James Norton on Tapping Into His Inner Huckster to Become the ‘Rogue Agent’
James Norton is the “Rogue Agent,” in a thriller that unspools into a shocking true crime case. It is the English actor’s first project as a producer, now working behind and in front of the camera. There is a particular dark irony to the film since it is based on the true story of Robert Freegard, who posed as a MI5 agent so he could seduce and manipulate various women. By promising them an exciting escape from their mundane lives, Freegard was able to also swindle them out of vast sums of money. To pull off such a crime you must have quite the combination of charisma and bold skill, like many great actors. When we first meet Freegard, it is 1993 and he is taking advantage of a bombing campaign by the IRA to make college students believe he is recruiting them to be informants. Nine years later, he’s selling luxury cars in London when he meets Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), a successful lawyer who is taken in by Freegard’s upfront, yet respectful charms. But when a background check turns up nothing, Alice becomes suspicious Freegard dramatically claims this is all because he’s a spy. It’s an irresistible scenario and Alice falls for it, until the true, more disturbing side of Freegard’s story comes to light. Norton, who has appeared in major productions like “War & Peace” and “Little Women,” spoke with Entertainment Voice about the making of “Rogue Agent” and the work of bringing such an archaic, astounding case to life.
James, how did you discover this story and go about turning it into a cinematic narrative?
It was a long journey that was unique for me. This was the first time I was producing a movie. An article written by the journalist Michael Branagh in 2006 came to me about six years ago through another producer, Rob Tyler. So I’ve been sitting with this guy for about six years, which is kind of amazing. One wonderful thing about going through the whole development process of this movie was that I had to learn about the entire world and all the characters and victims. And all the while I was tackling that big question of, “why?” You want to know who this guy is and why he’s such a vicious monster and manipulator. We had information to work out some of those answers. A lot of it has to do with childhood traumas and selfishness. In these situations these conmen and conwomen are running away from something. It’s rather sad but a lot of them have a kind of self-hate. Robert realizes he has this unique power to be almost a “bad therapist.” He can work out what it is people want and feel they are lacking and use it against them. Everyone has a story they want to be told. Robert knows how to work out what that story is and then use it against them. He loved it. He became addicted to it. Pretty soon it became his job. It became his income! I can’t claim to have solved him but it’s been a fascinating six years of trying.
In many ways Freegard is almost the darker flip side of what being an actor entails. He’s a fantastic spinner of convincing untruths. He creates personas and backstories to convince others. Are there ways, as an actor, that you can relate to him?
Someone asked me once if I would be a good spy. I think I would be hopeless at remembering phone numbers and registration numbers. I can barely remember my bank account number. But what I would love is that feeling of hiding in plain sight, of being a performer without a stage. Actors love feeling like there’s nowhere to hide. Indie films and theater, where there are less toys, stunts and special effects, is where you’re more exposed. To take it to the extreme, just try putting one person in front of you and maintain a performance for a long period of time. Try to seduce them, make them fall in love with you. It’s the ultimate risk as an actor. So there is something very enticing about it. You’re right, Freegard was basically a great actor. Had he applied those skills to acting or therapy, the world would be a different place. He might have won an Oscar or made other people happy (laughs).
Freegard left quite a trail of devastated lives. To prepare the film did you as producer and your team reach out to any of the victims?
We didn’t as the production team but Michael Branagh did. He wrote this very extensive, 11,000-word, unpublished article in 2006. It was the most incredibly useful resource for us. He did such a thorough job and is such a great journalist. He interviewed every victim and they trusted him. He validated everything and they really opened up to him. We didn’t feel like there was a need to reach out to them, or that we had the right. It didn’t feel right to uncover everything for them. There’s obviously a lot of trauma involved and we had enough information from Michael. We have had a couple of dubious phone calls claiming to be Freegard’s friends. We think one of them could possibly have been Freegard. If you’re a narcissist and you’re reading in the newspapers that there’s a film being made about you, you’re going to try and ingratiate yourself to the movie. So there’ve been a couple of dubious calls with the other producers wondering, “is that Freegard?”
Because this is a story about seduction, there has to be this special dynamic between Freegard and his victims. Share about the process of casting Gemma Arterton and Marisa Abela as Sophie, the other younger victim we meet and what the dynamic on set was like between you three.
They’re just amazing actresses and I’m flattered to be in the same film with them. They brought so much to the roles and so many nuances. They were there in the trenches with me, aware this was my first time as producer. But it’s an interesting question. I really loved working with Gemma and Marisa. Gem was an absolute pro. We wanted that first half of the movie to really feel like a love story, almost like a rom com. And it’s very easy to fall in love with Gemma on screen, she’s so lovely. I know everyone says that about their co-stars but it’s true. She’s deeply lovely. We also wanted it to feel different because we wanted it to be the closest these characters have come to be in love. The real woman Alice is based on did have a very meaningful and ferocious relationship with Freegard. We wanted to tap into that. Marisa is on a different stage in her career and the age difference gave it a different dynamic. Also being a producer affected things. It’s kind of weird (laughs). Actors call producers “the grown-ups,” I don’t know if you know that, but they do. They say, “oh the grown-ups are on set today.” Suddenly I was a grown-up. I remember trying to smoke a cigarette with Marisa and feel like one of the gang and it felt funny. But it adds to the dynamic on screen because Sophie is the youngest and most tragic victim.
And finally James, now that you’ve experienced producing, now that you’re the “grown-up,” what can we expect from you next?
We have a really great slate and some really great projects coming out. Kitty Kaletsky is my co-producer and she has great taste and is a force of nature. We’re planning a slate where out of 80 projects, I’m not in 20. It’s been very nourishing and I love it. This film was going to be about Freegard and it became more about Alice, for example. So falling in love with the development process has been humbling.
“Rogue Agent” releases Aug. 12 on Apple TV+ and in select theaters.