Extreme Norton

by Peter Biskind, photographs by Herb Ritts

Vanity Fair, August 1999

Okay, it's only a movie, I kept reminding myself as I watched Edward Norton screaming in agony. He was trying to squirm away from Brad Pitt, who, seated at a kitchen table, had just planted a kiss on the back of Norton's hand, then held it fast while sprinkling lye on the moist imprint of his valentine. I could practically smell the flesh burning as the caustic chemical hissed and crackled like hot fat and heaved up a small hillock of raw tissue in the shape of Pitt's lips while he lectured Norton on the virtues of pain and humiliation, on the importance of slicing away the safety net, on the high of free fall, the Janis Joplin of it all. Freedom is having nothing left to lose.

This was a scene from Norton's upcoming film Fight Club. You might have thought that last year's American History X would be a hard act to follow, given that Norton's inhabitation - "impersonation" just doesn't seem to be the right word for it - of a venomous skinhead was so hatefully and uncannily convincing. But walking as always on the wild side of cinema, Norton has now found something even weirder and darker with Fight Club, in which he segues from extreme politics to extreme fighting.

The film tells the story of a man who- under the influence of a charismatic stranger played by Pitt - wanders from the safety of his nine-to-five life into a no-man's-land of violence and social insurrection. Think of Falling Down directed by Antonin Artaud instead of Joel Schumacher. Imagine a white-collar ciper so anesthesized by ennui that he can find peace only through sitting in on terminal-disease support groups - testicular cancer, melanoma, blood parasites - or by engaging in barefisted fighting, where similarly anomic men disfigure one another. The point is not to win, but to experience maximum pain in a desperate attempt to find some shred of authenticity. What's shocking here is not only the violence - we've all seen that before - but oddly enough the context, the metaphysics. This isn't "meaningless violence." The meaning is precisely what churns the stomach.

According to a source, even Norton's father, after reading the script, said something like "Oh my God, you're not going to make this, are you?" But in a fit of filial disobedience that might well have been lifted from the movie, Norton went ahead anyway. Directed by David Fincher, who previously gave us Seven, and based on a brilliantly mordant first novel by a writer with an unpronounceable name, Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club is a film finely calibrated to raise the blood pressure of the guardians of civic virtue, to epater the William Bennetts of the world, only the movie's ambition are larger, beyond shock toward a kind of wisdom. It is arrogant, nasty, and blackly comic, and Norton is excited about it, as well he might be. It's one thing to carry a low-budget film like American History X; it's quite another to shoulder a $60-million-or-so picture that also stars Brad Pitt. It's going to ratchet Norton's career up another notch, ratify his reputation for mainlining the most interesting pictures coming out of today's Hollywood.

"I think it's good sometimes to make things that are disturbing, that hold a mirror up to the Zeitgeist," Norton says. "The first time I saw the picture, I walked out and it was really bright outside, and I couldn't have told you whether I was in there for half an hour or five hours. [A friend said to me,] 'I cannot believe that this film got made, let alone by a major studio.' For them, at first, it was about being at parties with other executives, saying, 'You wouldn't believe the fucking movie we're making.' Now that the movie has gotten made and is actually everything we said it was going to be, it's 'Oh shit!'"

Norton enjoys talking. Helena Bonham Carter, also in Fight Club (on leave from her self-described "corset" dramas), puts it best" He's "vocally incontinent; he talks a lot, but it's good talk." The words tumble out, pell-mell, in a slightly hesitant fashion, a distant echo of the start-stop cadences of the seemingly sweet Kentucky boy Norton played to such goos effect in his first film, Primal Fear, the one who turned pout to be a psycho finger chopper feigning a split personality. In person, with his slender frame, narrow shoulders, and close-cropped hair of no particular color, Norton looks surprisingly unsurprising. After pumping up to play the scary Ubermensch in American History X, he's back to normal - Clark Kent, the air let out of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon. In Fight Club he makes that ordinariness work for him. With his goofy, crooked grin he's a younger, bolder Tom Hanks, the Everyman who leads the audience though Fincher's inferno.

