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A Classic Back on the Small Screen

James Norton, the star of War & Peace, on reading, Russia and responsibility

It took six months to film War & Peace—the hit BBC production now airing stateside on Lifetime, The History Channel and A&E—but to hear James Norton tell it, perhaps the most time-consuming part of the production had nothing to do with filming at all.  “I spent a good amount of time just reading the book,” the 30-year-old actor, who stars as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, says with a laugh. “It’s 1,400 pages!” 

Of course, the length of the Leo Tolstoy classic isn’t lost in translation to the screen. The drama unfolds over the course of four two-hour installments, broadcast on all three networks, but the expanse of time is welcome as it allows director Tom Harper to create a swirling, sumptuous world for Norton and his co-stars (a cast including Lily James, Paul Dano, Jim Broadbent and many more) amidst the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. So, while the book is famously a commitment to read, the miniseries doesn’t feel like one—but still packs the punch of a timeless tale. 

“This is the thing: Once you start reading War & Peace, you realize why it is so valued and so important a text, because it’s such a good read,” says Norton, who Anglophiles will recognize from the television series Grantchester and Happy Valley and films like Mr. Turner.  “I think this production will show people that these are timeless characters going through the same things that we all go through or the characters on our favorite sitcoms go through. That is to says that the story is about love and jealousy and sex and all of those things that haven’t changed in 2,000 years.”

Part of the charm of the series also has to do with the fact that it wasn’t all fur and fake snow filmed on a soundstage somewhere, but was actually filmed where the story takes place. “War & Peace is about people and relationships, it’s about love and revenge, but an enormous part of it is that it takes place in Russia—and Russia can only be shot in Russia,” Norton says. “We were filming in locations that couldn’t be anywhere else: In Catherine’s Palace outside St. Petersburg, where the original Tsar’s Ball took place—we did the Tsar’s Ball with a live orchestra and 300 Russian extras. Those moments were extraordinary.”

Equally impressive is Norton’s performance as Bolkonsky, a solider whose life is marked by loss and revenge. “James not only brings a strength, poise and a commanding presence to Andre, but also a humanity,” Harper, his director, says. “Andrei behaves pretty badly at times within the story, which could potentially be alienating for an audience, but James’ performance shows great depth, which means you can see Andre’s internal struggle and understand that this isn’t a man with no feelings, but a man who is deeply repressed and at odds with himself.” 

Brushing off the notion that men under 40 should rarely play Bolkonsky—“because the circles of contemplation are so intense,” Norton says—the actor admits that while it wasn’t the easiest job he’s ever had, it might very well have been the most rewarding. “It was a real, massive challenge,” he says. “I think we all felt a huge responsibility, but hopefully we did it justice.”