That's him there, playing the guitar and singing about his penis, with Brad Pitt. "Penis, oh peeeenis/Penis if you will/Send a little girl for me to thrill..."
Edward and Brad are sat on the stairs of a dilapidated house, strumming and singing and grinning to each other, buddy-buddy tight. Edward has the scrawny body of a 15-year-old; Brad has been carved from wood; both look like they smell. Above them, some black-clad skinheads are busy cleaning up. Occasionally, the action will snap to images of Helena Bonham Carter, who is a bit Daryl Hannah's Pris in Blade Runner, a bit more Robert Smith of The Cure. "Penis, goddess of love that you are..." sing Edward and Brad. Filming it all is David Fincher, who has directed these kind of things - music videos - before (among many others, The Rolling Stones' 'Love is Strong' and Madonna's 'Express Yourself' and 'Vogue')
"It's a little love song to Helena," chuckles Edward Norton. After seven months of long working days - 126 of them - and intense moments on Alien 3 and Se7en director David Fincher's Fight Club, "Brad and I got to this poingt of virtual symbiosis in terms of each other's rhythms," says Norton, approvingly, "and we learned the song in about 15 minutes." He and Brad recorded the song - a spoof on 'Venus', a hit for Frankie Avalon in 1959- in a couple of takes. And they really play their own guitars, too.
Isn't it all a bit... laddish?
"Yeah, but we did a lot of stuff," Norton replies. "We shot some public service announcements that were funny, too." These were intended as cinema trailers for Fight Club, although no one could have thought for a second that 20th Century Fox would ever use them. One featured Norton talking straight to the camera, instructing the cinema audience to switch off their mobiles. "And remember," he adds, "don't ever let strangers touch you in the bathing suit area." In Brad's turn, he asks the audience: "Did you know urine is sterile? You can drink it."
"We did as much as we could to try to let people in on the fact that this is a film you can laugh with." says Norton. "It's not just 'Brad Pitt sets bombs, Edward Norton tries to stop them.' It's very much more than that in terms of its tongue-in-cheeck black humour."
Are the film company really considering using this screwy little pop video as a trailer?
"I doubt it," says Fincher cheerily, "but you have to keep trying!"
They made the effort. Went the extra mile. Ed 'n' Brad 'n' David. They had to. Fight Club. It's more than a film. It's a generational-zeitgeisty-millennial hymn, a blaring sign o' the times - much more so than, say, that new Schwarzenegger film End of Days, or a record by Nine Inch Nails, or a rap by Busta Rhymes, or the Gatecrasher Kids. It's a properly visionary, reflective, hilarious, disturbing film that you shoudl see twice this week. It's an immediate hit and a straight-off cult classic. Fight Club dissects 'tiny life', cursing meals for one and travel toothpaste, and wondering how the hell personal space became a personal box.
"The fun of my character in Fight Club is the range he expresses and the journey he goes on," enthuses Norton. "He goes from a real helpless, desperate paralysis to a feeling of real empowerment, and into a feeling of almost hysterical terror at what he's created."
Norton lost 15 or 17 pounds for the part. He was the skinnest he's been since his mid-teens. For seven months he took vitamins and minerals, "but I basically stopped eating and ran a lot." It was "much more difficult" than bulking up for his last role, as a vicious neo-Nazi skinhead in American History X.
"I decided I was going to get very, very thin, because in essence my character is wasting away, falling apart. And I did like the operating metaphor of [him being] a junkie - even when he gets into the Fight Club and talks about how it makes everyody feel, I always thought he'd have more of an Iggy Pop, wiry physique."
Make no mistake: Fight Club needed everything in it and everything around it to go that little bit further. Brad had to lose the caps on his teeth, but Edward starved. All that was left was a lean, hard, focused streak of character-acting.
Despite what you may have read in the papers, then, or gleaned from the pictures of
Brad's Buff Bod, Fight Club is not a Brad Pitt Movie. It's an Edward Norton Movie.
"That film," gushes Bonham Carter, "is carried by Ed Norton. "It rests on his shoulders."
How does Edward Norton relax?
"Well, sure...I mean, I do all kinds of stuff. I don't... I don't... tend to get into that stuff too much because it's what I do and... eh... eh..."