It's hard to believe that Norton has been "around," in the public sense, for only three years. In his brief career he has shown a truly astonishing range: at home with rage, violence, and psychosis, he was also the sweet, lovesick swain who serenaded Drew Barrymore in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You as well as the put-upon First Amendment lawyer in The People vs. Larry Flynt. And now he is preparing Keeping the Faith, a picture which couldn't be more different from Fincher's film. Keeping the Faith is a romantic comedy, a love triangle in the vein of The Philadelphia Story, set in New York, that Norton is directing - his debut - as well as producing, co-writing, and starring in along with Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman.

Already Norton bears the burden of talent, with twin Oscar nominations - for Primal Fear and American History X - in a mere six outings. Behind his back, the honorific "prodigy" is whispered loudly. Says John Dahl, who directed him in Rounders, "I always sort of cringe when people say he'd the best actor of his generation because I think, Good God, what is he - 29? How would you like to be stuck with that label at that age?"

Dustin Hoffman's name has a habit of popping up in the vicinity of Norton, as do those of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro - the holy trinity of 70's-character-actors-become-stars to whom Norton is the latest heir apparent. Norton reveres Hoffman, and I am reminded of the way Hoffman described the younger actor after their first encounter, a dinner several months ago at a Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles where both got well lubricated on sake. As Hoffman recalls it, "When I meet somebody, I always think, How would I cast them? I said to him, "I would never think of you as an actor - you're like a graduate student or a young professor at Harvard.' He had a habit of looking down when he talked, looking at the table, almost stammering. It wasn't just a shyness, as it appeared to be at first, it was connecting to the thought. And I said I believed that was the predominant quality about his work, the effort to get to the center of things, He sniffs in the right places."

It is the first week of May, and Norton is frantic, or as frantic as he gets, which means that he apologizes sheepishly for not being as focused as he might be, a lapse that could pass unnoticed in someone less famous for his focus. He's re-recording dialogue for Fight Club in the evenings and on weekends at the same time as he tries to wrap up weeks of intensive pre-production for Keeping the Faith. The start date is looming ominously near, just three weeks away. In what few spare hours he has he's making drastic last-minute script revisions with his writing partner, Stuart Blumberg, and finding time, as he unenthusiatically picks over a salad in a dingy New York City coffee shop , to talk late in the night about his least favorite subject, himself. The joint is almost as anonymous as Norton, dressed as he is in functional, nondescript clothes: a lightweight gray pea coat, a blue short-sleeved shirt of some indefinable synthetic material, and jeans.

Norton belongs to the less-is-more school of publicity. He is not going to talk about his relationship with Courtney Love, and neither are his friends. "When I serve up my own private experiences as fodder for the cheap drama of the press it leaves me with a very hollow feeling, like I've given up something that is part of what makes my own life, and it's just not worth it," explains Norton, adding , "Too much familiarity can get in the way [of the audience]. It diminished your own capacity to be an empty vessel that people can fill up with different things." Consequently, the Chinese know more about American warheads than anyone knows about what went down between Norton and Love, who met on the set of The People vs. Larry Flynt in 1996, when Love played Flynt's wife Althea. Norton is about as far from Kurt Cobain as you can get, and at the time, Hustler magazine auteur Flynt credited Norton - and director Milos Forman - with getting Love throught the performance without a meltdown. The couple apparently broke up earlier this year, though Norton has denied they were romantically involved. More recently, he has been linked in the press to the usual suspects, including a sighting with Cameron Diaz over Super Bowl weekend in Miami. He attended the Oscars with good friend Drew Barrymore, with whom he once shared an apartment in New York. Says Harvey Weinstein, whose company, Miramax, financed Rounders, "I told them if they each didn't find somebody else in a year, they'd have to marry each other."

