After graduating from Yale—where he majored in history, but discovered a passion for theater—and laboring in New York's Off-Broadway scene, Edward Norton nabbed a plum role in the thriller Primal Fear, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. Immediately dubbed one of the most exciting actors of his generation, Norton wound up on a career fast track, and his combination of all-American charm and wiry intensity was put to good use in The People Vs. Larry Flynt and the Woody Allen musical Everyone Says I Love You. From there, Norton started adding darker shades to his persona with roles as a two-bit card hustler in Rounders, a neo-Nazi in American History X, a yuppie gone anarchic in Fight Club, and a regretful drug-slinger in 25th Hour. His attempts to work behind the camera have met with middling success, from his directorial debut Keeping The Faith to his partially credited (or wholly uncredited) work on films like Frida and the underrated Down In The Valley. After a brief absence from screens, Norton appeared in three films released in 2006: Down In The Valley, the surprise hit The Illusionist, and his new W. Somerset Maugham adaptation The Painted Veil, in which he stars alongside Naomi Watts as a British scientist who journeys to inland China to fight the cholera epidemic of the 1920s. Norton recently spoke to the A.V. Club about reserved characters, his films' place in history, and the struggles to get credit for his work.
The A.V. Club: You've starred in three movies this year, and in all of them, you've played characters who keep their emotions or motivations close to the vest. Is it harder for you as an actor to suggest emotion than to express it?
Edward Norton: They might be the same thing. Or the suggestion of emotion, I think, is sometimes a truer depiction of the way people express themselves than big, demonstrative emotion. I'm fascinated by the ways in which people express themselves, because their responses are often counter to what they're actually feeling. Like when they're frightened, they tend to freeze. When they're angry, it doesn't always come out as volume. There are wonderful contradictions in the way that people express their emotions. And I think sometimes their oppression of emotion and the weird way it comes out is more interesting than painting it in bold primary colors. These three films this year, they are all people who on one level or another are keeping things tucked in. But you know, another way of looking at that is just that whenever you tell a story, you're choosing to tell a certain piece of that story. You're always choosing the start point and the end point. And almost by definition, the most interesting period is where something happens, as a result of which something is different at the end. And so to me, the idea that you know everything about a character at the beginning is sort of ridiculous. Something has to be revealed. I like it when the deeper you go with the character, the more you see the layers start to peel away. It's more challenging to me, but it's also just interesting. Those are the things I like to watch. I like to watch the evolutions of something.
AVC: But if you give a reserved performance, how can you be confident that what you want to express will carry over?
EN: That's certainly the challenge. You take a movie like The Painted Veil. There are no magic tricks in it. There's no big stage. There's nothing in the nature of the story that's going to be demonstrative. So in a way, you're committing to the notion that the slow changes in the relationship between these two people is compelling. You're saying, "Yeah, we can make something of this that's worth watching." And that is challenging. It begs the question you just asked: Is that enough? Is that something that's interesting? And I think that it can be. I don't know if you ever saw the Coen brothers movie The Man Who Wasn't There…
AVC: That's as minimalist as it gets.
EN: That is a masterpiece of minimalism. Forget the film, even. It took such balls for Billy Bob Thornton to give a performance like that. Do you have any idea, as an actor, how courageous you have to be to give that performance? You have to so trust the people that you're working with, which clearly he did and should. But to do that little, and realize how horrifying that can be… As an actor, if you step to the side and you look at [Thornton's performance] technically, and you try to imagine doing what he was doing, most people would panic. Most people would be on the set, and they would be panicking, going, "I'm not doing anything!" All the ham instincts in you would be screaming, "You've got to indicate something here." And it's beautiful, in a way. And so I appreciate, even as an audience member, the courage that it takes to be… frankly, to be subtle.
AVC: When you sign on to a project these days, do you expect a certain level of creative input? What is the ideal working situation for you?
EN: There isn't a single one. Every movie is different. On Down In The Valley, I got involved in the very early stages, when [writer-director] David Jacobson had literally just disgorged this strange idea of a guy wandering in the modern-day West. He'd written something that was very different in all its narrative points from what the film became, but he was hitting at something I related to deeply. We spent eight months writing together. Then we raised the money together. I produced and he directed, and we cut the film together on our Macs. And it was one of the best collaborations I've ever had. But I don't expect—nor do I necessarily want—to do that every time. I don't expect to have the kind of partnership I had with David, like a feeling of synergy. Other times, I really like to read something and go, "This is beautifully executed, I really like this director's work, tell me where to show up, and let me service this as an actor." And working to service somebody else's vision, with no involvement whatsoever in either the production or the development of the material, is still something that I love to do. And then there's the flip, which is just doing one yourself, like me and one of my partners writing something, producing, and directing it. Each is different, and when people are communicating and the boundaries of the collaboration are well-established in the beginning, any working situation can be very happy.