Isn't running one of your hobbies?
"Running? yeah, I run sometimes. But lately the work I've been doing has been dictating my body type, so I kinda... ah... haven't been on my own pattern for a while. But yeah. I love seeing films I like..."
Do you play the guitar to relax?
"Yeah, I mean, I think music is... you know, the great relaxer in a way."
What can you play?
"I'm... I'm... multilingual on guitar."
Jazz and rock, country and western?
"Nah, not so much jazz. But... it's, I think... I don't know. At the moment I'm pretty
consumed by this work and think I'm kind of... It's like the thing Kubrick supposedly said.
Someone asked him: 'Why don't you take a vacation between shooting and editing?' He said:
'That's like asking a kid to take a vacation from playing.' That's kind of how I feel about
it - it doesn't feel so much like work to me."
Edward Norton is preparing himself in a ground floor suite at the Excelsior Hotel, epicentre of the this year's Venice Film Festival. Fight Club is receiving its world premiere here, and the puddle of controversy surrounding the wittily violent (how dare it be both!) film has yet to ripple out.
Today, two hours from now, Norton has to appear at a press conference alongside Pitt and Fincher. "I'm glad you find it violent," Fincher will say. "After working on it for a year, it begins to look tame." "Our intention," Pitt will say, "was comedy...It's hyperbolised."
Fight Club. The story of a Joe Schmoe guy (Norton) known only as the Narrator, numbed into insomnia by a tastefully banal life. To rediscover some feeling and meaning, the Narrator attends support groups for the dying and diseased. There he meets Marla (Bonham Carter), another 'tourist' like himself, seeking vitality though others' terminal misery.
Then the Narrator encounters Tyler Durden (Pitt), a charismatic soap salesman. Tyler comes into his life like a brick through a window. Part snake-oil hustler, part coolest guy in town, Tyler tells the Narrator, "The things you own end up owning you." When his flat mysteriously blows up, the Narrator begins to see what Tyler is on about.
Soon the two are living together, and dreaming up fight clubs as a way of reconnecting, of plugging back into hard-knock life. "Tyler says," intones the Narrator's voiceover, "self-improvement is masturbation. Tyler says self-destruction might be the answer."
Right now, Norton is alone, save for a small mountain of Mediterranean fruits. Earlier this morning, he went for a run along the beach. He is dressed in casual black (T-shirt, slacks, sport socks). His straight-peg side parting is dyed Eighties Pop Star blond. He is slight, slope-shouldered, but somehow solid. He doesn't have what you might call charisma. He has something approaching presence. He has intelligence, which he wears like an aura and uses as a shield. He is eloquent, thoughtful, smooth. He often stares at his left knee when talking, as if he's shy. But he is only thinking. No - his mind doesn't think, it whirs, unfolding in long, complicated sentences. When faced with a question that doesn't require intelligence - "What are your hobbies?" - you hear the motor literally seizing up.
"What's being requested it not 'Can I hit you?' but 'Will you hit me?'," Norton explains. The point is: 'I need to get shaken, I need to feel something. I need that punch in the nose that wakes me up.' The fighting in Fight Club is very clearly a first step on a process of self-examination. It's not being proposed that violence directed outward has some sort of purgative or cathartic effect. It's the idea that we all need to look at ourselves radically and try to strip ourselves of the insulation that has surrounded us."
To recap: you're meant to find Fight Club fun. It isn't really saying that violence and anarchistic male militias are a valid, sustainable response to a society that emasculates men by cauterising all real feeling - a society whose chief weapon is the consumerist hypercane which insists that Ikea flatpacks will make you a fully-rounded person, and that the khakis-clad orthodoxy always drink at Starbucks.
This is the latte 20th century; are we having fun yet?
"Brad and Fincher and I all looked at this film and said, 'God, this is really giving a name to things that we recognise in ourselves and in the people around us - men and women.' You know, the idea of having unconsciously allowed your value system to be dictated to you be the consumer culture."
[Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club] was the first thing I'd read that was on the pulse of the generational zeitgeist that I could relate to. Because I really don't relate to what I think is that very baby boomer, manufactured reductive rubricfor us of 'Gen X' and the 'slacker' - heistant, aimless, and angst-ridden. I always thought it was a very dismissive reduction of us by a generation who didn't understand where our negativity was coming from. And it was always underestimated, tht depth of paralysis and despair and real cynicism..."
But that tends to eat itself - you end up worrying about worry. Aren't we just a bunch of pussies?
"I think that's true... And that explains why heroin came back into vogue in our generation.
It's an escape drug. It's very much a take-me-away-from-this-world, blissed-out, disengaging
drug. I always thought that the fight clubs were good metaphors for drug use in our generation,
in the sense of the seduction of the negative, the seduction of the idea of something that is
self-destructive but gives you this romatic allure. The Fight Club is very much like an addiction.
In the beginning, you're telling yourself that you're living outside the mainstream, outside
the norm, that you're a cowboy, that you can handle it, that the self-destructiveness is almost
ritualised and empowering. But eventually you wake up and you realise you're disintegrating."
Edward Norton is the son of a lawyer. He went to Yale. He started off studying astronomy, but ended up graduating with a history degree, taking Japanese along the way. But acting was his real passion. When he graduated in 1991, he moved to New York. After five years hustling jobs and theatre work he was cast in Primal Fear, after Leonardo DiCaprio backed out. As a stammering Kentucky choirboy who feigns a split personality in order to escape a first-degree murder charge, Norton was hypnotically good, and the role earned him an Oscar nomination.
Norton did four films between Primal Fear and Fight Club: Everyone Says I Love You (Drew Barrymore's geek boyfriend), The People Vs Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson's harassed lawyer), Rounders (Matt Damon's wormlike hustler pal) and American History X (Derek the Nazi Skinhead). He was Oscar-nominated for the last, too. His genius lies in his ability to disappear, chameleon-like, into each role, however, wildly different it is from his previous one. He has done so few movies because he likes to take a long time to get into, then has to take a long time to get out of, each character. Edward Norton is simply, shrugs Helena Bonham Carter, "very smart, highly curious, very enquiring, and he absorbs things. He's just more talented than most people."
For Brad Pitt, after the epic, misfiring pretensions of Seven Years in Tibet and Meet Joe Black, Fight Club offered a much-needed stab at redemption. Offered something incisive, satirical, timely, clever. But for Norton, there was no such agenda. There was no need to counterbalance a public perception, or fill out his own over-inflated celebrity profile. Those lost pounds were the only extraneous clutter getting in the way of Edward Norton's performance. He is a non-actor, the anti-Brad. You haven't seen pictures of him falling out of a bar at 2am with Leonardo and Tobey. He wasn't there lunging at the paparazzi outside some upscale Los Angeles restaurant. He isn't a famous dreamboat, a teen queen, and indie iconoclast who says rude things about other actors. He isn't Ewan McGregor.
Yes, that was him lurking uncomfortably behind Courtney Love as she yukked it up at another Hollywood red carpet gathering, but he has still never ever, not once confirmed that they were boyfriend/girlfriend. He and Drew Barrymore are good friends who once shared a flat in New York - and, as Fight Club has an in-joke at Pitt's expense (a cinema marquee billing Seven Years in Tibet), is the brief shot of a magazine cover featuring Barrymore alluding to something more?
You haven't seen him in the title role of Saving Private Ryan or the lead role in The Thin Red Line, because he turned down the parts.
And you haven't heard about him and Courtney shopping for prime real estate in Palm Springs because (a) they never did, and (b) even if they had, Norton is awesomely equipped to keep you out of his private life.
"I've never felt any particular encroachment of the 'celebrity' stuff into my life," shrugs Norton. "I've always tried to do movies that are very good for me each time, so I think people are able to interact more with the characters than with me. I think I can honestly say that I really haven't fundamentally the patterns of my life in any substantial way. I've always lived in New York City; I've never stopped riding the subway; I've never stopped doing anything. And people are never coming up to me with any kind of presumption of knowing me..."
But given that lack of 'purchase' into the off-screen Edward Norton, pudit and punter will latch on anything they get tossed - like your relationship with Courtney Love.
