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Acting Royally: Lucy Cleland interviews James Norton and Vanessa Kirby

If you are seeking reasons to be proud to be British, look no further than James Norton and Vanessa Kirby.

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It’s a bright, sunny day, three days prior to 23 June, when the fate of the UK’s membership of the European Union was sealed.

I’m driving through Hampshire and it’s the typically bucolic England of the guide books, hedgerows bursting with cow parsley, lush valleys, Friesians grazing in fields… The view is only marred by bulky red placards trussed up in trees, tied to fences or plastered in the windows of pretty cottages – this is, in case you doubted it, Leave territory.

Ironic then that I’m to meet two of Britain’s brightest young stars, who I’m sure – without a shadow of a doubt – will be putting their tick by Remain on Thursday. James Norton – all chiselled cheekbones and twinkly-eyed – best-known for playing the psychopath Tommy Lee Royce in ITV’s thrillingly dark drama Happy Valley and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in the BBC’s lavish production of Dostoyevsky’s War and Peace, and the effervescently and intensely gorgeous Vanessa Kirby, who, this year, has starred as Elena in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Almeida and made her Broadway debut as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, opposite Gillian Anderson, are shooting a campaign for the very British brand Smythson.   

Which means the PM’s [now former PM, natch] wife Samantha Cameron, who is creative consultant for the brand, will be there. I wonder if I’ll catch her smoking a cheeky fag (though, since the referendum result, maybe she’s up to 20 a day).

This is the second part of the Smythson campaign that Vanessa and James are shooting. The first, for spring/summer, was based on the theme of ‘town’, this one’s based on ‘country’ (C&TH’s perfect story, obviously) and it’s taking place at Glebe House (for rent by the way, should you want a Georgian pad with pool, tennis court, landscaped gardens etc), where I’m allowed to hang out, soaking it all in, before I get a few minutes to chat to the actors between takes. Everyone seems relaxed and happy (though I haven’t spotted Mrs C yet). ‘These two are just a joy to work with,’ says one crew member. ‘They’re hilarious,’ says another. And as they come out of the front door, modelling the new Smythson luggage range, they do what they’re told without fuss or fanfare, though perhaps a little toasty in their winter garb.

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‘Why Smythson?’ I ask them later when we finally sit down and begin the interview, although whether I end up conducting it is up for review: the two of them bounce off each other like the closest of friends who haven’t seen each other for years. They sit together completely relaxed on the sofa (Vanessa with her leg curled under her, holding a coffee); they pat each other’s hands; they answer for each other; ask each other questions; are incredulous at some of each other’s answers; laugh; apologise for continually butting in. It’s fun, really fun and you can’t help but hugely like them both.

Before the campaign they hadn’t worked together professionally although, as James says, ‘There have been various things we’ve almost done together but which haven’t quite happened. And we’ve known each other for a few years now which I think was part of the reason why Smythson asked us.’ ‘I remember seeing you [James] in Posh [Laura Wade’s 2010 play at the Royal Court, vaguely based on the notorious Bullingdon Club] and thinking, “That one of all of them. Yes, that one’s the best,” but I hadn’t met you yet,’ Vanessa interjects. James reciprocates by saying, ‘I thought the exact same thing when I saw you in Three Sisters at the Old Vic [in 2012].’ Thus ensues some kind of actorly love-in.

For both of them in the future though, the thought of having a place in the country is definitely appealing. Vanessa’s parents grew up in the ‘middle of nowhere in Hertfordshire’, but, for the moment, she’s ‘such a London girl’. James could ‘definitely live here at Glebe House, it’s a beautiful place. I grew up in the Yorkshire countryside in a house not so nearly as grand as this; it’s an old farmhouse in a village, but it’s similarly quiet and remote.’

‘Where’s your accent gone, then?’ jests Vanessa. ‘It’s still there, deep down but my parents were from London,’ he replies, ‘We moved to Yorkshire from Streatham when I was three. I think of myself as a country bumpkin but when you’re in London you forget it as you’re swept up in the pace of the city and I get addicted to that. When I go home and see the horizon again, something clicks. I love being outside. I have a big campaign going at the moment where I’m trying to reopen the Peckham Lido.’ ‘Ah, sweet,’ coos Vanessa. James continues: ‘I think London, when it’s in its full bloom in spring and summer and you can go swimming and running down the Southbank, is the best. You can still get your fix as a country boy.’

