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Pegged as one of the defining actors of his generation thanks to an impressive run of films like Primal Fear, Fight Club, American History X, and The 25th Hour, Edward Norton has spent the last decade more or less confounding those weighty expectations. His quiet, considered work in smaller films like Down In The Valley and The Painted Veil has been balanced by roles in big-budget genre films like Red Dragon, The Incredible Hulk, and the 2008 police procedural Pride And Glory, with Norton also taking long leaves of absence from screens entirely. Norton’s first starring role in nearly two years is a typically idiosyncratic choice: In Leaves Of Grass (written and directed by Hulk costar Tim Blake Nelson), he plays identical twins Bill and Brady—one a prim, cautious classical philosophy professor, and the other a pot-growing criminal—who find themselves tangled up in a stoner comedy of errors in the Oklahoma backwoods. Soon after, Norton will be seen reuniting with Robert De Niro in Stone, in which he plays a cornrow-sporting arsonist who uses his girlfriend (Milla Jovavich) to blackmail De Niro’s parole officer into letting him out of prison. He’s also currently at work writing the screenplay for his 10-years-in-the-making adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, which he will direct and star in as a Tourette-afflicted accidental detective. The A.V. Club spoke with Norton shortly before the Leaves Of Grass première about finding the deeper meanings in his movies, his many characters with split personalities, and why he doesn’t really like talking about himself. (UPDATE: We just received word from the film's publicist that Leaves Of Grass has found a new distributor and won't be coming out until this summer, exact date TBD.)
The A.V. Club: You’ve said you took a significant pay cut to do Leaves Of Grass. What was so appealing about it?
Edward Norton: [Laughs.] I just thought it was very original, and felt it was a movie we actually decided to produce as a company for Tim [Blake Nelson]—to really shepherd it and help it get made. So once you invest all that in it, you kind of have to do what it takes to get it made. The financing environment these days has gotten a little more compressed. That’s just the way it goes.
AVC: You’ve had a lot of creative input into your other films, including doing script rewrites. Was it the same with Leaves Of Grass?
EN: No. I mean, Tim just owned the worlds of this script. It was so personal to him, and he had such a firm handle on these strangely juxtaposed worlds of classical philosophy and Southern Oklahoma pot growers. It was so authentic to him. It’s my favorite kind of thing, where it’s like when the person driving has their hands on the wheel so they know where they’re going. It’s just kind of delightful.
AVC: How explicit did he make those philosophical underpinnings? For example, your character references Nietzsche’s The Birth Of Tragedy in the film, which is all about the Apollonian/Dionysian conflict. It sets up this subtext where your character, Billy, represents the Dionysian aspect of man while Billy is the Apollonian. Was that actually part of the conversation while you were making the film?
EN: Well, you’d have to be pretty obtuse to ignore that at play in there, since Tim was making it pretty overt. Tim’s right that many types of stories—even twin stories—are kind of archetypal. Some types of stories, you can go back, and it’s all about re-contextualizing them. When we did American History X, we talked sometimes about things like Othello and Macbeth—tragedy in the old-school sense of a person going down because of their flaws and there being a lesson in that. My friend David [McKenna] wrote it and it was like, “What if we tried to tell a contemporary Orange County story with that kind of thing?” and I liked that idea. I’ve always liked the idea of taking old dramatic ideas and devices and making them feel relevant or contemporary or whatever. I think Tim did that. Tim was really invested in a lot of these ideas–the “Platonic ideal” and the ideas of balance and dichotomy between all the things you said. I thought he did a great job. He took worlds he knew and made them stand in for those kinds of classical ideas. I really admired it.
