Alumnus actor says of his craft, 'You have to be a sponge'

EN at Yale visit

Picture caption: Actor Edward Norton came back to his alma mater to debut his new film, Fight Club, and to talk with students about the entertainment industry. Norton told the audience that he broke into the business by reading "cue lines" at other actors' auditions.

Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 11-18, 1999, Volume 28, Number 8

Award-winning actor Edward Norton may have graduated from Yale College in 1991, but he still makes a point of doing his homework.

Norton came back to visit his alma mater on Oct. 3 as a guest of the Yale Film Society (see related story). He was here to talk about his craft and his career, as well as to help launch his new movie, "Fight Club," which he screened for the Yale audience.

Four years ago, Norton made a quantum leap from obscurity to superstardom in his first feature film, Primal Fear, garnering a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination for his supporting role as a choirboy innocent who is actually a brilliantly manipulative sociopath. Since then, he has appeared in leading roles in Woody Allen's first musical, Everyone Says I Love You; The People vs. Larry Flynt; and American History X, a film that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of a neo-Nazi who undergoes a life-changing epiphany while serving time in prison.

To prepare for the latter role, Norton waded into the dark sub-culture of American fascism, even spending time with the prototype for the character he played in the film. "People underestimate the importance of doing your homework," the former Yale history major told the students who gathered in Ezra Stiles College before the screening of "Fight Club."

An actor, said Norton, is an "experiential dilettante," who must remain totally empathetic to the character he or she is playing. "You have to be a sponge," he noted. "The best thing you can do is to go down as deep as you can into the character, even if you can't use all that later."

Furthermore, an actor committing to a role has to remain free of judgment, he said, and "can't look at the character from the outside. ... If there's a moral judgment to be made, it's when you decide to take the role."

Describing his own philosophy, Norton said, "The first thing to pursue as an actor is to be as pluralistic as possible." He prefers to play opposite to type -- what he called "pushing the limits" -- and to take on challenging roles. "If I am scared that I can't pull [the role] off, that's the part I want," he said, noting that he sees himself as a character actor, like his role models: Meryl Streep, Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman.

Nonetheless, Norton stressed, an actor also has to know his or her limitations. He once decided he had to play the part of Dylan Thomas, having long admired the poet's work. When it was pointed out to him that Thomas was short and stout with a round face framed by curly black hair, Norton -- who is slightly taller than average, lean, light-haired and of sharp angular features -- had to admit he had met his limitations.

In Fight Club, directed by David Fincher of Seven fame, Norton plays a young middle manager for the car industry who travels around the country figuring out reasons not to recall faulty vehicles and compulsively attending cancer support groups. On one of these trips, he meets a soap salesman (played by Brad Pitt), who convinces him to trade in his ennui for membership in the Fight Club, which offers regularly scheduled, no-holds-barred combat sessions. The film, while extremely violent, is also sharply satirical -- much in the tradition of Dr. Strangelove and The Graduate, which Norton describes as two of his all-time favorites.

Norton will appear next in the soon-to-be-released Keeping the Faith, which he co-wrote with Yale classmate Stuart Blumberg. In that film, Norton plays a priest who competes with a rabbi (Ben Stiller) for the affection of a woman (Jenna Elfman).

Although he couldn't offer any "methodology" for the aspiring actors in the Yale audience, Norton did divulge a few tricks of the trade. For instance, he suggested "hitting into one little thing" as a way to get a handle on a character. In Primal Fear, for example, that "little thing" was his character's stutter, noted Norton.

"Actors borrow; great actors steal," he quipped, by way of advising fledgling thespians to do both.

The Yale alumnus also counseled those interested in acting to try one route he used to break into the business. Before landing his role in Primal Fear, he worked reading "cue lines" at other actors' auditions. This exposure, he said, not only put him in contact with important people in the trade, but, more significantly, taught him that talent is not the sole determining factor for landing a role.

Noting that this is the first time he has returned to Yale since he graduated, Norton said his visit inspired him to reflect on his "bright college years."

"[Coming to Yale] was the first time I went anywhere where people were interested in you because of your interests," he commented. "The abiding thing about Yale is the people I went to school with," he said, adding that his closest friends today are people he befriended at Yale.

Norton, who says he spent much of his time as an undergraduate "interacting with other people," added that, if he had his Yale years to live all over again, he would be "more focused on work and learning."

-- By Dorie Baker


Edward Norton Discusses Fight Club

Yale University, Sunday October 3, 1999

originally posted on official Fight Club Website

HOST: Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce the star of tonight's movie, actor, director and producer, two time Academy Award nominee, Edward Norton.

