What Are You Like?
Jim Norton has been acting since he was ten years old. From radio plays as a child to guest roles on TV shows like “Frasier” and “Cheers” to award-winning Broadway plays,
Norton has run the gamut of acting possibilities and can’t imagine himself doing anything else. Currently, he’s on Broadway in the limited-engagement revival of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, also starring fellow Irishman Chris O’Dowd. Norton plays the one-handed and aging ranch handyman Candy, who is quickly feeling superfluous on the farm; Norton himself is anything but.
Having appeared in almost 100 different films and television shows since 1965 and numerous plays before and since then, Norton is one of Ireland’s best-known character actors. Born in 1938, he was raised in Dublin and knew he wanted to be an actor from an early age, attending plays at the Abbey as a child. It might be his soft yet deep Dublin voice, or his mess of white hair, but Norton seems to frequently find himself playing members of the clergy and is probably most recognizable for his contribution to one of the iconic moments of “Father Ted,” in which the titular Ted squarely kicks Norton’s stately and uptight Bishop Brennan “up the arse” after losing a bet.
Since his first appearance on Broadway in Conor McPherson’s The Weir in 1999, he has increased in profile from small guest appearances on sitcoms and in films to an in-demand Broadway presence. And in 2007 he won a Tony Award in the U.S. and an Olivier Award in the U.K. for his supporting role in another critically acclaimed Conor McPherson play, The Seafarer.
On a recent Monday, Norton took the time to speak with Irish America about his love of acting, Ireland, and the simple pleasure of rain on a roof.
What is your current state of mind?
It is one of great joy that I have the day off. We’ve been rehearsing Of Mice and Men every day and playing the show at night and this is a Monday and actors don’t work on Monday. So today’s the day off, the day to have the massage, to have the swim, to actually sit down quietly and get a chance to read the newspapers.
What do you consider your greatest extravagance?
I like to dine out in nice restaurants. I guess that would be the one extravagance – that I am aware of at least!
Who are your heroes?
That’s a hard one to answer, heroes. I suppose for me it’s people who do their jobs well and cheerfully every day and their only reward is the fact of knowing that they’ve done their best. I think they are the real unsung heroes that we have.
What’s on your bedside table?
I’ll have to go and have a look! It’s quite a few books in fact. There are some essays by Joseph Campbell. There’s the book I’m reading at the moment, In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson – it’s really interesting. Of course there’s a copy of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, and in fact it’s my grandson Joshua’s copy he gave me when he heard I was doing the play. And also I’m reading The Red House by Mark Haddon who wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And also of course in my collection is the James Joyce Dubliners, which I love. Being a Dubliner, naturally I like to dip into that from time to time.
Your first job?
Oh gosh it’s so long ago. I was a child actor so I worked from about the age of ten – that’s how long I’ve been in this business – and my very first job was a radio play. It was actually Brendan Behan’s first play, because his first plays were done on radio before they were ever done in theater. It was a play called Moving Out, set in Dublin, and I played the young kid in it. But my first job professionally as an actor was at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in a production of A Moon of the Misbegotten with Anna Manahan of all people. I might have been 20 or around that age but I’m not sure. It was a while ago!
Your earliest memory?
I was very young, and I was sitting on my father’s knee and it was in County Wicklow where we used to go out on holidays. I remember he carried me across a courtyard between one little house and the house that we were renting and I remember the rain was coming down and it was hot – the rain was warm – and there was thunder and lightning and he carried me across this courtyard. And as a consequence I’ve always loved extreme weather; and I especially love thunderstorms.
Where do you go to think?
Well, I suppose into my own head because I move around so much. In an idealized world I’d think up in the Wicklow Mountains and I’d live in a place called Glencree, which is very beautiful. At the very top of Glencree there’s a place called the Reconciliation Center, which used to be an old Army barracks in the time of the British, and it’s now beautiful and quiet. That’s a good place to go and think. But otherwise I have to carry an image of that in my head when I want to have serious thoughts.
Best advice ever received?
I suppose to live in the present, because we can’t change the past and we can’t predict the future. Though I suppose to live in the present you have to define it, and the best definition I’ve heard of that is: the present is what you are doing. Best advice ever given? Well, I’ve often said to my grandchildren, “I don’t give advice but I’m a very good listener.” Sometimes I think people just want to be listened to and it is important to give your full attention.
Do you talk on plane rides?
I’m a naturally sociable person, but on a long plane ride I do bring my Bose headset and my collection of music to listen to. But sometimes you can have interesting conversations and other times it can be exhausting. By the time you get to the end of your journey all your energies have been depleted by trying to think of new things to say.
Do you have a hidden talent?
I don’t have any hidden talents that I’m aware of. Acting is my life, my vocation, not to be too pretentious, but it is what I do with my life. Though I am good at finding things. Even as a child I remember my grandmother, as she got into old age, she would lose things and I became very skillful at finding things for her.
What do you consider the best and the worst qualities in other humans?
The best quality is to be honest and truthful, and the worst would be the opposite of that.
Describe your perfect day.
I get up, have my granola, read the papers, have a swim, go for a walk in Central Park with Mary, my wife, and go to dinner in the evening. And of course, phone my kids and my grandkids and see how they’re doing.
Piece of literature or film that you could watch or read again and again.
A piece of literature would be Ulysses, because I’ve spent so much time studying it. I did the audiobook of Ulysses and it took me nearly a year to prepare to do it. In terms of film I’d have to say On the Waterfront. It was a pretty seminal experience for me seeing Brando for the first time when I was a young actor in Dublin. It was at a time when I decided I would be an actor, that this is what I would do with my life and it really inspired me.
Favorite opening to a piece of music.
I have fairly wide tastes, but I suppose I do like Schumann. There’s a song cycle called Dichterleibe, “The Poet’s Love,” that is 16 songs, and the opening is a piano introduction called “The Month of May.” It’s very calming and very beautiful.
Favorite place in Ireland?
I’m a Dubliner, so my idea of a perfect place would be walking down Dún Laoghaire pier on a summer’s day. It’s one of the most beautiful piers in Europe with a fabulous view across the Howth Head, and when I walk down there I invariably meet someone I know.
Favorite places outside Ireland.
I love Capri. I’ve only been there once but I fell absolutely in love with it and can’t wait to go back.
Favorite character you’ve played.
I usually say the one I’m playing at the moment, but the one I played in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, Richard Harkin, for which I got my Tony, has lots of really pleasant memories for me. It’s also the most difficult part I’ve played because he was blind and a drunk, so it was quite a journey playing that character.
The first play you saw?
I honestly can’t remember. It was probably Playboy of the Western World, which is one of my favorite plays and I was later fortunate enough to play Sean Keough at the National Theatre in London.
What’s your motto?
I don’t consciously have a motto, no, not beyond my belief that living in the present is the most important thing to do. And just be nice to people because it’s so easy to do.
What would you do if you weren’t an actor?
I would be somebody desperately trying to be an actor.
Your favorite sound(s)?
Back to what I was saying about my earliest memory; I love the sound of rain. I know it’s probably a bit of a cliché, but the very simple thing of rain on a roof, and rain on a tin roof is a very beautiful sound; it’s musical.
Your favorite smell.
Lavender. And my wife’s Bolognese.
What is a question you wish someone would ask you?
Would you like fries with this? And the answer would probably be yes.
What’s next for you?
A massage to iron out my tired old body so I’m ready for the fray for the rest of the week.
Of Mice and Men runs through July 27 at the Longacre Theater in New York.