If you’ve got a piece and you can feel the person who’s going to direct it is really made for it, if it’s really special for them, then it’s going to be a better-than-usual experience. I remember reading Fight Club and thinking, “There’s nobody I can think of who could better do this than [David] Fincher.” It’s like it was made for him. It’s the kind of text married to someone of his talents. You’re never going to find a better marriage of a piece of text and a director than that. I felt that way with Down In The Valley with David Jacobson. I felt that way with Spike Lee on The 25th Hour. You know, it was about New York, and it was about how New York felt after 9/11; there was nobody I thought was more dialed into his city and what was going on. And when you get that sensation, you really want to hitch to that train, because you know someone might do something very personal to them. I felt that way with Tim on this. Really, we just wanted to support him and help get it done.
AVC: Heidegger, who also gets name-checked in the film, looked at The Birth Of Tragedy as an example of the “fragmented consciousness,” which is a theme that’s been prevalent in a lot of your roles, from Primal Fear on. Why do you think you keep returning to the idea of the dual/split personality—or why do they keep returning to you?
EN: Well, I think that many people relate to the sensation inside themselves, where they wear certain faces in certain contexts—that there are parts of them that people don’t know. This also goes back to Joseph Campbell, and even deeper. Even Deepak Chopra talks about the idea of “the shadow,” that people have their “shadow side.” I think a lot of people relate to that. The reason Fight Club penetrated to a lot of people our age was that it grappled with that idea that there’s this person that I am who’s forced to move around in this neutered, contemporary world, but people don’t know what I’ve got inside me. That sensation—not just in young men, but in people in general—or that idea of how to get your authentic self out there in the contemporary world. I think the reason that lodged with a lot of people was that people really do understand that sense that there’s a schism inside them that they’re aware of, that doesn’t get expression. I feel that way. I think a lot of people our age feel that way. They feel more complex than the world allows them to be.
I don’t go out consciously looking for things, but when I see things like that, I think they spark for me, and I think there’s complexity in them. And by the way, they’re not always demanding that I do multilayered things. Like in Fight Club, it’s me and Brad inhabiting that split. So in some cases, it’s just that it’s an interesting theme, and in some cases, it’s that it presents an interesting challenge as an actor. [Leaves Of Grass], obviously, was that kind—all the way up into a full-on, “See if you can act as two people interacting with one another,” hilariously different sort of challenge. That’s what the comedy/tragedy mask represents—that whole duality, it’s the essence of drama, really. In some ways, I don’t feel like the agent of those choices, so much as I feel like I’ve been really lucky in getting to see some of them and investigate them. When I come across it, I like it.
But the funny thing is, people talk about Primal Fear just because it’s like a con, you know what I mean? And it’s fun in that way, but I actually think that a character—something like in American History X or The 25th Hour—a character going through a complex transformation is, in some ways, more difficult than the “trick” of doing a dual kind of nature. Sometimes people ask me about this kind of thing and they’ll bring up The Score and I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s a riff.” It’s fun, but that is literally a gimmick—even in the movie, it’s a trick. There’s no depth to it. You have to believe he’s pulling it off, but that’s not a complex character study. Sometimes I’m more intimidated by something that’s got a lot of complexity in it. Like, I was more intimidated by the character in The Painted Veil than I was by, like, Primal Fear or something—which was a lot of fun, but it’s not nearly as challenging as, say, the kind of really shaded evolution of something like The Painted Veil, which is something I thought was really hard, and hard to track at what level to play at.
AVC: This is the first time you’re actually physically acting against yourself. What’s it like to work with Edward Norton?
EN: [Laughs.] He knows his lines. That’s good. It’s nice when someone knows their lines. No, it was fun. I think it’s less unusual a thing to do than people think. Say you turn in a piece of writing, and your editor comes back and says a bunch of shit that annoys you. In your head, you either imagine the conversation you’re going to have with them, and you play it out, and you script it out on both sides. Or, you have an argument with someone, and you walk away, and then you’re re-scripting it: “Oh, I should have said this and then he would have said this…” I think a lot of people in their average day actually imagine two sides of a conversation at one point or another. I think that the mental trick of holding two sides of a conversation in your head is actually something that we all do.