AVC: How much can you prepare for a role, and how much depends on your instincts as an actor? The Painted Veil, for example, is set in another time and place, so your options would appear to be limited. What's your process?
EN: Well, it can depend. I worked on two period films this year, which was the first time I've done that at all. The Illusionist is sort of a fantasy. There were aspects of the real history of the Austrian-Hungarian empire that are interesting, but they don't particularly apply in that film. To be totally honest, the first thing I did was go, "Okay, in the script, this guy is an extremely magnetic, sort of darkly enigmatic character." And something in me just said, "You've got to figure out how this guy looks." And my whole entry point to that, literally, was the Marvel comic Dr. Strange. I was like, "I want to look like Dr. Strange!" [Laughs.] I literally showed the comic book to the makeup artist I work with a lot and said, "This is what we're going for." And that was a fantastic entry point for me, because I don't wake up in the morning and feel like Eisenheim, you know what I mean? I felt like in order to pull that role off, I had to create an aura.
And that's one thing. And something like The Painted Veil is very different. [Director] John Curran did a really terrific thing—he took a script that Ron [Nyswaner] and I had worked on a for quite a while and had fleshed out emotionally in a lot of ways, but he took it and went, "This can't just be arbitrarily set in China." He wanted to know when in Chinese history. What was going on? He located it very specifically during the May Martyr's Revolution in 1925, when the British shot a bunch of protesting workers and the whole countryside exploded in this rage of anti-foreign sentiment. And all of a sudden, there was this whole other level of resonance for me in the film, because the story evolved into a stand-in for things I see going on today—Westerners marching into people's cultures and dismissing the specifics of that culture and going, "If you would just listen to my version of rationality, everything would be fine for you." And the folly in that, the hubris in that.
But by providing that access point for me, I was able to pick up Jonathan Spence's great book about western advisors working in China [The Search For Modern China] and read chronicles of people very much like my character who went through these experiences. I found an amazing passage in the book about a hydrologist who was engineering a dam to prevent the flooding of the Yangtze River. This guy did incredible work, and the book talked about how his post-World War I generation lost so much faith in religion and things like that, kind of became these hard-line rationalists. And it talked about this guy and how he prided himself on not being involved in the politics, that he considered himself above it all, that he was bringing science and rationality to bear on the human condition and was going to improve things. But then Spence has this line saying basically that there was a kind of denial in that, because he was doing all that work under the shadow of British naval ships pointing their guns at Chinese ports. And that the consequence of that was, all his work got rolled under when Chiang Kai-shek started fighting the Communists and blew up his dam. And it was like this one line in the book completely illuminated this character for me, because that's who he is.
Then you build not only a character, but you build lines into the script. When we encountered that, we added in lines like him saying to the Chinese colonel, "I didn't come here with a gun, I came here with a microscope." He actually believes it when he says it. That's the level of denial that he's in. He can't even acknowledge what it feels like for the Chinese people to get shot by a bunch of British soldiers. And that's who he is. When he says to his wife, when they're talking about the nuns, "I came here to study the bacteria. I don't feel the need to have an opinion about the rest of it," you can go and look at something that seems abstract, like history or cerebral, but you can totally find a person's personality in it. So in this case, history actually lent something to it.
AVC: You said you're involved in the writing process for this film and Down In The Valley. This happens often, but you never actually get credited for these things.
EN: I wrote Frida.
EN: Yeah. I wrote Frida. I wasn't a member of the Writer's Guild, and I didn't get paid, and so me and Miramax, we kind of goofed because the WGA denies you credit onscreen for a film if you break their rules. We appealed it, Miramax appealed it and everything. I just got sort of shafted by them, quite frankly. In some cases, I've worked on lots of scripts, very substantially, with David Jacobson or my partner Stuart [Blumberg], but there's a point at which you have to say to yourself, "Down In The Valley wasn't my idea, it was David Jacobson's idea." It was a very personal vision. He grew up in the valley. I wrote scenes in the movie, and I wrote dialogue, and worked on the structure and everything, but listen, it doesn't matter. It's David's film. It's his vision. But people don't understand it all, anyway. They don't really care about credits. When I'm the one who sits down and looks at the blank page and writes it out all the way, then I'll call it my script.
AVC: Down In The Valley wouldn't seem out of place in the '70s, but it doesn't really fit into any of the boxes today. It's not really something a studio would do, it isn't something Fox Searchlight would put out, it's certainly not some micro-budget indie. Is there a place for movies like that anymore? Could you see a movie like Badlands, for example, being made today?
EN: People use that phrase a lot: "Would that be made today?" And my answer is always, "Yes, I think it would be made today." I mean, Down In The Valley did get made. The question is, will it get put out effectively today? There's an appropriate sort of reverence for that period in the late '60s and early '70s when some really great films got made, and they got made within the studio system, which is strange. But I'll say this, I think it's a total fallacy for people to say, "You couldn't make those movies today." I think there's more ways to get a movie made today than ever in the history of the entertainment industry. It's a very exciting time to work in movies, if you're a creative person looking to make a very personal, weird vision.