Norton laughs dryly as the sands shift and enter the mental motor. "But even that.." he begins. "You can't... you have to be... you'd have to be incredibly obtuse to the realities of our culture to enter into... the kind of work... the work of being an actor and not be prepared for and be able to deal with the sort of tangential hits of some of that stuff."
(See how he pulls it round?)
"But on the whole, in the main, I have not experienced what I would call the negative downslide - certainly nothing that even comes close to outweighing what terrific opportunities I've had to work with great people on such great material."
Composure regained, the conversation is artfully steered back onto familiar, solid terrain. See how he runs... the show? As Brad Pitt says to him in Fight Club, "How's it working out for you, being clever?"
"What's Ralph Kramden if he ain't yellin' at Ed Norton?" - A Tribe called Quest, 'What?', 1991.
Is that sone anything to do with you?
"No. That's an old American TV show from the Fifties, called The Honeymooners. It was one of the great classic American shows. Jackie Gleason played a bus driver named Ralph Kramden, and Art Carney played this guy who worked in the sewer named Ed Norton."
Were your folks having a laugh when they named you?
"No. It's an old family name - my dad, granddad, his granddad before him. And everyone called me Edward anyway, so I never really had much of a problem."
Fight Club struck a big, loud chord with Edward Norton because he is a very good actor who believes in the absoluteness of his work, and possibly because of his granddad.
James Rouse was an architect and 'progressive urban planner' who invented the shopping mall. In the Forties, he was one of the first to predict 'white flight' from American cities and the ensuing race to suburbanise. He saw the need for planned communities as a bulwark against this relentless suburban sprawl. Rouse's original concept of the notion of the European town centre: the commercial core, but also a town's heart and soul. Hence the mall, new urban America's downtown.
But the suburbs kept on going, and the mall became the catalyst to the process it was meant to halt. Rouse was horrified.
Edward Norton grew up in a planned community created by his granddad. Columbia, Maryland had open spaces and parks and a town centre. It wasn't Milton Keynes. "It was his idea for the 20th century model community in America. And most people who grew up there think it was very successful in tht sense. I grew up there from the late Sixties on, and even then it was a highly racially and socioeconomically integrated community - way, way beyond the national average."
James Rouse also helped rejuvenate inner city areas in New York, Boston and Baltimore - "dilapidated slum areas on the waterfront that they renovated and made into these thriving marketplaces". Similarly, he founded the Enterprise Foundation, which funds low-rent housing for low-income families. Norton serves on th Foundation's board. This, like most things that concern Edward Norton away from his six films, is rarely explored; "I'd rather it wasn't," he shrugs. There is always a tension, he admits, between his desire to work for the Foundation as himself and the potential usefulness of his "position" to help.
His position, though, had sufficient barn-door prominence, barely two years after his first movie, for a major studio to hand him the task of salvaging American History X.
In American History X, Norton was the centre of gravity in a confused film with a troubled
gestation. Bulked-up, skinheaded and tattooed, Norton underscored his suppleness as his Derek Vinyard
went from sweet gangly youth to hate-filled Nazi to reformed, tragic Shakespearean hero. He accepted
the role on the precondition that he could have a hand in rewriting the script, took over the
editing of the film at New Line's behest, and was caught in the ensuing slanging match between the
studio and former advertising guru, sometime conceptual artist and the film's first-time director,
Briton Tony Kaye.
Kaye didn't exactly hold bck in venting his frustration on you, did he?
(Smiles quietly) "Yeah. It was OK, though. you have to recognise melodrama as melodrama."
David Fincher says the reason you and Kaye don't get on is that you're more alike that either of you would care to admit. He says: "They're both driven to get their ideas out there; two guys who are incredibly focused on getting their vision or interpretation or version out into the world. They just do it by different means."
(Chuckles) "I think Fincher is subtly teasing me through your interview."
Why would he be doing that?
(Stangely) "Because... because... I don't think Fincher thinks Tony Kaye and I are very much alike."
Kaye variousky called you a "narcissistic dilettante", an "East Coast privileged young man", and "too cerebral". Which hurt most - his attacks on your perfectionism and ambition, background or intelligence?
