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Wanted: Edward Norton

Vogue, January 1997

Edward Norton got his big break by lying.

After four years as a struggling actor in New York City, the closest he'd come to getting cast in a film was being a runner-up for thankless roles in mediocre movies like With Honors, Hackers and Up Close & Personal. When he got the chance to audition for the juiciest part in the Richard Gere vehicle Primal Fear - Aaron, a schizo Appalachian choir boy who kills his archbishop - Norton knew he had to do something extraordinary to distinguish himself from the other 2,100 other unknown actors who were being considered.

So he lied. When Norton met with the director and the casting director, he told them that he, like Aaron, came from eastern Kentucky. Norton even spoke with the twang. "I knew the accent because my grandparents were from that area," he said a year later. "But I certainly don't have it, so I prepared by watching Coal Miner's Daughter.

His "genuine" roots excited the filmmakers. Then, after his audition, when Norton revealed the truth - he'd grown up in Maryland, graduated from Yale, and spoke fluent Japanese - they were all the more impressed and gave him the part. Norton's performance was amazing. He was equally believable as the stuttering naif and the lethal psychopath. Even before Primal Fear finished shooting, the buzz was on: Woody Allen cast him opposite Drew Barrymore in the musical Everyone Says I Love You, and director Milos Forman gave him the only sympathetic role in The People Vs. Larry Flynt, as Flynt's First Amendment lawyer, Alan Isaacman.

By December 1995, Norton was getting messages like this one on his parents' answering machine: "Edvard, this is Milos...Larry Flynt is sending his plane, and I think you and Courtney Love and I should fly down to the Cayman Islands." Norton recalls with a laugh, "My sister just looked at me and said, 'Your life has really gotten surreal!'"

Yet until now, Norton has stayed clear of the media spotlight, bypassing any publicity save for a short Q. and A. with Drew Barrymore in Interview magazine. "Nobody was going to see the movie because they read something about me," he decided very matter-of-factly. Besides, as a moviegoer he like the shock of a new face like Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Still, that didn't stop the tabloid gossip pages from linking Norton with Flynt costar Courtney Love, claiming that he'd persuaded her to check into a rehab clinic. Norton insists that he and Love are nothing more than just friends and that he knows nothing about her rehab status.

On the day I meet up with him in a New York hotel Suite, it's obvious that Norton's getting more comfortable at playing the publicity game. This morning, he's agreed to a series of interviews with a group of Japanese reporters for Primal Fear (whose title in Japan translates roughly as Where is the Truth Going?). An interpreter is on hand, but Norton comprehends questions without help and even answers in Japanese. (He studied the language at Yale and spent five months in Osaka consulting for an American real-estate-development firm.)

He still isn't offering up much personal detail beyond the facts that he was born in 1969, that his father is a lawyer, his mother is a teacher. But he's hardly dull. When one interviewer complains about the portrayal of Japan in American movies, Norton readily agrees: "I thought Rising Sun was the worst. I hated the book, too."

The Japanese seem fascinated by this newcomer: One man asks Norton what his blood type is; another wants to know if he'd rather be a character actor or a star. After the reporters have left, Norton returns to this topic: "I don't think I'm gonna win the race to be in Sleepers. There's just too much jawbone there." But he prefers the character route anyway. His look today - crew-cut and goatee- is a far cry from the soft boyishness he showed in his first three movies; he transformed himself to convince a director that he would be right for a neo-Nazi role in a low-budget film tentatively titled American History X. "There were people who said to me, 'Don't audition for this. They should be excited to have you.'" It's the sort of star attitude that Norton is very uncomfortable with. "That's just nonsense. Nobody's seen me play this kind of a role."

Nobody, perhaps, except a few audiences of obscure downtown New York theater. During his years on the boards, Norton had to support himself as a proofreader, waiter, low-income-housing worker, and reader for casting directors. (He applied for his taxi license but was too young.) He even co-wrote a screenplay with a college friend, a "Naked Gun type of spoof," he says. "It never got made and never will, if I have anything to do with it."

Although he worked for casting directors, Norton says, "Every role I got was through some sort of connection, like one of my teachers was directing a production." He found it frustrating how "myopic" the New York theater world was about preferring actors with drama-school degrees. "Hollywood casting directors are much more open about finding people off the street, as evidenced by my own experience."

Woody Allen didn't think it mattered that Norton had no innate musical ability when he cast him in a major role in his new musical. In typical Allen fashion, the director didn't even let the cast know his new movie was a musical until a couple of weeks before he started filming. He forbade them to even think about taking singing lessons. "He wanted it to be as if these characters were just singing to themselves," Norton says. In the end, only Drew Barrymore ended up getting dubbed. "There is a difference between unprofessional and tone-deaf." Of the movie, he says, "It's a worthy and bold venture. I hope it plays. If nothing else, the music is really hummable - though I dread the thought of a sound-track album."

Working with larger-than-life icons like Allen and Courtney Love taught Norton an illuminating lesson in public vs. private personae. "I always thought that the character of Woody Allen in films was just Woody. But after working with him, I would say that is very much not Woody Allen. He's very sober, he's not always joking or debilitated by angst...And at the end of the day, he goes home. I've never had dinner with him. But I found him completely delightful to work with."

Though movies have swamped his life, Norton would like to keep a foot in the theater; recently reinspired by Al Pacino's Broadway appearance in Hughie, he hopes to return to Manhattan's Signature Theatre Company this spring for part of its yearlong Sam Shepard tribute. And so far, he has no intention of getting overly famous. "If I ever have to stop taking the subway," he says, "I'm gonna have a heart attack." --DAVID HANDELMAN

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