When Edward Norton briefly became the center of industry gossip after Marvel replaced him as the Incredible Hulk in The Avengers, it put him in an awkward place. Not only because he was forced to publicly contend with the studio’s implications that he wasn’t a team player, but also because he’s a quiet, methodical actor who generally stays away from everything that doesn’t have to do with the actual business of acting. That’s made him one of Hollywood’s most frustratingly elusive celebrities, but also one of its most reliable: Norton chooses his parts carefully—and these days, infrequently—and he invests himself so thoroughly in them that there’s rarely any impression that he’s a movie star at work.
That’s particularly true of his latest film, Stone, which reunites him with The Painted Veil director John Curran. As in their last collaboration, Curran brings a determined realism that required Norton to fully inhabit the role of a prisoner whose psychological games with his parole officer (Robert De Niro) involve his wife (Milla Jovovich). Norton gamely disappeared behind tattoos, cracked Southern slang, and tightly rolled cornrows—and while the notion of a Yale-educated thespian rocking braids and speaking Ebonics sounds laughable, Norton’s commitment makes his character’s eventual spiritual conversion both believable and sympathetic. The A.V. Club spoke to Norton at Fantastic Fest about how he and Curran avoided caricature, the running themes in their work together, and what he plans to do now that The Avengers is out of the picture.
The A.V. Club: The last time we spoke, you mentioned how you enjoyed working with John Curran again because “there’s a shorthand” there. Could you elaborate on that?
Edward Norton: When you’re working on a creative thing, everyone has an idea, and they’re pushing it. The first time you work with anybody, you have to get comfortable with the way another person pushes hard for what they want. Familiarity breeds contempt, people say. But I’ve found, for creative things, familiarity breeds peace of mind, because you realize you know someone better. You trust each other. You know not to take things a certain way, or a wrong way. You get to where you don’t have to waste quite so much time with diplomacy. Things are a little more efficient.
AVC: Both The Painted Veil and Stone, in their own ways, seem to be about people who can’t express their feelings, and the damage that does to them and the other people in their lives. Was that already in the script, or did you and Curran layer it in?
EN: I think you’re right, and I think if you look at John’s movie, um…
AVC: We Don’t Live Here Anymore?
EN: Yeah. [Laughs.] It’s the same thing. And I’m not being facetious. When I look at the directors that I really love, who really develop their films over time, they’re almost always the ones who go back again and again and again at the same investigations. I think Milos Forman was that way. I think Milos Forman made movies about individualist, anarchic spirits pushing back against the establishment. I think Spike Lee has made films about race and money and New York. I think [David] Fincher looks a lot at the same stuff over and over again. I think people like the Coen brothers—they’re obsessed with genre. That’s emerging for me about John: I think he’s after just what you said. I think he has a great ear for the way denial and the failure to confront yourself builds into toxins and causes damage. Maybe not We Don’t Live Here Anymore, but in these two I’ve worked on with him, I think he’s really rugged. I think he’s pretty unvarnished, but I don’t think he’s ultimately bleak. It’s tough, but I don’t feel in these things that he denies the possibility of people opening up a little bit, or sorting that out. But I like it. I think that when somebody has a theme they go after, it’s fun to service that. It’s like, “I know you now. I know what you go at.” It helps you locate yourself a little bit quicker in their world.
AVC: Is that a theme that also resonates with you?
EN: Yeah, but it’s not like I go digging around to find it in myself. I guess it’s more just that I find myself feeling there’s wisdom in what he’s aiming at. I think he’s right. There’s a lot of this in our culture, maybe, is a way of putting it. When John started talking about the film and why he wanted to take it out of the South and put it in Detroit, and why he wanted to look at the idea of the disconnect between the way you present yourself and your morality, and what the authentic heart of that is, and what happens when there’s a disconnect between the two, and then the kind of decay that goes on, I felt… [Pauses.] Like, he wanted to make this when the economy tanked. John was really like, “We’ve really got to do this now. If we’re gonna do it, we’ve got to do it now.” And I saw his point. I think it’s fun to take cracks at what you feel is going on in the world around you. Whether you hit it or you come up short, at least you’re trying to engage whatever is going on.
AVC: You took some of your character’s traits from actual prisoners you met. Who were some of the guys you spoke with?
EN: They were just inmates in this prison—it was in Jackson, Michigan. It’s a really big facility, and they have a part that’s been shut down and a part that’s active. It was a perfect scenario for us, because we could shoot unencumbered in this closed-down part, but also be very close to the administrators and the prisoners, and we could flow back and forth and talk to people.
AVC: Where did the voice come from? Was there anyone specific you were trying to emulate?
