Ed Norton Just Wants It Perfect

by John Brodie

GQ magazine, March 2001

In the five years since he broke into Hollywood, stealing the movie Primal Fear, he has earned a reputation as the most intense, gifted - and perhaps most difficult - actor of his generation. So what's his problem?

HAD YOU STEPPED into a NoHo basement for the April 8, 1994, premiere of Edward Albee's Fragments, you would have seen a 24-year-old Edward Norton kick-start the second act by proclaiming, "People want me; people have always wanted me. When I was a baby, people couldn't keep their hands off me." What ensued was what you might call a Full-Metal-Albee speech, in which the cherub-faced young actor as "Man 1" reveals that he blossomed into a teen prostitute who once contemplated deflowering a 13-year-old girl for the listening pleasure of her pederast father. Yet as Norton stood onstage and channeled the father's voice ("I ..want you to run your tongue along her thighs..."), you would not have known he was wrestling with the decision of whether or not to continue as an actor.

The previous fall, Norton, two years out of Yale, had accompanied his father, Ed, an environmental lawyer, to Vietnam as part of a Fulbright delegation. Edward Norton pere had fought there as a marine, and with normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam just around the corner, the young actor was intrigues by the idea of becoming a latter-day Wise Man - especially since a friend from that trip was offering to put in a good word for him with the right people. For someone who had been mildly obsessed with Asia since he watched Shogun on TV as a kid and worked in Osaka, Japan on an urban planning project as an undergraduate, such a career seemed a fitting goal. 

In the end, Norton could not bring himself to do it. And the reason, he tells me years later, had to do with how he felt on that stage in that New York basement. The actor-waiter had enjoyed galvanizing theater experiences before he played Man 1 in Fragments, but that night at the Signature Theater Company was a telling step toward becoming the actor's actor of his generation. As James Houghton, the play's director, says Norton pulled off the thespian equivalent of being in the zone. "Edward had inhabited that character to the point where you didn't see any seams. He never revealed an actor at work."

To Norton, vanishing into the role of Man 1 was the moment he understood the power of what he calls "the seduction and hammering of and audience." It was a new found lesson that would prove vital the following spring, when he auditioned for the part of Aaron Stampler in Primal Fear - a role that would catapult him in the space of a year from cranking Nirvana in a rent-controlled apartment to gracing the red carpet at the Academy Award in the arm of Kurt Cobain's widow.

THE EDWARD NORTON who rode up the elevator in New York's Gulf & Western Building on a spring afternoon in 1995 to audition for the role of Aaron Stampler bore little resemblance to the aspiring sophisticate who had come to New York from New Haven several years before. This Norton greeted Deborah Aquila, Paramount Pictures' head of feature-film casting, with a stutter and a thick Appalachian accent gleaned from repeated viewing of Coal Miner's Daughter, At that point, Aquila had failed to find an actor capable of portraying a cold-blooded killer who hoodwinks his way off death row by pretending to have multiple-personality disorder. Most actors - including Matt Damon - could nail one personality, but not both.

"When Edward spoke to me as Aaron, " remembers Aquila, "I could not help but fall in love with that sincerity and that earnestness. But then he changed, and there was a moment when I didn't think I was going to get out of that room alive. At one point, when he was screaming in my face, he yanked me back by my hair. Then I looked up into this kid's eyes, and I didn't recognize him, and that genuinely scared me. I didn't know him, you know? And I thought, Oh, great, the real thing. I hope my husband can raise our daughter by himself."

Paramount Pictures subsequently dropped the ruse of being raised in a James Dickey novel and landed the role. Within weeks, tapes of his screen test opposite Richard Gere and Laura Linney circulated samizdat as producers, agents and studio executives scrambled to get a glimpse if the phenom. "By the time we were finished shooting," says Primal Fear producer and industry veteran Howard "Hawk" Koch Jr., "he already had met with Milos Forman, with Woody Allen and with Anthony Mingella. He became an instantaneous hot kid." The movie came out in April 1996, and for his debut  performance Norton grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Although Hollywood's first impression of Norton came from Aaron Stampler - someone so cunning, so manipulative he can fool even his own defense attorney - my first recollection of him is singing "I'm Through With Love" as he moons over Drew Barrymore in the 1996 Woody Allen musical Everyone Says I Love You. And the more I talked to Norton's friends, colleagues and coworkers, the more I wondered which Norton variation was closer to who he really is. Is he the goofy intellectual who dedicated his first directing effort to his late mother?  Or the pretentious monster who pushes his directors to the breaking ere?