Norton's wariness toward the press is also a response to the shabby treatment of his friends. He dashed off a letter to The New Yorker in defense of Love after the magazine published what he considered to be an negative profile. Likewise, he was appalled that his pal Kevin Spacey's private life was dragged through Esquire. "That," he says, "was really disturbing to me."

His friends are equally protective of Norton, invariably describing him as kind, thoughtful, and generous, the type of guy who helps old ladies cross the street. Says Weinstein, "Edward is a consummate gentleman. It's like he stepped out of another era." Adds Howard Koch jr., who is producing Keeping the Faith, "He doesn't do drugs, he doesn't drink. He hasn't had the movies that have been commercially successful yet, but everybody wants to work with him because we all know where his career is going."

And yet, roles such as those he played in Primal Fear and American History X raise the Dark Side Question, as in: Is there a Mr. Hyde to Norton's Dr. Jekyll?

"There's clearly a very alive and well dark side Edward Norton," says Gregory Hoblit, who directed Primal Fear. "I mean, you don't have to be Charlie Manson to have a dark side. Edward is no choirboy. You don't bring that kind of depth and richness to the work unless you've got it."

Adds Deborah Aquila, who "discovered" Norton when she was casting Primal Fear, "If you're having a cup of coffee with him, he's very clear, lucid, he's intellectual. What he does do well is tap into those primal emotions. [Maybe] he goes there intellectually and imagines the kind of rage that a character like that would feel and then lets it happen. I don't think that he walks around with that in his heart." Aquila recalls Norton reading a scene for Primal Fear in which his character attacked Richard Gere's. "I didn't know Edward at the time, and I got a little concerned because when I gazed into his eyes there was no sign of Edward. I thought, O.K., we may make it out of this room, and we may not."

Norton doesn't like the idea that he may have a dark side, or that his films suggest so: "I think it's always dangerous, with any artist, to try to draw too many literal connections between the life and the work. On a purely personal level, one of the really great thrills of acting is that it lets you be an experimental dilettante. You can purse an enormous diveristy of people, lifestyles, worlds of experience, all without the consequences of actually making those choices in life. It's like having a secret key that lets you into any door."

Edward Norton was born in Boston and grew up in Columbia, Maryland, a planned community designed by his late grandfather, James Rouse, who has the dubious distinction of having invented the shopping mall, but would probably have liked to be remembered for revitalizing inner cities with projectws like Baltimore's Harbor Place. Although it may sound like The Truman Show's Seahaven, Columbia actually fostered a salutary mix incomes and cultures, and convinced Norton of the virtues of pluralism. His mother, Robin, taught high school, then worked for a civic trust. His father, Ed, was a federal prosecutor during the Jimmy Carter administration and later became something of an environmental activist.

The oldest of three children, Norton has been acting since he was was five. The lightbulb went on when his babysitter, who later played Cosette in Les Miserables on Broadway, took him to see a musical version of Cinderella at the local drama scholl. He was overcome with the urge to play one of Cinderella's mice, and rushed down to the school to take acting lessons, hoping to be cast before the prodiction ended. He was not, but it was his first "I want to do that" moment, and he acted throughout grade school. In high school, however, acting wasn't considered "cool." Recalls Norton, "I stopped doing playsa and stopped taking acting classes, even though I really loved it." One day when he was 16, his teacher took the class to see a one-man show by Ian McKellen called Acting Shakespeare in nearby Washington D.C. "That was the first thing I saw that really just crushed me on an adult level, " he continues. "It blew my mind. I remember riding on the school bus back. I sort of sat by myself, away from my friends, and I was thinking, You have to reconsider this whole thing. You have to take this very, very seriously because [McKellen] was doing was a serious thinkg you could do for life. And so I started taking acting classes again and I did a lot of it in college."

College was Yale, where he switched from astronomy, but switched to history instead when he couldn't hack the physics. He learned Japanese and spent one summer in Osaka working for a real-estate development company. And throughout his time in New Haven he took as many theater courses as he could, doing Chekhov and the like. He graduated in May 1991 and moved to New York.

