Jim Norton is an Irish actor gifted with such a rare degree of gravitas that listening to him order lunch would be a riveting experience. It's his voice, which is remarkably sonorous, but it’s also his ability to convey a rich inner life with just a raise of his eyebrow.
In Of Mice and Men, now playing on Broadway, Dublin native Norton, 76, plays an old ranch hand called Candy, a luckless jobber who has seen better days and who wants to strike out for a plot of land before his last chance to do so escapes him.
Norton is superb in the role, finding the emotional core of his benighted character from the moment he appears on stage. But he's aided in this by the graceful and sensitive work of Chris O'Dowd (best known for Bridesmaids) as Lennie, the gentle giant of limited mental capacity, and movie star James Franco as Lennie's guardian and best friend George.
The show really belongs to the two sensationally accomplished Irishmen. Norton gives a searing performance that's filled with heartbreak and fear, and O'Dowd is so convincing that he commands the stage from the moment he appears.
Both men should easily be in the running for Tony Awards this year, a double Irish hat trick that this production looks more than likely to achieve. Quite simply they're breathtaking in their respective roles, with O'Dowd almost unrecognizable as the hapless giant.
"It seems to be doing well," Norton tells the Irish Voice with characteristic understatement.
What made him interested in playing a classic American role?
"It goes way back. It was 1957 when I got my Irish equity card. I wasn't long out of school and at RTE (Ireland’s national broadcaster) and they asked me about John Steinbeck. I read Of Mice and Men and I got absolutely hooked on the author. I read everything by him that I could get my hands on."
It was a formative time in Norton’s life, and now it has come full circle. The show’s director Anne Shapiro got in touch with him a year ago and asked him to play Candy and he immediately said yes.
"Steinbeck’s love for the underdog is part of his appeal, as is his concern about the tough lives of the workers without unions. He was very idealistic and I guess I was too at the time I started reading him,” Norton says.
“My father was a grocer, and the reason I got a secondary education was because I got a scholarship from the Irish Vintners Association. I was very aware of how important the unions were for working people, and my dad was very active and very passionate about them. With in his interest in the lives of working people Steinbeck has always been a hero of mine."
The story of Of Mice and Men could be written on a napkin. George and Lennie are migrant laborers in the Depression. Since Lennie is mentally slow George has become his protector. Lennie has no understanding of everyday social interactions and often runs into serious trouble, which keeps the pair moving on, sometimes ahead of the law.
Both men plan to escape their vagrant lives by purchasing a cheap plot of land to build a home on. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Meanwhile, Norton is about to star in Ken Loach's final film, Jimmy’s Hall. "About 20 years ago I did Hidden Agenda and I asked him, ‘Why did you wait so long to ask me again?’" he laughs.
In Loach's new film Norton plays a priest who goes to war with a local man who has opened a jazz hall in Co. Sligo in the early 1930s that the priest fears is leading the community toward sin, damnation and possibly Communism.
"It's a true story about the only Irishman that was deported from Ireland. It's a fabulous story and I think Ken indicated this will be his last feature film. I was just so thrilled to be asked to be in it,” Norton says.
He's too modest to say, so but the word is that Norton gives an Oscar caliber performance as Father Sheridan.
"It was fascinating playing that character. I did a lot of research and I got to work with a young Irish actor called Barry Ward, who plays the title character and who is heading for a terrific career,” Norton said.
Before stepping into his latest role Norton finished work on Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive off-Broadway.
“I didn’t have a lot to do in it but I would never say no to a Conor McPherson play. When he wrote it he said, ‘I’ve written a new play and I’ve written a part for you.’ I said I’ll do it. I didn’t need to read the play,” Norton said.
“There’s some indication of it coming to Broadway in the autumn but I don’t know yet if that’s confirmed. I’d love to do it again, and and I really think Ciaran Hinds gave such an amazing performance. So that might well happen.”
Working with his new cast on Of Mice and Men, which includes film stars like Franco, O’Dowd and Leighton Meester, has been a joy Norton says. He’s particularly impressed by O’Dowd and Franco, the show’s two leads.
“Chris is a very bright and very articulate young man, he's a terrific guy, great fun and has a tremendously positive attitude to his work. James and I also get on very well. I come from the world of theater and he comes from the world of film,” says Norton.
“But we sit down and talk about their performances and every night it gets better and better. It’s been great to watch their performances grow. By the time we get to opening night (March 16) they'll be firing on all cylinders!"
Norton admits he also turned to Irish sources to develop his performance as Candy.
"I turned to the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. And I made a note in my script the other day that nobody ever touches Candy, he's a lonely soul. Poems by Kavanagh about lonely old bachelors helped me. Nobody in this play gets what they want, they're left behind, and their dream of a little piece of land never materializes.”
It’s a great story. It’s also a powerful piece about how powerless the laboring people were in the 1930s. And how powerless laboring people still are around the world.
Of Mice and Men is a strange play for Broadway to do. It’s brilliant story telling but it’s grim. Norton agrees.
“It is. It’s a story about loss and a kind of redemption. There’s a terrible shock at the end. On some nights there’s a terrible silence for maybe 10 or 15 seconds and then yells and screams of approval,” Norton says.
“The applause has been incredible already. It’s just a great piece of writing that breaks your heart.”
Of Mice and Men is now playing at Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street. For tickets call 212-239-6200.