EN: Yeah, there was a guy who I feel like I didn’t get a very good bead on. John really wanted it to have a Detroit vibe. I was sort of scouring the prison for white guys from Southwest Detroit or East Detroit, and there were plenty of those. There was a common pattern to the way they talked, but then I met this one guy. We were shooting on a Monday, and I met him the Wednesday before. As soon as he came in the room, as soon as he opened his mouth, I went [Mimes writing and passing a note.], “Let’s just do that. That’s great.” He had a very strange voice. It was very crack-y and broken. Very odd. I don’t actually even remember if he was a smoker. I don’t know what it was a product of, actually. I actually never asked him, because I didn’t want to make him self-conscious about it. I just recorded it.
AVC: When you’re playing a part like that, are you conscious of not making it a caricature—especially when you’re all done up in cornrows?
EN: John and I talked about it. It’s one of the things that’s tough. We’re in there, and six out of 10 people we met probably had [cornrows]—white, black, Latino. It was everywhere. I mean, it was everywhere, to the point where you just go, “Oh, this is the shaved head of the moment.” There’s a lot of this, and especially from a certain sector—like, white guys from the sticks were not like that, and they were really contemptuous of it. They would call those guys “Malibu”—you know, like Malibu’s Most Wanted? [Laughs.] They’d be like, “Oh, fucking Malibu.” They meant it toward the white guys who were from the urban black culture in Detroit, but that is those guys’ vibe, and it was full-on. It was the kind of thing where you sort of have to go, “We’re in it, and this is what it is. This film’s not Elmore Leonard. We’re not making fun of it.” When we talked about it, John said something to me like, “The first scene, when he’s in the chair, I think you should seem like the most unlikely candidate for a spiritual transformation.” So in some ways, the loopier the better, because it gave me somewhere to go.
AVC: This is your second time working with Robert De Niro. What have you learned about the way he approaches a performance?
EN: I think one of the interesting things about him to me—and I relate to this a little bit, but I’ve never quite seen it with the same intensity as with him—is the disconnect between what the people project onto him and what he’s like as a person and as an actor. It’s so intense. [Laughs.] People project all kinds of heavy-duty shit on him, and he’s really actually a very quiet, very clinical technician. He’s incredibly clinical. There’s no sturm und drang to it. There’s not a lot talk—just a lot of research, research, research, research, and then he just sort of pushes it through that membrane of himself and it comes out. People use all kinds of words to describe him, but I find him to be very thoughtful, very quiet, very collaborative. And it’s very nice. I have enormous respect for him and, I hope, for the actuality of the way he works, as opposed to his image. He’s, in some ways, to me, actually more impressive as a reality. The reality of the way he works is more impressive than that aura people put around him.
AVC: Can you elaborate on what you termed the “business decisions” that led to you parting ways with The Avengers? To put it bluntly, does that mean it was about money?
EN: I did kind of say what I wanted to say. I think it was pretty well hashed-out. I don’t have much to add to it. It’s really just not that big a deal to me. I couldn’t be more appreciative of other people’s investment in it and enthusiasm for me doing it again. But you’ve got to keep these things in perspective. It was super fun to do, but… [Pauses.] It’s not something I really think about that much at this point. I think you have to keep perspective on these things. I don’t have much to add about the particulars of the situation, because I don’t feel—even at the moment of [the announcement] I thought that… [Pauses.] I think that kind of negativity is unseemly, and I don’t think it’s necessary. And I don’t think it’s honest, even. And I don’t feel that negativity. So I don’t feel like indulging in a whole lot of BS over it. It’s not that weighty.
AVC: So now that your calendar is free, what’s next?
EN: I wish I was free. I’m looking to get more free. There’s sort of this trail of getting [Stone] out, and then we’re trying to make this big—HBO is doing all these historical miniseries, which I think they’ve done an amazing job with a couple of them. We’re trying to produce one for them about Lewis and Clark. There’s that Stephen Ambrose book, Undaunted Courage, about the Lewis and Clark expedition. We’re trying to assemble that, and it’s very big. It’s so out of scale with anything my partners and I have produced. It’s a very interesting set of equations to get something like that made. We’re pretty thick in that right now.
AVC: So you’re mostly concentrating on that production and your Crowdrise charity?
EN: Yeah. This year, it’s been a little more of that kind of work. It’s a little bit of a weird time in the business. I kind of think there’s been a healthy compression. There were probably too many companies putting out too much stuff. But right now, I feel there’s a little bit of Chicken Little going on in the world, with everybody crying about DVD revenues dropping. Everybody’s scared to make anything. You know, it’ll pass. But I’ve been perfectly happy to use a different part of my brain for a little bit. I’ve had a lot of fun with the Crowdrise thing. And if we can get something like this Lewis and Clark thing made, it will be really interesting for us. It’s like making Lonesome Dove or something. It’s something you don’t really expect to do more than once. And if we get it together, John Curran is going to direct it, which will be really fun.
AVC: Then you’ll have to figure how to work the theme of emotional damage into Lewis and Clark.
EN: [Laughs.] Yeah. That might bust my theory about John.