Then as now, Norton regarded himself as a character actor. "You can't underestimate what people like Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro did," he explains. "Coming out of the late 60s, they asserted that you could be something other that the traditional Tab Hunter leading guy, and you could carry a film, you could be a lead actor as a character actor. I'm the direct beneficiary of the ground those guys broke."

Throught the early 90s, Norton was living an actor's life, shuffling odd jobs around his life in the theater, waiting tables, temping, proofreading at a court-reporting service. He even tried to get a hack license, but he was too young. He came within a hairsbreadth of being cast in movies such as With Honors, Hackers, Sabrina and Up Close and Personal. "It's very frustrating," he says, "because it's like you walk up to a line and you can see over on the other side how your life is gonna change and get a lot more exciting if you can make that last step, and then you don't, and you have to go back to your grind temping or waiting or whatever. And hustling."

Once, he went to audition for the New York Shakespeare Festival, where he read for Georgianne Walken, the casting-director wife of Christopher Walken. By that time in his life Norton had played so much Shakespeare he could have done it in his sleep. But, as he recalls it, she sat him down and said, "Well, if you don't mind my saying so, I think you might want to consider doing something else other than acting."

"I'm sorry?"

"I'm just saying this to you because I think it's important for you to hear it. I'm not sure this is the best choice for you." He says now, "Those moments can be very important, because if they make you doubt yourself, you oughta get out. But if you walk out pissed off and convinced that they're wrong, then you're probably in the right business. I walked out pissed off, thinking she was an idiot, and I was going to show her."

Norton's first break was being cast in Primal Fear. The role if the cunning killer who concocts a sweet, Kentucky-choirboy doppelganger was a career-maker, one that every young actor on both coasts was dying to get. It was slated for Leonardo Di Caprio, who eventually backed out. (Recalls Hoblit, the director, "The last time I talked with him he was in Africa in a tent on some sort of radiophone bouncing off a satellite. It was clear he was just not in a frame of mind to go to work.")

Searching for a replacement, the filmmakers thre out a net that drew in 2,100 actors from L.A. to London, South Texas to Canada, all to no avail. "We'd have some wonderful actors," continues Hoblit, "Matt Damon being one of them, who could just nail one of the character's two sides but couldn't get the other one. They'd get the good guy but not the bad guy or they'd get the bad guy but not the good guy." The actors were also having trouble handling the shift between the two personalities, which in the script was broadly written, calling for lots of eye spinning, muscle twitching, and vein throbbing in a manner reminiscent of Linda Blair's posession in The Exorcist. "I was prepared emotionally not to do the movie if I couldn't find the right person for the role," Hoblit says. Indeed, he was close to giving up when he got a call from Deborah Aquila, Paramount's senior vice president of features casting. She had stumbled upon Norton in an open casting call in New York City. His performance had been so authentic he had her convinced he actually came from Kentucky.

Norton recalls that before the audition formally began "she sad something to me, and I just kind of answered her [in character]. And then when I left, she said some very nice things to me, and I just kind of stayed with the whole thing. I don't think I lied. But I think I said I had family from eastern Kentucky. Maybe I augmented a little bit."

Hoblit flew in from L.A. to see the handfull of actors Aquila thought had promise. He remembers: "It was one of those pennies-from-heaven kind of things. When Edward came in, it was electrifying moment. It was the first time that I sort of sat forward in my chair and went, 'Oh.' He was making the switch [between the character's two personalities] beautifully, through a subtle facial change, a subtle yet clear shift in intonation. Edward just nailed it, and I knew he was the one."

Unfortunately, the studio was not enthusiastic about trusting a total unknown with such a key role. Aquila says she had "tread marks" on her back from trying to get Paramount to take a chance with him. The filmmakers eventually flew Norton to L.A. to shoot tests. On the plane, he thought to himself, "O.K., this is the trip Dustin made to test for The Graduate. It's like he was not a traditional leading man, and neither am I. He was a character actor, and so am I. He did it, I can do it."