In some ways, the thing that was most fun and hard about it was trying to make it feel like it’s sloppy instead of clean. You don’t want to just ping-pong it—line, line, line, line. For me, the fun in it was to try to figure out, within the technical confines of it, how to buff the seams out by making it feel like, “Wait a minute, they just overlapped each other,” or, “They really look like they’re in the same space. They seem like they’re touching.” To try to do those things that just make it start to feel less like an effect and more like these two people actually inhabiting this same space. Once we dialed it in, I thought it was really fun. There were actually ways that you can have one character slightly surprise the other character. It’s hard to explain, but it was fun.
AVC: So you’d work with him again?
EN: [Laughs.] Yes, I would work with me again. Although, one of me likes too many takes, and the other of me would like things to go a lot quicker.
AVC: You mentioned Joseph Campbell once before in an interview shortly after Down In The Valley, where you talked about his idea of becoming “transparent to transcendence,” of allowing the myth to live through you. In that interview, you said, “Sometimes I think I’m good at helping the people I’m working with connect to that second level.” What is it about your method that you think allows for that?
EN: When you run into different pieces of works, they’re sometimes in different places. David Jacobson on Down In The Valley had these wonderful, strange impulses about the West. He came to me with [the script] virtually in a treatment form, and a lot of that process of us together was me trying to draw him out on what he was getting at, to get it to a level that it was relatable. That other people—like with Fight Club or something—are going to say, “I get that. I know what he’s talking about.” To where it achieves that kind of transparency. Something like Leaves Of Grass, is totally different. Tim’s script—I’m not saying it was, like, bombproof—but it was so realized. He was in such command of his themes already, and it was so on the sleeve as an exploration of duality, or of a character trying to find balance. I read it, and I was like, “This is already transparent for me. I get what he’s talking about in this, that struggle to balance different sides of yourself.” And I loved it.
A lot of people who are good at drama know that… What’s the best way I could put it? That you shouldn’t be doing these things just for yourself. You shouldn’t be doing this to satisfy yourself. You should be doing it to connect and communicate. Is it in Howards End, that theme, “Only connect”? The sisters have that whole philosophy of “only connect,” and I think that’s true. I think about that a lot in movies. If I think about the movies that we grew up on that mattered to me a lot, they’re the ones that make you go, “Oh my God. They said it.” I felt that way when I saw Do The Right Thing for the first time. I grew up going to a public school in the city and stuff, and you were like, “Oh my god, someone did it. Someone said all those things.” I think those are the most exciting moments with the movie. If you can feel that people are coming back off of it—coming back to you saying, “I got it” or, “I knew what you were talking about in it, and it made me understand something a little better,” or “I felt related to”—then that’s great. I think it’s something to always look for with a movie on some level. Now, that has its limits. That’s not going to be what Red Dragon is about or The Incredible Hulk. [Laughs.] Sometimes I think it’s fine to just say, “This is an entertainment or a diversion,” or whatever. But I think the best ones you want to try to look for, “What is this rolling around in that other people are going to look at and say this relates to me and my life?”
AVC: A diversion like The Incredible Hulk—especially if it continues into the various Avengers permutations—seems like the sort of thing that can actually end up monopolizing a lot of your time and creative energies, what with the sequels and publicity demands. Does that concern you?
EN: Not so much. I kind of find, actually, in some ways, I’ll go out and do more for these smaller films, because I think they need it more. There’s not such an enormous machinery around them. I think that sometimes films that have complexity or straddle tone need a little bit more of a boost these days. Sometimes I’ll end up doing more for these smaller indie ones and these ones we’ve produced than the big ones. Not that I don’t support the bigger ones, but they really don’t need it as much. I actually find, strangely, some of those studio experiences can be more efficient and less consuming, because if you’re not directing them, and you’re not producing them, and you’re not all that, then you kind of come in and do your bit, and you’re out. Then you can go to Comic Con or something, but that’s, like, one day. I think a lot of actors would say that those are some of the easiest gigs as opposed to the most challenging.
