Droll director ... privileged preppy ... the new De Niro.
Sense and sensibility: despite his studious looks, Norton has a knack for getting gritty. Photograph: Glen Wilson
Edward Norton is a hard man to pin down, says Jeff Dawson
Sunday Times Culture section: Cinema
September 3, 2000
If there's one phrase that Hollywood tosses off with ridiculous abandon, it's this one: "The finest actor of his generation." I realised this when an eminent casting director once informed me, with utter conviction, that Christian Slater was the only young buck fit to bear this mantle. That Slater's advocate also happened to be his mother did not exactly lend this solemn pronouncement the greatest weight. But then, when the same epithet has been used over the years in favour of Rob Lowe, Charlie Sheen and Stephen Dorff, the honour would seem to have been devalued anyway, to somewhere between "half-decent" and "above-average".
The original FAG, of course, was Marlon Brando. Then, in the 1970s, came Robert De Niro, who had to share his title from time to time with Al Pacino. And a legion of mumbling, goateed pretenders have usurped the accolade ever since that brooding Method heyday. True, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp have come close to brilliance ... before moving on to make some inevitable piece of fluff.
In which case, thank heaven for Edward Norton, who, despite his unlikely, angelic shine, seems an actor finally worthy of carrying the torch. You know Norton, don't you? There was the schizo altar boy of the courtroom drama Primal Fear; and in the shocking American History X, this barely recognisable thesp essayed a chillingly compelling neo-Nazi skinhead. And how about Rounders, as an ex-con card shark? Or the Ikea-eschewing anarchist of Fight Club? With only six films to his name but two Oscar nominations to his credit, Norton has shown a knack for getting grim and gritty.
"I like changing gears every time, but the thing is, I don't share other people's external perception of my filmography," he says today, lest one commit the cardinal sin of pigeonholing. "I just never think of things that way. I choose projects on a very individual basis, depending on whether there's something about it that's challenging or fun to me."
And let's not forget his "soft" roles - the neophyte lawyer in The People vs Larry Flynt or the Ivy League blueblood of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You - the two that, perhaps, come closest to the Norton sitting here today.
Dressed in a plain brown sweater and jeans, topped off with a very sensible haircut, this teetotaller does not seem like the hippest actor of the moment - though this only goes to underline Norton's gift for getting under a character's skin. It's easy to see how he slipped so comfortably into the milieu of Woody Allen on Everyone Says I Love You. He has a quiet, fidgety manner, and a geeky, faintly academic quality.
A Yale history graduate who is fluent in Japanese, Norton has carried the studious approach into his acting. For Rounders, he became - by all accounts - a seriously proficient poker player. For his forthcoming heist movie, The Score, he has become a fully functional safecracker. Just don't diminish his artistic worth by calling him "Ed" (the original Ed Norton was the buffoon played by Art Carney in television's "The Honeymooners"), or, heaven forbid, dig into anything personal.
"I'm engaged in making movies," he asserts. "I like talking about movies. There's plenty to talk about without talking about, you know, the other stuff." As if to demonstrate his sense of purpose, Norton has gone and directed a film, a romantic comedy called Keeping the Faith. And this "$30m rabbi/priest joke", as he calls it, is actually rather good: a warm-hearted feelgood romp. It's the story of clerics Ben Stiller (the Jew) and Norton (the Catholic), each sent wrestling with his religious conscience as they vie for the same nondenominational girl (Jenna Elfman). "I'd never seen a rabbi/priest movie," grins Norton - especially, one supposes, with holy men who suit up in Prada. "I think this might actually be an original. S***!"
Having previously strutted his stuff for the likes of Milos Forman, David Fincher and John Dahl, Norton admits he has already had something of a masterclass in putting a film together, borrowing from them all. All come in for praise, with one notable exception - Tony Kaye, the British director of American History X, with whom Norton became embroiled, famously, in a very public dispute on that film's 1998 release. Having expressed dissatisfaction with Kaye's original cut of the movie, the studio, New Line, effectively ousted Kaye and brought in Norton to help edit a fresh version. Deeply aggrieved, Kaye vented his spleen through a bizarre series of ads in the trade papers Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, protesting against corporate bullying and scoffing at Norton as a spoilt brat, "a very privileged young man".
Alas, Norton will not be drawn on the Kaye affair. "It was mostly a positive experience, despite the way that got represented. You know, until he kind of ..." He pauses, the thought left hanging. "But I don't feel any ..." Nope, lost for ever.
Norton does come from a very well-heeled family indeed. His grandfather is the famed architect James Rouse, who can lay claim to being the inventor of the shopping mall. Norton grew up in one of Rouse's creations, the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, near Washington, DC, where Norton's father, Edward Sr, was a federal prosecutor in the Carter administration.
Needless to say, showbiz was not an obvious career choice for Norton Jr, though neither academia nor a gap year in Osaka were going to sway him from his calling. And after Yale, while doing the "struggling actor" thing off-Broadway, he lucked out by beating 2,100 other applicants to the part in Primal Fear, nabbing a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination (for best supporting actor) on his first outing.
The precocious talent has not gone unnoticed. Dustin Hoffman, with whom Norton has a lot in common, has lunched him on the pitfalls of the business. Hoffman has been quoted as saying that Norton's calibre can be put down to a particular trait: "He sniffs in the right places." And Warren Beatty personally encouraged his directorial foray, urging him to nurture a personal project rather than wait to get offered something from outside. Hence Keeping the Faith, which Norton and his writer friend Stuart Blumberg had been kicking around for years.
"Eventually we got to this point where we realised that if we gave it to someone else, we were going to sit around just worried that they weren't going to get our jokes," Norton explains. "They [the studio] were willing to let me direct it, contingent on my being in it, so it was a kind of a fait accompli."
Norton has been linked romantically to Drew Barrymore (whom he serenaded with tone-deaf brio in Everyone Says I Love You), Courtney Love (a seemingly unlikely choice, but his co-star in The People vs Larry Flynt), Cameron Diaz (whom he accompanied to the Superbowl last year) and, most recently, Salma Hayek (his "plus one" for this year's Academy Awards). Though, in true serious-actor style, you're way off-limits, buddy, if you're going to start poking around there. ("You're gonna get your head chopped off," he growls later at a Mexican journalist who's been expressing an overly keen interest in the status of his compatriot, Hayek). For, as Norton says - and as De Niro did before him - the more you know about actors offscreen, the less believable they are on it.
"We pay a ridiculous level of attention to our entertainers because it's become a poor man's kind of ology," he says. "There's no collective myth anymore. The downside of multiculturalism, which is all wonderful, is that our only collective tradition is the movies." Though this, paradoxically, is why they should be treated with such respect. "That's what makes me believe that movies are not a frivolous enterprise," he muses. "I think that people still need to get together in front of a lit thing, a kind of campfire, and look at stories. It's our self-analysis and it's how we feel connected. It's our most potent collective story-telling medium ..."
Just how far Norton has come will be put to the ultimate test in The Score. He'll be playing a full hand of tics, sniffs and impediments against both De Niro and Brando.
Keeping the Faith opens on Sept 15 (U.K. release date)
Keeping the Faith Main Page