In the end, Norton's screen test for Primal Fear not only got him that part but also circulated around town, and within a few weeks he was reading for Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You and Milos Forman's The People Vs. Larry Flynt.

The miracle of Norton's performances is that when he talks about acting he givces the impression of being a totally cerebral actor, one who thinks himself into a role; on-screen, however, he is entirely intuitive and spontaneous. According to Forman, "Edward's great advantage is that he combines instinct with intellectual analysis. And if he keeps it in perfect balance, instinct and intellect, that's the greatest result you can get from an actor. The only problem [with Edward], which sometimes is very annoying, but which I gladly tolerate, is that he's a perfectionist. I am also a perfectionist, and on the film set there is no way to accommodate two perfectionists."

Matt Damon, who found that performing opposite Norton in Rounders raised the level of his own game, seconds Forman's analysis: "Edward's definitely a perfectionist. He will not stop because he's tired, he won't stop because everyone else says it's time to stop. There was one scene [in Rounders] where are character's get in a huge argument out of doors, after these cops beat us up. That was a long night, and it was pretty cold. We did Edward's scenes, then we did mine, and Edward found something for his own performance in my stuff, so he asked to set up a shot and go back to his scenes. It's tough to say that out loud at four in the morning to 100 cold people - 'We're gonna stay another hour and do this again' - but he stuck to it. He really felt like it was important."

Norton's part in American History X led to the first high-profile controversy of his low-profile career. He and British director Tony Kaye were not a match made in heaven. While Norton is intensely private and cerebral, hype and histrionics are the sea in which Kaye swims. A conceptual artisit as well as a filmmaker, he is a practitioner of what he calls "hype-art" and coming out of the world of British television commercials, he puts a premium on fast pace, image, and cutting. Kaye didn't get Norton; he was searching for a Marlon Brando type, a more natural-born skinhead, but agreed to cast Norton under pressure from the producers and New Line Cinema, the company that finaced the film. As later events proved, Kaye never did reconcile himself to Noron.

Just before the shooting started, in March of 1997, Norton's mother died of brain cancer at the age of 54, shortly after the death of two of his grandparents. Says Drew Barrymore, "The most important person in his life was his mom. It was a very hard year for him." Adds John Morrissey, one of the producers of American History X, "I thought this was going to have a profound effect on him in this movie, and I think that it did. A lot of the rage in him had to do with his rage about losing something that dear to him." Aside from Norton's grief, however, the production itself was fairly uneventful, and ended in May.

But what happened next was anything but smooth. Kaye had shot a lot of film, and it took a long time to edit, more than a year. (Most films take several months.) He did a few cuts, each one progressively shorter. "The first cut that I saw was about 90 minutes," says David McKenna, the film's writer. "It was so cut down none of the scenes were allowed to play out, and the characters were shallow. He literally destroyed the movie. It was a commercial."

New Line wasn't happy, Morrissey wasn't happy, McKenna wasn't happy, and Norton wasn't happy. "Edward and I were irate," McKenna recalls. "I wasn't in a position with the studio to put the movie back together, but I knew that Edward had enough power to fix the movie. So after Tony spent 15 months on the damn thing, we finally just kind of said, 'Get Edward's ass in there and have him do a cut.'"

For a while, it was all very amicable. While Norton was in the editing room working with an editior of his own, Kaye continued to noodle his version next door. But eventually Kaye insisted Norton go. Recalls Morrissey, "Edward at this point became very, very nervous because he was being depicted very publically as having taken this film away from Tony. He felt it wasn't true, and I have to agree with him. That isn't what happened."

Eventually, the actor put as much distance between himself and the American History X situation as he could, going off to do Rounders in December 1997. Meanwhile, after months of increasingly desparate behavior on Kaye's part, New Line finally pulled the plug on the director, made some tweaks of its own - on a combination of the two versions - and went forward with plans to release the film. Kaye began taking full-page ads in the trade papers (dozens each in Variety and Hollywood Reporter), attacking various people connected with the movie.