"There's the part of Edward that taught himself Japanese at 16. But there's the part of Edward that tells you he taught himself Japanese at 16" is how a colleague describes the thin line Norton treads between brilliance and arrogance. On-screen and off, however, Norton, who arrived in town  with as serious a persona as "Don't Touch My Stuff" Francis from Stripes, seems to be lightening up. He is spending the winter filming Death to Smoochy, a dark comedy in which he plays the title role, an innocent kiddie-TV-show performer who replaces Rainbow Randolph Smiley (Robin Williams) and is targeted for destruction by his downwardly-spiraling predecessor. In his personal life, too, Norton's showing signs of brightness. Sure, he still will not pose for pictures when fans approach him on the street, but he seems to smile more in public these days, especially when he's courtside at Lakers games with his girlfriend of the past year, Salma Hayek.

AS I WAIT at the gate to Los Angeles's Runyon Canyon one afternoon a few weeks before Christmas, I wonder which face of Edward will greet me. The park is the sort of place in which an Albee character would feel at home. Musicians, tattooed rent boys and other creatures of the night troll the trailhead while the rest if the world is at work. Thankfully, I'm not waiting long before Norton pulls up in a spanking-new silver BMW X5. (Note to paparazzi: The SUV is a rental that he'll be ditching soon.) He's dressed in Puma shorts, hiking boots, a polo shirt and a Panavision baseball cap. His eyes are a deep blue, his face is covered with stubble, and his voice is soft to the point of being hard to hear.

During the first leg of our hike into the Hollywood Hills, he chats amiably about a five-month traveling binge he's just finished with family members. He is the eldest of three, and nothing feels better to him that spending time blood on blood. In the fall, he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his brother Jim (a white-water rafting guide) and his baby sister, Molly (who works as the Africa manager for a travel firm). He also spent a month in China visiting his father, who works for the Nature Conservancy in Kunming, a city about one hundred miles north of China's borders with Laos and Vietnam.

Norton credits much of the man he has become to the freewheeling intellectual discussions around the family dinner table, as well as to the close relationship he had with his late maternal grandfather, James Rouse, who was a real-estate developer. As our walk reaches a scenic overlook if the architectural miasma that extends from the Pacific Ocean to the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, Norton tells me about growing up in Columbia, Maryland, a progressive community Rouse developed. Rouse, who "invented" the shopping mall and then devoted himself to revitalizing America's inner cities, built Columbia in the late '60s on 14,000 acres of farmland outside Baltimore as an antidote to the uniform sprawl he saw devouring the landscape. By the '80s, it had become a model of a successfully integrated community. But when I ask Norton whether he felt a sense of noblesse oblige growing up there, he brushes off the notion that his family was the Magnificent Ambersons in a United-Colors-of-Benetton wonderland. He claims his buddies at the local public high school had no idea of his pedigree. He pauses. "People presume - based on very limited information they've bothered to find out about my grandfather - that I grew up in an affluent setting."

Norton then points out that when he was a kid, his father was a federal prosecutor in the Carter Administration and later a nonprofit-environmental attorney. His mother was a public-school teacher. "They probably, combined, never made more than $120,000 a year [in present dollar value]. My grandfather was not a throw-money-around millionaire. He gave - in his life and upon his death - most everything he ever made to charity." (According to court records. Rouse left behind an estate valued at $21 million, of which $6.3 million was willed to charities after his death in April 1996.)

"Did you have a trust fund?" I ask.

"No, never," he responds.

By all accounts, Norton's years in Columbia were fairly normal. Indeed, his advanced-placement-English teacher, Andrea Almand, tells me later that Norton distinguished himself less by his lineage and more by his droll sense of humor - exhibited in a play he wrote and conned his friends into performing during the annual Literary Festival. The play was called Classroom: An Original Absurdist Play in One Scene (With Apologies to Beckett). Sample dialogue included a character called Student 1 announcing, "Listen, you come into this class in your animal skins, and you leave the same. Are you truly a new man at the end of the day? The rabbit dies, and there's nothing to be done."