(Chuckles aridly) "None of it hurt at all. He was just lashing out. If you notice, he's always been entirely focused on secondary stuff in everything he says - 'I would have been on the cover of Vanity fair' or 'I was going to take Hollywood by storm' - he never really talks about the film, ever. He's only really fundamentally interested in his own progress towards... fame."
Edward Norton says this last sentence quietly, perplxedly. As if anyone would ever get into films
to become famous!
Four weeks after Venice, Edward Norton is holed up in an edit suite on Warner Bros' secondary lot in West Hollywood. Preparations for his next film, Motherless Brooklyn - which he both produces and stars in, playing a detective with Tourette's Syndrome - will have to wait; right now, he's three weeks into the lengthy post-production on his directorial debut. Keeping the Faith, which Norton also co-wrote and stars in, is "a romantic comedy somewhere between The Philadelphia Story and Broadcast News, with maybe a little Jules Et Jim thrown in." It's about a rabbi and a priest who fall in love with the same girl.
As actors taking a turn behind the camera goes, it sounds more Steve Buscemi's 'quirky' Trees Lounge than Tim Roth's 'important' The War Zone.
"A little bit, yeah. Most of the good directors I've worked with all said the same thing: if you think you want to direct a film, the first time someone gives you the chance to do it, just do it. Fincher said to me: 'Do you think Aliens3 was my heart's desire?'"
It's the steep learning curve of directing that matters to this good student of film, and a light romantic comedy is as good an 'in' as any. And Norton wants to - needs to - learn, so that he can control. "I'm still intense, still a zealous control freak,' he said in his first year as a film actor. As Fincher puts it, "He's he guy who's impatient, who's waited to long to do a lot of things." Or, as one of the make-up artist on Norton's FACE photoshoot was heard to remark, acknowledging his 'firm grasp' on the proceedings, "And I thought Madonna was bad..."
Last weekend, Norton took Fight Club up to his old univeristy's film club. Being Yale, the club gets directors and actors up with unreleased biggies in their bags. As a student, Norton saw Rob Reiner unveil Misery and Spike Lee present Jungle Fever. So he took Fight Club.
"And it was just insane! People were in hysterics the entire film, which was always the point. I always knew the kids of our generation would get the point."
With Fight Club, David Fincher says an apt touchstone was Stanley Kubrick's black satire on Cold War politics, the "absurdist" Dr. Strangelove. Yet Fincher also knew that Norton's hapless character couldn't be Jerry Lewis. Particularly when considering the incredible, pivotal scene where he beats himself up.
"It couldn't be a comic performer," recalls Fincher. "We were looking for Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. And my agent said, 'You gotta see The People Vs. Larry Flynt.' And I said, 'That's the guy right there.' [Norton's portrayal of the lawyer] as a wonderfully casual performance."
"Being a blank slate," says Edward Norton, "is everything I've ever tried to achieve as an actor. That's the highest compliment. When I look at Dustin Hoffman or Daniel Day-Lewis, I know nothing about them as individuals, and I don't really think of them as such. I have these independent relationships with these characters that are almost in our collective unconscious now. If you think of Ben Braddock [Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate] or Ratso Rizzo [Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy] or Travis Bickle [Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver], those guys created those characters and they're independent of them. It's a definite achievement to sustain that for a long period of time - an empty enough vessel, a blank enough slate - that you can continue to pull that off."
He likes the fact that his friend Kevin Spacey wasn't billed in the credits for Fincher's Se7en, the better to heighten the tension aurrounding the hunt for his elusive psychopath. He and Spacey both hate it when acotrs do those on-set intrviews, "in costume with a scar on their head", which then pop up on Film 99 the week before the film comes out. "If you ever wanted to cut the legs out from under the entire effort, it's the best way to do it," Norton sighs. "The more you can create that magic bubble, that suspension of disbelief, for a while, the better."
Magic. Disbelief. The bubble. The buffer zone. Every actor should concern themselves with these, but few have the iron resolve and mind like a steel-trap to build and protect them. The very last thing Norton says, before he disappears back into an edit suite and back into himself, is: "Fame is very corrosive and you have to guard very strictly against it."
Edward Norton: Hollywood's invisible man. Made from girders. Rustproof. Galvanised.
Fight Club is out now
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