By most accounts, however, the final cut was not all that different from Kaye's. "That movie is not anybody else's movie," says Norton. "That movie is Tony Kaye's movie all the way."

(Replies Kaye, whose wounds have obviously not healed, "How does he have the audacity to tellyou it was my film?...He's an East Coast privileged young man whose grandfather invented the ice-cream cone, or whatever it bloody well was, which is why he's on the cover of Vanity Fair, or Vanity 'Unfair', a little quicker than me. I was going to take Hollywood by storm, and I would have, but for that buffoon.")

For Norton, Rounders was a pleasure from beginning to end. Directed by John Dahl, the film is a drama in which Damon plays a proto-yuppie law student with a jones for poker, and Norton is Worm, his ex-con pal, a scummy, self-destructive, inveterate card cheat - a relationship somewhat reminiscent od the one between Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets.

"I remember John calling me up, he was really excited, and he said Edward Norton might be interested in it," recalls Damon, checking in from the South Texas set of All the Pretty Horses (the film version of Cormac McCarthy's best-selling novel, a revisionist Western). "That was the end of that conversation. I first saw him in Primal Fear. He beat me out for that part, a part I really wanted. When he did that, the talk among young unemployed actors in Hollywood was: Who's this guy nobody's ever heard of? So he was kind of on everybody's radar. Then The Rainmaker came around, he and I were both up for that, and we met in Memphis, because we screen-tested on the same day." When he ran into Norton, Damon thought it was all over. He continues: "Not only had he beat me out when we both unknown, but then he was known, and I thought, I'm screwed, I don't have a chance." This time it was Damon's turn, but it was the beginning of a friendship. "I told him what I thought of him, [that] he was pretty much the man among the up-and-covers. I was the first one to meet him - we got along really well."

As someone who holds his cards close to the chest - "He is a subplot person," observes Barrymore; "there are other things going on that just what he gives out" - Norton is constitutionally well suited to poker. It was a game he hadn't much played, but he and Damon quickly got good enough to take on Harvey Weinstein, and his brother, Bob, who were financing Rounders. "Harvey and Bob fancy themselves big-time poker players, so we challenged them to put together a game," recalls Norton. "Matt and I definitely chopped 'em up."

Rounders writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman were also at the table. "Edward was almost impossible to read," recalls Koppelman. "You couldn't tell when he had a good hand or when he didn't. He just sucked those guys in, made them underestimate him. One time Bob had decnet hand, said something like 'Whaddya hiding under there?' Edward said, 'What do you think I have, Bob? Like, I got two kings?' And he actually did have two kings, but he said it in such a way that Bob didn't believe him, so Bob bet into him, and lost. Edward used the truth as a weapon." As Harvey Weinstein remembers, "Those bastards won. Norton, I think took $1,300, and Matt won $800 or $900. That's Edward - he's a total Method actor. You give him two months and he becomes an expert in whatever. He wiped us out." Norton guesses the Weinsteins will probably figure out a way to get it back. As he puts it, "Nobody wins money off Miramax."

Tony Kaye was still in the editing room with American History X when Norton finished Rounders and started Fight Club. Despite its bizarre premise and lurid content, Fox 2000 head Laura Ziskin had bought the novel for $10,000. "I didn't know how to make a movie out of it," she says. "But I thought someone might." That someone proved to be Fincher, no stranger to the outre.

Fincher hired Norton off his performance in The People Vs. Larry Flynt, the only one of the actor's films he'd seen. Recalls Fincher, "I said, 'That's the guy, Edward Norton.' Then I saw him in the Woody Allen movie and I thought, This guy's pretty fearless. I dn't know who else could play this role. I don't believe Matt Damon in this role, I don't believe Ben Affleck in this role, I don't believe Giovanni Ribisi in this role. Edward's ultimately kind of a great blank slate. His opacity is part of the thing that makes him a terrific Everyman."