Yet the years in progressive Columbia have left their mark. For when Norton and I talk about what kind of car he wants to get, he asks my opinion of those electric-gas hybrids, which to me are the automotive equivalent of being a vegan. And if there is a subject about which Norton will gladly play Rouse's scion, it is the "malling" of America  - the notion that homogeneity is suffocating eclecticism at every turn. As we take a breather atop a ridge near the Hollywood sign, I ask how he views the fact that Starbucks and other chains have snuffed out the independent retailers that were part of his grandfather's initial vision for his developments at Boston's Faneuil Hall and New York's South Street Seaport.

"I look on it very negatively, " says Norton. "And my response to that was Fight Club. I think my grandfather would have loved Fight Club, actually, because it spoke to the same things he was railing against for years: the franchising of America, the creation of sameness everywhere, all our transactions taking place within these places that are totally indistinct."

To hear him talk about the movie, it's clear that its critical (and commercial) failure is the wound that has not healed in an otherwise charmed body of work. A tale of Lost Boys who revolt against consumerism, the movie seemed destined to become the third panel in a premillennial triptych of Salaryman Angst (alongside In the Company of Men and American Beauty). But it made less than $40 million in domestic box-office sales and suffered mixed reviews. Sounding almost Ahab-like, Norton tells me Fight Club will eventually be remembered like other shock-of-the-new movies such as Bonnie and Clyde and Taxi Driver. They were initially dismissed and subsequently embraced as classics.

In Norton's still angry mind, Fight Club was done in by the "knee-jerk cynicism" of baby-boomer critics who reuse to release their wizened grip on the pop-culture joystick. David Denby, he says, was endemic of the problem when he wrote in the New Yorker, "The florid anti-consumerism rant gets overtaken by the movie's unacknowledged sadomasochistic and homoerotic subtext. The danger of Ikea get forgotten (and why pick on Ikea, anyway?)."

"This is exactly what we're indicting in this movie," responds Norton, his voice rising  to a crescendo; he cannot fathom how anyone who calls himself a man could defend the soulless Scandinavian-furniture store. As he speaks, I can picture him breaking an imitation Philipe Starck end table over Denby's head.

NEEDLESS TO SAY, Christmas shopping with Norton will not be a trip to the Century City mall. After finishing our hike - in which topic ranged from Norton's plans to adapting the novel Motherless Brooklyn for the screening to his interest in akido - we pile into the x5 and make our way to a tiny photo gallery in Echo Park. As we head onto the 101 freeway, the downtown skyline is bathed in that soft, sad glow of late-afternoon twilight. After a while the conversation turns to how his first brush with success coincided with this mother developing brain cancer and subsequently dying in 1997.

I offer my condolences and mention how as a teenager I lost my mother to breast cancer. Curious to know whether he, too, feels that the mother-son conversation continues beyond the grace, I ask him if he wrestles with questions like Would my mother be proud of me? What would she think of the choices I've made in my life?

"My family has always been so supportive of my interests. Whenever you lose somebody, everything you do afterward is colored by that. There's loss for sure, absences, but prior to this experience I thought of death as an annihilation, and it's not. You think there's going to be this absolute absence, and there isn't," he says.

I nod and mention a favorite Emily Dickenson poem that begins Mama never forgets her birds / Though in another tree / She looks down just as often / And just as tenderly...

"Yeah, the conversation continues," Norton says. "You retain the connection. You look to these people in everything you're doing. You draw inspiration from them; you still end up sharing things," he adds, cementing this brief moment of mutual vulnerability that plays out against the backdrop of rush-hour traffic.

In order to spend more time with his dying mother, Norton was one of the few actors of his generation who didn't go off to war in 1997 - he passed on the opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick in The Thin Red Line. The following year, he dedicated his directorial debut, Keeping the Faith, to Robin Norton, because his interest in making it had to with his mother's fondness for romantic comedies as it did with producing, directing and starring in something he cowrote with his best friend. As an illustration of the "conversation continuing," he adds that as a kid he would often watch a movie and then break it down by genre with his English-teacher mom, so "a lifetime of discussions with her informed doing that movie."

Talking about the genre of romantic comedy with Norton, it's easy to see how he could never be satisfied simply being an actor for hire. His literary sensibility crops up as we talk about how tough it is to figure out new obstacles to keep the hero and heroine apart now that we live in a supposedly classless society (and Woody Allen has all but exhausted neuroses as barriers to true love). So when his pal Stuart Blumberg pitched him the premise of a priest and a rabbi falling in love with the same girl - a movie equal parts The Philadelphia Story and Bridget Loves Bernie - Norton liked the idea of religion as the obstacle.

