James Norton says shooting in Russia was essential to developing his 'War & Peace' character

By Karen Butler   |   Jan. 18, 2016 at 5:27 PM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- British actor James Norton says it was easy to immerse himself in the world of War & Peace, in part, because the small-screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic was filmed in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Written by Andrew Davies and co-starring Paul Dano, Lily James, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson and Stephen Rea, the early 19th century-set miniseries is billed as "a story of passion and romance, scandal and deceit, following the rise and fall of fortunes of five aristocratic families -- the Bezukhovs, Bolkonskys, Rostovs, Kuragins, and Drubetskoys -- all jockeying for top position in the waning days of Imperial Russia."

The four-part event will be simulcast weekly on Lifetime, A&E and History in the United States, beginning Monday evening. It has already started airing in the United Kingdom on the BBC.

"The BBC executives and producers, they all were really adamant to shoot in Russia because they felt like you can't really re-create Russia," Norton, who plays the dashing Andrei Bolkonsky, told UPI in a recent phone interview.

"There were endless [memorable] moments. ... I remember standing on this frozen lake with Jim Broadbent. Actually, we were standing on this sort of walkway of a stately home and we kind of veered off and we were shooting a scene. We didn't realize until we saw these little images in the very far distance that they were ice fishermen," he recalled. "We didn't realize until that point that we were on a frozen lake and even Jim Broadbent, his breath was taken away and said: 'Wow! This is amazing. This couldn't be anywhere else.' And, similarly, when we were filming in Catherine Palace, Lily and I waltzing with 300 extras and a live orchestra in this beautiful, gold, amber room... It's very difficult not to lose yourself in those moments. It's so romantic and magical and it transports you perfectly. It does your job for you as an actor, really. Suddenly you are there. And that's a privilege."

Norton admitted he hadn't read Tolstoy's famously challenging novel before he was cast in the TV version, but he emphasized he is now a great admirer of the tome.

"I was a non-reader, but, now, I am one of the smug club who can say that I've read the whole book," he laughed. "I'm a slight cheat that I had the massive advantage of playing Andrei. Most people kind of look at you -- when you take out War & Peace -- with a slight, apologetic, coy grin and go: 'Yeah. I tried and failed in the first 50 pages.' But now I am a huge fan. Once you get over the first 50 pages, it's an incredible book and totally worthy of its status amongst the literary world's revered texts."

The actor also noted how the story has a contemporary feel in some ways, even though it is set two centuries in the past.

"All these characters, with their trials and their journeys, they are totally recognizable. We felt like we were almost in a big, Russian soap opera because it is a big story about young people falling in and out of love and revenge and sex," he said.

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