AVC: So do you plan to stick with it through The Avengers and wherever else it might take you? Is there anything that might cause you to bow out and let someone else be The Hulk?
EN: It’s one of those things that I don’t… [Pauses.] It has so much to do with big agendas at big companies that it’s not where I put a whole lot of my thought time. I think that if they want to do The Avengers, they kind of have to roll out a bunch of their other characters first. There’s Thor, Captain America, and all those. I think that that might be downstream a little bit.
AVC: In the meantime, you just finished working on Stone with Robert De Niro. What was it like coming back to working with him after nine years apart, with so much more of your own experience under your belt?
EN: It was great. When you’re coming up admiring the work of someone like that, and imagining that it would be a thrill to get to do something that’s in the tone range of the stuff that you’ve admired them in… This was much more that kind of piece of work than The Score. Which we had a lot of fun on, and I really enjoyed working with him on, but it was much more of a genre… You know, it was a heist movie. It was a lot of fun, but this was a much, much more complex piece and very, very heavy substantive stuff between the characters, so it was more the kind of thing that I had hoped I would get the chance to do with Bob someday, because he was really, really great, and doing some very heavy-duty work in it. I was fascinated by working with him and watching him do it. We made it really quick and fast. We made it in, like, 35 days. I think it was the shortest schedule I’ve ever made a film in. It was also the first time I had worked again with a number of people. John Curran, who directed it, directed The Painted Veil, and I think he’s a really, really, really terrific, serious filmmaker, and I was really happy to get back into it with him, and pick back up, and take what we learned together on the other one. There’s a shorthand when you’ve worked with someone, and I think that’s nice. It was a really, really enjoyable experience.
AVC: And you’re also finally making serious movement on Motherless Brooklyn, which you first optioned from Jonathan Lethem nearly 11 years ago. Can you tell us a little bit about what the process has been like bringing that to the screen?
EN: It’s hard. It’s a little bit more than I can really lay out, and I wouldn’t want to over-explicate it. For me, writing things like that, it’s always a battle between things you’re working on in the present moment and things you want to make time to get to. I find that I’m not a person who can just sit and hammer out something like that while doing other things. So unfortunately I end up needing the time… It’s just sort of the challenge of finding the room and space to concentrate and finish it, to be honest.
AVC: Can you tell us how faithful you plan to be to the book? For starters, is it true you’re looking to change the setting to the 1950s?
EN: I think I’m going to wait until I do it to talk about it. I don’t see any upside, really, in explaining it before I’ve even done it. I’m only halfway through writing the script, so I can’t really talk about it yet as a director. I’d say any relationship to it as a director is hypothetical at this point. I mean, I have an idea about it that I’m trying to get on the paper right now, but I’m not… [Pauses.] It’s way too premature for me to… [Pauses.] I just don’t have any relationship with it yet as a director.
AVC: Fair enough. You’ve frequently mentioned how much you admire Bob Dylan because he always refused to talk about his own work, particularly for journalists like me. Do you still find that aspect of being an actor tiresome?
EN: Sometimes I don’t think it’s the greatest thing to take away. I mean, when we go to movies and see and hear music, it’s like, why would you want to take away from people their ability to encounter something themselves, you know, and come to their own conclusions? Sometimes I kind of dread questions like, “What is it about?” because I think you want to let people figure out what it’s about for themselves. And Dylan to me is a good example. He’s the author of his own work, and I think in some ways, he’s defending it in a very special way. As an actor, sometimes you’re interpreting other peoples’ stuff and helping them breathe life into it. It’s easier to sort of talk about what you appreciated about someone else’s work. It’s easier for me to talk about what I appreciate about Tim Nelson as a writer or what he’s doing than it is to talk about me, per se.
AVC: And yet, you have to do that all the time. To bring it back to what we were talking about before, that’s like the “duality” of being an actor.
EN: Yeah. It is, sort of. I guess you would call it a necessity of the trade. But I think there are ways to engage about the ideas of something without ruining it. [Laughs.] Hopefully.