Part of the allure in working with Blumberg, he says, was collaborating with a guy he had shared his first apartment with in New York, a guy with whom he's been a loser - eating pizza and watching Withnail & I over and over. From their tiny brownstone apartment on West 78th Street, Norton and Blumberg conspired to break into the big time: writing spec episodes for TV shows, penning a Naked Gun-esque comedy about an inept superhero called Stupid Man. And the two Yalies were poised to write what they were sure was going to be their golden ticket into the Dream Factory - a spec script about Mata Hari - when Norton auditioned for the Primal Fear role.

Says Blumberg when we chat on the phone about how quickly went from geek to gorgeous : "Just to show you how naive I was when he got the part, I remember saying, 'OK, we're still going to write Mata Hari?' And he's like, 'Sure.' So it didn't really sink in until he got the Woody Allen movie and we went to Michael's Pub during the shoot and he introduced me to Woody, who was playing there with his band."

As fond as Blumberg is of his writing partner, he has heard about the actor's reputation for being difficult. "It's a function of being unable to hold back when he sees something that could be working at a different, higher level," he says, trying to put the behavior in context.

THERE IS ALWAYS a point in an interview where you have to ask the deal breaker, the question that send the star out of the room or into an unintelligible rant peppered with pithy words life craft, misunderstood and bogus. And with Norton, that question would be Does being the actor's actor of your generation mean you get to be the asshole's asshole as well? So before addressing the "Are you difficult?" question with Norton, I wait until the BMW is safely parked.

"So how would you respond to the notion that you're an overreacher?" I ask, figuring this will put a quick end to my Sony microcassette recorder. "Someone who has a hard time respecting the boundaries between actor and director, actor and screenwriter, actor and producer?"

It's dark enough  now for Norton's face to be illuminated by the eerie night-vision orange of the dashboard, and he doesn't bother to bullshit, nor does he get ticked off.  Instead, he answers the charge directly and succinctly. "I'm incapable of engaging as an actor on something without engaging as a dramatist. And when you work with great people, they not only accept it, they welcome it. But when you work with insecure people, it's a problem."

The implication is perhaps to Tony Kay, the director of American History X, a film for which Norton received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor but a film whose director still refers to Norton as a "narcissistic asshole person." Norton was not the TV-commercial director's first choice for the role of Derek Vinyard, a reformed skinhead who watches rage destroy his family. But Kaye, a first-time director, quickly came around and welcomed Norton's contributions to David McKenna's script.

"He was a brilliant guy to work with," says Kaye, "and he would have won the Oscar for American History X if he hadn't fucked me over in the editing process." The two worked well together during the shoot and for most of post production. Their collaboration went off the rails, however, after Kaye took more than a year to edit the movie (most rookie directors get four months) and the studio sent Norton into the editing room to work alongside (and coax a final cut out of) Kaye.

By the summer of 1998, when Norton went off to make Fight Club, New Line Cinema decided to take the movie away from Kaye, and the director retaliated with the Dadaist stunt of placing full-page ads in the Hollywood trade papers, addressed to New Line executives, quoting Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln and John Lennon (Everybody's hustlin' for a buck and a dime / I'll scratch your back and you knife mine). Norton was caught in the crossfire, with Kaye making him out to be a patrician brat by erroneously whining to Vanity Fair, "His grandfather invented the ice cream cone!"

On Fight Club, the legend of Edward the Difficult grew when stories made the rounds about his clashing with director David Fincher, regarding details as small as whether his character would wear Stan Smith or Chuck Taylor sneakers. "He's a daunting proposition because you're taking on a collaborator," says Fincher of Norton. The director and the actor ended the production as friends, though. "No one could have played that part except for Edward. I think it's probably easy to read him the wrong way because he's still so new and because he's somebody to be reckoned with."

AS HE STEPS out of the X5 and into the Fototeka gallery, Norton exhibits nearly the same attention to detail in choosing a photograph as he does in choosing a role (or a character's footwear). On the ride over, he mentioned that he has violated his criteria (great script plus great director) only one time since he's been able to exercise free will over his career. And that one time is his next movie, The Score. Working with two titans of their respective generations - Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando - was an offer he could not refuse.

"Two Corleones," I blurt out. "You've got the matched set: Young Vito and Old Vito."

