Filming is just about to wrap on “Gareth Jones,” Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, about the intrepid Welsh journalist of the title and his efforts to report on the Holodomor, a manmade famine in 1930s Soviet Ukraine. “War & Peace,” and “McMafia” star James Norton plays Jones, and the cast includes Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”) and Joseph Mawles (“Game of Thrones”). Norton spoke to Variety about working with Holland, the modern resonance of the story, and the recurring Russian themes in his work.
What was your gut feeling when you heard about “Gareth Jones”?
My initial reaction was intrigue and surprise that I hadn’t heard of this guy before. What I love about these kind of jobs, and acting in general, I guess, is that they always give you an opportunity and a reason to embark on a mini-research trip. In my history classes we definitely did the Holocaust, but we never did the Holodomor, and I never really appreciated the extraordinary significance of that moment in history,.
Was Agnieszka Holland’s involvement a strong pull?
Agnieszka’s involvement was just a total thrill, and she has not fallen short of any kind of expectations. It’s been a real privilege to film in Poland, and while she is an internationally respected filmmaker, in Poland she is also an icon…as a representative of the left and the progressive left.
In the world right now we sort of have this populist right, and so we need figures like Agnieszka and Gareth Jones to latch our hope onto and inspire younger generations to stand up against that. It’s been a very charged job in that respect, because she’s incredibly criticized, incredibly opinionated, incredibly learned and wise. We’ve had lots of nights, particularly in Ukraine, eating herring, drinking too much vodka and getting into heated discussions.
Was there a sense on set that this story needs to be told?
One hundred percent, particularly when we were filming in Ukraine. Many, many people and governments continue to deny the Holodomor ever happened. It’s a harder thing to place into the facts of history and nail down, because whilst it was a widespread slaughter of millions of people, it wasn’t as systematic as the Holocaust because it was about denying them food and extorting their grain in order to facilitate the communist experiment.
Does the film have a resonance with modern-day politics and society?
In the world of fake news and Trump and this collusion, it’s incredibly relevant. It touches on the zeitgeist in a sort of once-removed way. I think it allows people to, in a slightly less charged space, explore those issues.
How was it filming in Ukraine?
We had people on set playing people who were queuing up for the bread line during the famine, and one woman was in floods of tears recounting the stories of her grandparents, who had starved during the Holodomor. It’s a very relevant story, particularly to Ukrainians, so very important for them and very emotionally charged.
How much artistic license can you take with such a charged project?
For us to take too much artistic license would be irresponsible, because we could make the most dramatic, sexy, Hollywood movie, but at the expense of the truth. At the same time, we are telling a story, and it’s a piece of drama, and we do have artistic license. It’s a balance.
“Game of Thrones” actor Joseph Mawle plays George Orwell. How does that play out?
There is lots of speculation surrounding Orwell and Gareth Jones, and certainly, in “Animal Farm,” we have Mr. Jones as the farmer, and was it an intention to nod back to Gareth and how he was responsible for revealing this? There’s speculation over a photograph of Orwell at a bookshop opening, and there’s a man in the background who has the exact posture of Gareth Jones. Whether they met or not continues to be a speculation, but I think what we can be certain [of] is Orwell had certainly heard of Gareth Jones, and he would’ve been aware of the story breaking and, therefore, inspired by it.
It’s a slightly more abstract artistic license, but it’s also a lovely nod to the importance of that book, and provides a touch of the Orwellian magic.
How physical a role is it?
In Ukraine we were shooting in -15, -25 [degrees] and it was bitter, and it really did add to the drama, where a journalist is willing to go on one of the state-curated tours of the Soviet Union and then risk his life and go rogue, and discover millions and millions of people dying, and then managing to survive and get sent home.
It was brilliant to start with that because it’s such a key moment. Later on, it all feeds off that moment when he’s in Ukraine, when he’s confronted with terrifying amounts of cruelty and death. It’s definitely not a dry, cerebral piece; it definitely has a bit of action.
You have starred in “War & Peace,” “McMafia” and now “Gareth Jones.” Is the Russian link coincidental?
It’s not been intentional. “War & Peace” was the first and again it was such a privilege to take on that book and work with Paul [Dano] and Lily [James]. It was magic. Perhaps when they cast this film they saw me, but I think “McMafia” hadn’t come out yet, so the Russian element was coincidental, but a happy coincidence.