Vanessa grew up in less remote, but certainly villagey, Wimbledon but has just spent three months in New York. ‘I loved it so much. I would love to move there now. I lived in Brooklyn Heights which is the most beautiful area ever. I could never afford to live there though.’

‘So,’ James asks Vanessa (see what I mean about taking over the interview?), as finally his coffee arrives and he politely asks whether I would like one, ‘if you were to have a second property, would you go New York apartment chichi penthouse or this? I’d definitely go for this. Without a shadow of a doubt.’

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I ask how much home matters to them. Although they both currently live in London flats – James in Peckham, and Vanessa in Tooting Bec, with her sister and two best girlfriends, James says, ‘Because as actors we lead such nomadic lifestyles, to have a place that is yours, which is safe and cosy, really matters, even if you’re never there, the knowledge of it being there is important. It’s like that tidy room, tidy mind syndrome.’

‘Or messy room, messy mind,’ quips Vanessa. ‘In fact, I was speaking to Gillian [Anderson] last night about this and she was howling with laughter as we shared a tiny dressing room in New York and my side was an absolute bombsite and hers was immaculate. She took pictures of it and I saw how bad it really was!’ (When I later ask her what she keeps in her Smythson rucksack, she confesses – in embarrassment – that once she found a bit of bacon in her bag with a paperclip on it – which is weird, she says, as she doesn’t even eat bacon. You’ve gotta love a girl with bacon in her bag.)

They do both appreciate the aesthetics of home (despite the mess/bacon in Vanessa’s case). In fact, James’s face lights up as he tells us about the oak strip flooring he has just had laid in his new kitchen – it came from Bush House, no less. And he had ‘the most fun ever choosing his granite work surfaces from a warehouse in Battersea’. And Vanessa claims she took months to find the right kitchen table and wishes she had a photograph of it to show us.

Professionally though, there’s no hint of a mess in either of their careers so far. After at least one minute of riotous, belly-aching laughter that shooting the Smythson campaign has, in fact, been the highlight, I press them to be a tad more serious. We – the viewing public – are in for a treat as Vanessa’s favourite on-screen role is as yet unseen (at time of going to press). She plays Princess Margaret in the much-hyped, £100m Netflix series The Crown, written by Peter Morgan, about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy).

‘It was amazing to do ten episodes of something where you see someone grow up, you see them at the very beginning with all their potential and then something terrible happens, and with the conditions in which they live, it was mad to think about being born into an institution and being unable to leave. I just loved her as a character. I loved her story.’

Learning to love your character is essential to both of them. ‘Yes,’ agrees James. ‘Learning to understand them and to empathise is key.You need to like them. You need the ability to put yourself in their shoes, not judge them and understand their motivations, physically and emotionally.’ ‘As actors, I feel we’re really sensitive and feel things really deeply,’ adds Vanessa.

For James, he’s unsure whether he has become more emotionally available through his acting or loves acting because he’s emotionally available. It would be fun to ask his girlfriend Jessie Buckley (whom he met on the set of War and Peace) the answer to this but I suspect James has always been a deep pool of emotion, although he concedes that drama school really broke him down and acted like a form of therapy for him.

As for his best role to date, he attributes so much of his learning and opening of doors to his portrayal of Happy Valley’s Tommy Lee Royce. ‘Playing him allowed producers to trust me, not to judge me as I walked in the room.’ (Norton has been known – along with fellow public school actors, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch – to be peeved with the ‘posh boy actor’ label.) ‘We don’t want to play versions of ourselves. We want to learn and keep learning.’    

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Seeing as we’re here at this crucial time in British history, I can’t help but ask whether Britishness matters to them, whether they’re proud to be British. ‘Yes, it does and yes we are. In America, especially, they look to Britain,’ says Vanessa. ‘There’s a discipline and integrity to the work we do, it’s very authentic. I feel very proud to be a British actor. But, also, everything’s merging so much now, look at the Netflix thing, nearly everyone can have access to it, it’s less discriminatory than before. It feels less pigeon-holed.’

And there I feel it is right to stop, these beautiful, bright young things have said it so succinctly. Let’s keep the world open – and Britain’s access to it (do listen up, Mrs May). Oh, and if any casting directors are reading this, the pair really, really want to work together again, so you should reel them in now. And no, I never did catch Sam lighting up.

Catch James Norton in a Granchester Christmas Special in December and Vanessa Kirby in The Crown (Netflix, out now).