Norton says he sees Fight Club as a Gen X call to arms. "There were things in Fight Club that I hadn't heard said and that I really believe," he says. "There's a speech that's straight out of the book where Brad says, 'I see some of the smartest people of my generation working as gas-station attendants, and clerksm or slaves with white collars, working in jobs we hate to earn money to buy shit that we don't need.' Those are the sentiments that I feel. This script was the first thing that was like a fist angrily slamming on the table and saying, We're sick of this."

As Helena Bonham Carter noted, Norton's talk just flows. Says Norton, "There's a part in the film that we wrote - it's not in the book - where Brad and I sort of have a conversation, in which he says, 'Do you know what a duvet is?' And I say, 'Yeah, it's a comforter.' And he says. 'No, it's a blanket.' And then he says, "But why do two young men, our age, right now, know what the word duvet means? Is that essentialfor our survival in the hunter-gatherer sense of the world?" And I say, "Because we're consumers?" And he says, 'Yeah, what terrifies me is that war and poverty and crime don't actually affect my life, don't actually scare me all that much even though I hear about them all the time. What actually makes me stressed on a day-to-day level is all these things that I get told I need, like an upgrade to 500 channels, an upgrade to a faster microprocessor. Hair-replacement products. Designer underwear.'" (Pitt and Norton needn't have worried about their familiarity with duvets, which are quilts filled with down. Hunting and gathering lives.)

Though Fox executives had read the script, the finished film was something of a shock. When the lights went up after Fincher and producer Art Linson first screened the film, the executives were ashen, looking like they had just witnessed a fatal car wreck in slow motion. But the following day each one called Fincher to congratulate him. Studio head Bill Mechanic told him, "This is one of the best movies ever made at Twentieth Century Fox."

For an actor less determined that Norton, directing a film after appearing in only a handful might seem alarming. But rest assured he'll storyboard every shot, scout every location, anfd block every scene in his head before he even comes near the set of Keeping the Faith.

"The thing avout directing, it's 90 percent casting, so you figure you get that out of the way, it's a matter if getting out of bed," says Damon, laughing. "Edward's gonna be a great actors' director. I'd work with him in a minute."

Norton has trained himself for this moment from the time he did Primal Fear, and probably earlier, with the shorts he directed as a kid. "I'm not a go-back-to-the-trailer kind of person," he says. "And I've been really, really fortunate in that I couldn't have had a better series of directors to tutor me." Stuart Blumberg, who has been close to Norton since their days together at Yale, wrote the original script for Keeping the Faith, his first; over the years the two friend s revised it together. "At a certain point you feel like it's your to tell," Norton continues, "and you don't really want to turn it over to someone else. I just decided I'd give directing a crack."

Keeping the Faith is a story about the proverbial love triangle, two guys and a girl except that the guys are a New York City priest (Norton) and a rabbi (Stiller), although the girl (Elfman) is still just the girl. "The film interested me because it's about what it means to be young, modern, and human in a multicultural place like New York City," Norton explains. "All my friends who are Jewish have this tension that they feel between being the children of the civil-rights generation and the ultimate flowering of everything that they worked for in those days - 'I'm dating a girl who is half-Japanese or black' - when, on another level, they're getting this pressure from exactly the opposite direction, to maintain the traditions of their culture, to honor them on some level."

It may sound like a tall order to shoehorn these preoccupations into a genre format, even one as limber as romantic comedy, but it works, at least on paper. "I've tried to do something pretty different almost every time," Norton continues. "that keeps me interested. And if I'm a little bit nervous, that's a good sign. Warren Beatty once saud to me, 'If you're going to direct a movie, just do it before you think you're ready. Don't wait for the perfect opportunity, because the first time, you've go to just do it.' It's inevitably a bungee jump. On a certain date, we're starting, come hell or high water. Whatever gets done between now and ten will get done. Whatever doesn't, doesn't." Norton adds a verbal shrub: "it's only a movie." As if he could possibly believe that.

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