"I'd do this one for the poster," he says, sounding more like film buff than film star until the database in my head scrolls to the more than $6 million he was paid for movie. Curious to know whether the shoot lived up to the ex-waiter's daydreams, I ask about the first day the three bad boys had a scene together. Norton admits to allowing himself a brief moment to stare in awe as the camera rolled. Then, as Norton said his line, Brando dribbled designer water down the front of his shirt. And when Norton turned to De Niro for a reaction, he caught De Niro catnapping on his feet.

In lieu of a lengthy conversations about Stella Adler, Brando further endeared himself to Norton through practical jokes. A favorite prank involved a high-tech whoopee cushion that would make six different fart sounds depending on how the Wild One manipulated the remote control. "Marlon would always figure out where Bob was going to be sitting in a scene, and he would hide it somewhere near him," remembers Norton. "And he would wait until Bob got warmed up in the third or fourth take and then start firing it off while we were trying to be cool-thief serious."

To see whether Norton was up to his old tricks on The Score. I ask whether he was merely an actor for hire. He explains that he transformed the script so that burglary became a metaphor for acting - with Brando's thief representing raw talent, De Niro's character combining talent with very disciplined career choices and Norton's character being "a young guy trying to make his bones."

Reached in the editing room, The Score's director Frank Oz, acknowledged that while it was a contentious shoot, there was, to quote David Selznick, only one "madman at the helm," meaning Frank Oz. He welcomed what he describes as Norton's tremendous involvement" in  his character's development and some contributions to the overall shape of the piece, but he noted that there were many writers who worked on the script at different stages of the game, among them Lem Dobbs (The Limey), Ebbe Roe Smith (Falling Down) and Kario Salem (HBO's The Rat Pack). Adds the director, "Edward didn't want to play the Tom Cruise character in The Color of Money. He didn't want to be the smart-aleck punk who thought he knew everything. He wanted his character to be at the same level as Bob's character professionally." (Amateur psychiatrists, feel free to discuss this at home.)

Norton may no longer be a smart-aleck punk. As he sifts through various black-and-white photographs that A.H. Buchman snapped in Mexico during the early '40s, I think back to a conversation earlier in the day, when he conceded that part of growing up for him has been coming to grips with his meddlesome nature. He suggests that an example of this maturation process is his decision to pass on the lead in MGM's upcoming adaptation of the World War II novel Hart's War. After reading the script, he feared he would not be able to act in the movie without donning his screenwriter cap and getting in people's faces, so he walked away from the opportunity to work again with Primal Fear director Gregory Hoblit. Instead, he chose to strap on a foam-rubber rhino suit in Danny DeVito's next directorial outing, Death to Smoochy. "It's a script that I wouldn't change a word of. I can show up, be an actor and then go home at night and not obsess," he says.

At 31, Norton is showing other signs of maturity. He talks about Sean Penn and Warren Beatty as examples of two actor-directors who are compass points by which he would like to chart his own career. And as the conversation drifts from these two legendary Hollywood rogues to his romantic life, he clams up on the grounds that it's rude to offer up the affections of a woman for tabloid fodder. He also worries that the more the general public knows about him, the harder it will be for him to vanish into the roles he plays. Still, during our time together, he's been dropping more hints about his feelings for Hayek than Hansel and Gretel had crumbs.

Even though his black book once included Courtney Love, Drew Barrymore, and Tara Reid, he seems genuinely enamored of the woman he's dated for well over a year. And he grows slightly animated whenever he talks about a recent trip to Mexico, where he traveled around the country with Hayek. For someone who fancies himself a New Yorker, he seems happy about spending more time in Los Angeles, presumably to be closer to her. This winter he will do a cameo as Nelson Rockefeller in a Frida Kahlo biopic Hayek is starring in. For that reason, perhaps, the photograph he settles on to purchase is telling.

The black-and-white image captures Diego Rivera in the very moment that inspiration flashes from his eyes to his brush. And I can't help but wonder if this is bound for Norton's inamorata. If he were my buddy, this is the moment I would churlishly blurt out, "What's the subtext here? Are you saying, 'I want to be the Diego to your Frida?'"

But I keep my greasy journalist mouth buttoned up, electing to respect his request for privacy. Besides, the article may end up alongside the other clippings his old high school teacher Andrea Almand posts about Ed ("he was just Ed then") on here bulletin board to motivate her students. And as far as her more prurient charges are concerned, the secret to the Edward Norton mystique should already be clear. Study hard, be good to your friends, raise hell for your artistic choices and you too may end up courtside at the Lakers in the company of a beautiful and talented woman.

*********

John Brodie is a GQ senior writer



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