James Norton, who plays Alex Godman on AMC’s McMafia, discusses how love and fear guide Alex’s actions, why Alex isn’t merely being seduced by the dark side, and how the show opened his eyes to real-world crime.
Q: What was your exposure to Misha Glenny‘s book before the show came along? What did organized crime mean to you?
A: I hadn’t read the book before. I think we all had a relationship with the mafia in some way, in an affectionate and almost romanticized way like with The Godfather. I think my relationship was mostly with that kind of dramatization – not that that isn’t true to life, but what Misha’s book brought to me and to the show is that the playing field has drastically changed. I did read the book when the project was presented to me and it’s been an amazing journey, one which has been harrowing and not all pleasant. It’s made my blood boil in many moments. We’ve been working alongside an NGO called Global Witness, which Misha’s on the board of and a good friend of mine works for. We’ve been working in London, where a show like this has a social conscience, and on the issues of modern day organized crime and corruption. It’s been terrifying and eye-opening, but it’s also positive to be part of that conversation.
Q: How would you describe who Alex is at the beginning of the series?
A: Alex starts off – in his own mind and in the minds of people around him – as quite the hero. He positions himself as the poster boy of ethical finance in London. His girlfriend, Rebecca Harper, is very much in that world as well. They’re kind of like a golden couple. That makes him ripe for the type of corruption forced on him – and it is forced on him in the beginning – because no one would believe that Alex Godman would be the one to be corrupted. What was exciting was tracking his demise and at what point he becomes aware of the fact that it’s more than just a survival story of protecting himself, his family and his business… when he actually is enjoying being seduced. He’s being pulled in, but he’s also volunteering. The audience realizes that his motives aren’t as worthy as he would like to think they are, and they realize it almost before Alex. Like every wonderful character, he’s full of conflict and crisis. He’s a gift for an actor and a privilege to play because he’s so beautifully written and layered.
Q: It’s clear Alex loves his family, but he has tried to distance himself from their past. How has that affected his identity?
A: There’s a misconception that being Russian equates to having a predisposition towards being a criminal. His family being of a criminal past exacerbates that paranoia and he thinks he has this darkness in him. He actively turns his London life away from his Russianness. He visits the Systema classes a couple times a week, which is Russian martial arts, and we decided he would probably read Dostoyevsky. So, there are all these things that hint at his obsession with being Russian, but he’s also terrified by it.
He has always been afraid of the fact that he’s from criminal stock – his brother, his dad, his uncle, the world he’s come from. He’s aware of the fact that this incredibly lavish and privileged life comes from criminal gains. He has an odd relationship with it because he’s aware that it’s put him where he is. Up until the point where he starts his relationship with Semiyon, he resists. His journey to meet Semiyon is so emotional. One of the main reasons is the avenging of his uncle’s death. At that point, it’s so emotional and tied up in fear and rage and revenge. People did question a lot here in the UK about whether it was too easy for Alex, but I think early on, it is genuinely about survival, revenge and fear. All those things are so powerful that they can defy any actions.
Q: How does Alex feel when he learns that Boris has betrayed him? Even so, how crushed is he when Boris is killed?
A: This speaks to the beauty of the writing. It’s complicated, in Alex’s mind. It’s such a murky world. The only reason why his fund is implicated is because of Boris’s actions, but he never gets to hear Boris’s side of the story. Boris says, “I will explain. Just give me a second” and then, 10 seconds later, he’s savagely killed in front of him. Boris never got to justify his actions. It’s a really complicated relationship that Alex is left with. He tells Semiyon, “I love no one as much as I love my uncle.” His relationship with his father is very jagged, including the fact that they speak different languages to each other. It was uncle Boris who had the friendly as well as the fatherly relationship. The misdemeanor of Boris’s betrayal is eclipsed by his love for his uncle, but it is complicated. The last act he did towards Alex before he died was one of betrayal. I love that the show doesn’t try to give you every answer.
Q: Is revenge the main motive for Alex joining up with Semiyon, or is there something else? How aware is Alex that Semiyon might still be manipulating him?
A: I think he arrives at that meeting with Semiyon at the end of Episode 1 with a relatively open mind. He’s obviously carrying an immense amount of grief and rage and fear, but I don’t think he’s made up his mind about what he’s going to do. He knows he’s being manipulated, but he’s backed into such a corner. You’ve got someone that powerful and who is out for revenge, so Alex essentially has no choice. Without Semiyon, there is no way out and then it’s imminent death from Vadim. It’s a beautiful first episode because, ultimately, you do have a man who does have a secure moral compass and who everyone can empathize with, but is backed into a corner. Those first few lies to Rebecca feel necessary. Unfortunately, because of Boris’ actions, everyone he knows is in grave danger and he needs to do something.
Q: How difficult is it for Alex to walk into that meeting with Vadim? What does he make of the man based on that brief conversation?
A: Hoss [Amini] (Co-Creator/Executive Producer) has mentioned many times that they wanted to paint these stories of these criminal and gangsters not in a humanizing way and certainly not to justify their actions, but to recognize that they are people who perhaps, like Alex, grew up in the world of criminality and they don’t know anything else. Most of them do have families and are businessmen. They want a stupid amount of money and power – more than they are probably deserving of – but they are looking out for the people they love in the same way Alex is. That scene at the end of Episode 1 was a joy to shoot. Alex doesn’t know his own rage. So, when he’s facing the man who killed his uncle, he’s tempering what anyone would feel in that instance. But of course, he’s very intelligent and he’s surrounded, so he holds it in. It was a lovely thing to be told by the director to feel it as much as I can and to make it as hot as possible, but don’t let it go. You can sense that Merab [Ninidze] was going for the same thing as well. There’s sort of a mutual respect and they’re aware of the other’s competence and power, but they’re adversaries.
Q: Like Alex, you traveled the globe for this production. What was your favorite location to shoot in?
A: I loved filming in Belgrade. It was like nowhere else I’ve filmed. We did a lot of the Moscow stuff there. It was nuts because we were filming in Tito’s villa, ex-dictator of Yugoslavia, and he was so lavish. To go to his villas and film was a real privilege. You get to see these places which aren’t open to the public. It was a joy filming up and down the Dalmatian coast. There were many days where the crew would not eat lunch and instead just dive into the water. It was so inviting. We did that for about two and a half months. None of us went home. We were like a massive sports team traveling from sets. We were very lucky.
Q: How have your views about the way crime runs in the world changed?
A: I don’t think we anticipated how much this show would tap into the climate and appetite of the public. We were on set and I think the Paradise Papers broke when we were filming. The Trump-Russia collusion also broke while we were on set. So, we had Russian actors and American actors and all of us are in London, which is a hub for a lot of dirty money, and it was absolutely fascinating and terrifying. Right now, we live in a world in which we need protection against corruption and a call for as much transparency as possible. It was incredibly scary to suddenly be made so acutely aware of how much corruption there is in the world. It’s not the sexiest subject matter. It’s hard to access. What we feel confident and excited about is we created a show which hopefully allows people to see what that kind of state-level corruption looks like. I think there is an appetite for that. People don’t get a sense from the heavy and dry articles written about it. Hopefully, this is a bit of a catalyst for a conversation that is happening and needs to happen as much as possible.
Read a Q&A with Misha Glenny, executive producer and author of McMafia.
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