word is still coming in of the Paris murders the night before and he has been ensuring that his friends in the city are well. He expresses horror at the senseless cruelty and brutality of it but closes on an optimistic note: “We live in a difficult world, but you can’t give up or that’s the end.”
The hit Broadway production Of Mice and Men, filmed live in New York last year, is this being screened by National Theatre Live to over 600 cinemas across the UK from 19 November.
This landmark revival of Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck’s play stars James Franco and Chris O’Dowd and tells the story of George (James Franco) and Lennie (Chris O’Dowd), an unlikely pair of friends drifting from job to job across the farms and fields of California, holding fast to their dream of one day having an acre of land they can call their own.
Since National Theatre Live’s first season began in June 2009 with Phédre starring Helen Mirren over 4 million people have seen National Theatre plays in cinemas worldwide.
Jim Norton won a 2007 Olivier Award and a 2008 Tony Award for Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer. His other West End stage roles (including the National theatre and Royal Court) have included The Veil, The Pillowman, Hamlet, Bedroom Farce, Comedians, Saint Joan, Way Upstream, Tamburlaine the Great, The Playboy of the Western World, A Chorus of Disapproval, The Contractor, The Changing Room.
His Broadway roles have included: Of Mice and Men, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Finian’s Rainbow and The Weir, Juno and the Paycock, Dublin Carol, Port Authority and The Night Alive.
He has also appeared extensively on TV in the UK, Ireland and the US on shows like Elementary, Frasier, Poirot, Star Trek: the Next Generation, Stan and River.
His film roles incude: Boy, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Water for Elephants, Straw Dogs, Hidden Agenda, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Driving Lessons, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Oyster Farmer, The Eclipse and Jimmy’s Hall.