James Norton is no stranger to playing less than salubrious characters thanks to his turns as psychopath Tommy Lee Royce in “Happy Valley” and a Russian mafia boss’s son in “McMafia.” In “Rogue Agent” he once again steps into the skin of a man whose moral compass is, to put it lightly, skewed. Based on a true story, “Rogue Agent” tells the almost unbelievable tale of Robert Freegard, a British car salesman who seduced at least seven women and exploited many more (including two men) in the 1990s by claiming he was an MI5 spy looking for new recruits.
As well as conning his victims out of more than a million pounds, Freegard also isolated them from their families, made them undertake bizarre “training missions,” such as sleeping in the street for days at a time, and persuaded them to go on the run with him, claiming they were being pursued by terrorists. One woman even gave birth to two of his children while believing she was in hiding from the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
It was a role, Norton says, he knew he wanted to play as soon as he read the deeply researched but never published article by journalist and producer Michael Bronner (“The Mauritanian”). “I read it, devoured it, loved it,” says Norton who soon decided he wanted to produce the film himself. He brought on former Black Bear Pictures exec Kitty Kaletsky and together they formed the London-based Rabbit Track Pictures to make the feature, which also stars Gemma Arterton (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”) as a victim of Freegard’s who ultimately brings him down.
“It’s clear why it’s so compelling,” Norton says of his desire to bring the article to the screen. “It’s this story no one has ever heard before, and no one can quite believe is real. And it’s all the things I love.”
With “Rogue Agent” getting a theatrical release in the U.S. from Friday, Aug. 12 (it hit Netflix in the U.K. last month), Norton sat down with Variety to discuss producing, directing and the mysterious phone calls he thinks came from Freedgard himself.
What kind of research did you do for this film? Did you speak to Robert Freegard or his victims?
I didn’t speak to the victims. We wanted to be respectful of their shared trauma and how horrible this experience had been for them and we didn’t want masses of actors and producers and filmmakers all turning up on their doorstep. So we let Michael be our link to them. The big question is whether we spoke to Freegard. We didn’t intentionally speak to Robert Freegard. We did have some people call up, reach out to the production team, make some slightly dubious claims. And the question remains, if you are a narcissist or the kind of manipulator and control freak that Freegard clearly is, and you hear in the trades that a movie is being made out of you, well, what do you do? I’m sure you try and ingratiate yourself with that movie. So there were a number of moments where a couple of producers put the phone down [and said] “I think I might have just been speaking to Robert Freegard. How bizarre.” So those were quite chilling. But no, we haven’t had any direct contact with him, and I don’t think we would really want to either. We know where he is through – we think we know where he is. A more recent victim reached out and wanted to help us make the movie because that felt like a way [of] holding him to account. So other than that, I think he’s possibly still out there. Possibly not very remorseful. But who knows?
I was going to ask if you were worried about any repercussions playing a real-life conman.
The work we did didn’t suggest or feel like we were dealing with someone who was – maybe I’ll eat my words here – but in the immediate sense, dangerous. He’s a man who obsesses over control, and lives this fantasy, because he probably has so much self-doubt, and has nothing else other than the fantasy and needs control, because everything else around him is in such disarray. And so it didn’t feel like we had any imminent danger. I say that [but] who knows after this film comes out in the U.S. and we suddenly meet Robert on the street… But yeah, I guess that’s the risk of making films of this nature.
Your characters in “Happy Valley” and “McMafia” are also fairly villainous. Is that something you’re drawn to?
I don’t search specifically for the villain. The characters which I think I’m drawn to are often the characters which are furthest away from myself. And as an actor, you have this wonderful opportunity to delve into these very complicated minds, which are so different from yours and try and work out the puzzle and work out the big “why” questions: why does a human being ended up that far removed from everyone else? Why are they able to manipulate their own moral compass to such an extent to justify these horrific acts? And I think we’re all, as human beings, we all have our Jungian shadow, we all wonder whether we’re capable of manipulating one’s moral compass. And so I just find it inherently interesting.
I guess I’m just drawn to people who are puzzles and inherently complicated because that makes my job so exciting.
With the projects you’re working on at Rabbit Track, what will the balance be in terms of those you feature in versus those you don’t?
Initially we talked about having 50% [projects] which I would be in – and not necessarily even front but be in in some capacity – and then 50% that I’m not in. And actually, it’s turned out much more almost 80/20. 20% I’m involved with as an actor and 80% I’m not. Partly because our slate is really healthy and it’s growing at an extraordinary rate considering our age and our size. And also partly because it’s just more interesting. I have learned that I love sitting at a desk and reading scripts and editing scripts and noting scripts. It’s a whole other skill set, a whole other type of creative nourishment, being able to read a book and try and see it in a cinematic sense and try and have a vision for something and then who might direct it and who might write this.
Which leads me to ask – is directing something you’ve considered moving into?
Yeah, it is actually. I mean, it was an interesting experience knowing so much about this, and having such a creative hold on not just the role, but the whole story. Knowing all the characters and all the decisions, and then having people pitch to us who were then going to take creative control, knowing in my head quietly how I would have directed it. And again, just setting the tone of our company, I don’t think it would have been right – we know it wouldn’t have been right – for me to take our first project out the gate as a company and for me to direct it having not directed before. Having said that, I have been on a film set for the last 15 years and I know what I like, I know what stories I want to tell and how I want to tell them and so there is quietly a director chomping at the bit ready to get behind the camera. And I think I just want to make sure that the story I step out with is the right one. I think as an actor people pay attention to your first film and right now I’m loving learning about it from the production side. And I think hopefully by the time I find the story I want to direct I’ll have already had a hold of that whole world behind the curtain. So yes, essentially, that is the plan but [I’m] not quite sure when.
You also live with Type 1 diabetes. Is that something you might ever portray on screen?
Kitty and I are constantly talking about how we can get one of the characters either I play or the characters we’re building and developing, how we can make one of them Type 1 diabetic, because I just think it’s way overdue. We need [it] just for awareness. And also because so many times in Hollywood, they fucked it up. I mean, that moment in “Con Air” when the guy is having a hypo [an episode of low blood sugar], and they’re like, “Give him his jab! Give him his jab!” I’m like, “No! You’ve got to get him sugar!” It’s unreal. So we have to right all those wrongs. We have to empower those Type 1s out there. And the number of times I’ve had kids and parents of kids come out and say how wonderful it is to see you act and play these characters and have this life out there on the road and you can manage your diabetes. So that’s been one of the most gratifying things about having any kind of public profile to be really honest.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.