You know, independent films have been institutionalized, practically. Every studio has got a boutique arthouse label. There's like, 18 different independent film-financing funds. There's stuff that people hadn't even dreamed of 25 years ago, and I think you could absolutely get Badlands or Five Easy Pieces or Taxi Driver made today. In fact, I think the children of those films are getting made. A more interesting question is whether those films are going to get seen and appreciated. Five Easy Pieces probably got to run in some arthouse for 26 or 30 weeks. And that certainly doesn't happen any more.
Of course, something else has happened, which is that DVDs create this enormous extended life for a movie that didn't exist back then. If you missed Five Easy Pieces, you missed it, that's it. There was no VHS, no nothing. And so the fact that Down In The Valley got really great reviews and didn't do very well in arthouse cinemas in New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles and Chicago and places… I don't consider that a failure or a disappointment; you have to curtail your expectations in a way. Do I wish more people would see the film? Yes, but I think they will, that's the thing.
I've gone through the experience enough times. I think American History X made less than $9 million at the box office, but I was down talking to some of the Blockbuster executives about Down In The Valley, and they said American History X was one of their 30 top rentals of all time. And we've watched it happen. Everyone thinks that Fight Club is a very important and successful film, but it was a massive box-office failure. Massive. It was a big flop by any commercial-release standard. And it's been a huge hit on DVD. Everything that movie has become has been on DVD. So you can't stake your sense of creative success on this whole box-office-performance matrix, because if you do, you're going to be disappointed most of the time.
If you try to make interesting films, you're going to be disappointed most of the time. I choose just not to look at it that way. I don't look at American History X as a failure, or Fight Club as a failure, or 25th Hour as a failure, or Larry Flynt as a failure, or any of the movies that I care about that I've made that were not immediately successful. I'll stand with those movies any day over 90 percent of the movies that came out at the same time that made a hundred million dollars. I don't think you could name half the movies that won Best Picture across those years. And all I'm saying is that you have to decide where you root your own taste. We revere those films that we revere now, but at the time, a lot of the mainstream critics totally dismissed Dr. Strangelove and The Graduate and Taxi Driver. They didn't get it. Then that generation comes of age and takes over as the mainstream critics, and they get the chance to name their classics.
AVC: What was it like making 25th Hour? At what point did the movie evolve in order to incorporate 9/11, and how do you feel that ended up resonating in the story?
EN: Well, David [Benioff]'s novel was obviously written before 9/11, but the book has a lot of melancholy to it. It's about regret. To be honest, the initial impulse to say, "We're going to deal with this event" was totally Spike's. I don't think anybody even hesitated to go with him into that, but it was definitely Spike's. And I think that had a lot to do with who Spike Lee very fundamentally is, as a filmmaker. I don't think you could name a filmmaker of his generation that is as tuned into his time. That's what he's all about. I think he's all about documenting the moment that he feels around him, or in some of his films like Crooklyn or Summer Of Sam, moments that he remembers really intensely. And I think he just said, "There's no fucking way I'm making a movie in New York right now and not responding to the emotion that I feel around me." And in a way, I think that particular story dovetailed with it really nicely. But I give it all to Spike.
AVC: At the time, studios were all digitally erasing any shots of the Twin Towers. It's such a shame that 25th Hour is the only film that took the pulse of New York at that particular time.
EN: That's what I mean about Spike, though. Sometimes as an actor, you wind up bringing parts of yourself and how you're feeling into a performance. Like Naomi [Watts] did in [The Painted Veil]. I give her a lot of credit. She came off King Kong, and she was tired, like really exhausted. I don't really think she wanted to be entering into the heaviness of this process with us. And we kind of plowed early on into the scenes where she's tired and worn out in the Chinese village. And it was really interesting to watch an actor just go right with what they were in the middle of, just take everything they're actually feeling and channel it right into the work. I thought it was very, very bracing, in a way. Because in films, especially, you can't help it—you fall into those artificial patterns that go into making a movie. And it felt really alive to me, what she was doing.
And Spike is that way as a director. It's like he has no filter. When he feels something going on around him, that's the movie he wants to make—boom. Look at the fact that Spike had cameras in New Orleans within days of [Hurricane Katrina] happening, because he's like, "This is happening. This is one of the biggest things that has ever happened in our lifetimes, and in five lifetimes in this country, and I've got to be there. I've got to see what's going on. I've got to document it. I've got to try to capture this event." I so admire that about him, because it's like what Diego Rivera was. That's what I think really great artists do. They're the ones who just go, "This is my time. This is the time I have, and I want to interpret it so that later people can look back and go, 'Yeah, this is what this was.'"