EDWARD NORTON: They're recording this for an on-line event so I'm going to wear this little thing. They asked me to repeat quesions. I don't know how you want to kick this off. I'll turn it out to you guys. I, you know, this is really fun for me, coming and showing it here because I used to come to all of these things with my partner, Stuart, who wrote the script we just did. He was in Morris and we used to come to all these. There was a lot more film societies when I was here. There was six or so.

And we used to go to all the film society screenings whenever they had guest speakers. Rob Reiner came and showed Misery. I remember and Spike Lee came up one time. We used to always go and see the films and talk to the film makers and stuff. Ben, over here, worked on our film this summer and he set this up. So thanks to you. I haven't been back since graduation. So it seems like a good chance to do it. Other than that, I'll turn it out to you guys for what you want to ask or talk about.

INTERVIEWER: You've done some pretty violent movies, to say the least. And a lot of people argue that life imitates art and that movies like this add to the violence in our society. People see this and they act and a result is like a Columbine High School maybe for example. What's your feeling on that matter? Do you feel that Hollywood should play more of a social role? And try to keep the violence down?

EDWARD NORTON: The question was about the interaction of the interplay between violence in films and violence in the culture. My feeling is that it is film, the responsibility of people making films and people making all art to specifically address dysfunctions in the culture.

I think that any culture where the art is not reflecting a really dysfunctional component of the culture, is a culture in denial. And I think that's much more intensely dangerous on lots of levels than considered examinations of those dysfunctions through art is dangerous. I don't believe that it's the chicken and the egg question, I do think there is violence in the culture. I think there always has been violence in our culture in one form or another. I think that it's a very appropriate discussion to ask what are the ways in which the presentations of violence effect us. I'm not going to say I get particularly disturbed by many, but I would aim those questions more at films that present violence in a way that it's presented as entertainment or where violence is made an aesthetic in it's own right.

I think that there's a legitimate question as to how certain presentations of violence without impact effect us all. But I don't think that the violence that is in our culture means that art shouldn't examine that violence. I think that if we were to refrain from serious examinations in art of any kind of ways in which we're unhealty or ways in which we're dysfunctional as a culture, then we wouldn't have most of the things we point to as landmarks in our cultural landscape. Nabakov shouldn't have written "Lolita" out of fear that an old man would go and molest a young girl.

Scorsese should have never made Taxi Driver and the Beatles shouldn't have written "The White Album" because Manson can use it as an outlet for his pathologies. And I think Oscar Wilde was subversive and dangerous.

My grandfather really didn't like The Graduate. He thought it was negative and subversive and my father loved it. And I think you would erase most of the serious discussion about our dysfunctions if you did that. I don't think it's the responsibility of filmmakers to account for every possible misinterpretation of a film that you might make.

I would think that would quell serious debate too much. I think it would quell serious considerations of the ways that we're unhealthy. I think that it's a very, very appropriate film. Films are a potent, arguably one of the most potent, cultural mediums that we have right now and it's totally appropriate for those to be entertaining. I've been involved in, probably more than not, that I would call entertainments. But I think it's also critical that a medium as potent as film be examining the ways that we're unhealthy.

And I've never worked on a film, neither of the two films you've mentioned, that to me were films where violence was presented, was romanticized in the sense of being presented without impact or where the roots of it weren't being examined specifically as the intent of the film. And so I've never hesitated on that score where these films are concerned because I feel like it's very important sometimes to hold an uninflected mirror up to those things. Or to just hold any mirror up to those things.

Its meaningful to me to work on pieces that wrestle around in territory that we're all very uncomfortable with. When we first started going out with the press on this Fincher said something like, 'If it doesn't piss off a healthy number of people then we've done something seriously wrong.' And I agreed. I hope it rattles people. I hope it dunks it very squarly in your lap because I think one of the things we strove very specifically to do with this was on some levels retain a kind of a moral ambivalence or a moral ambiguity - not to deliver a neatly wrapped package of meaning into your lap.

Or in any way that let you walk away from the film like this, comfortable in having been told what you should make of it. Or what the theme was. And I think that's fine too. The other film that I worked on, American History X, that you mentioned, I think was a much more thematically packaged film. I think it was just like a tragedy. It was intended to have a prescriptive message. But this is not. But a big part of the intent of this was to point a finger at certain things and name them, and dump it in your lap and say 'What do you want to make of that?' I think it's intentionally surreal, it's intentionally metaphoric and I think it's not for kids it's for an audience.

I'm all for a film that you might have to see twice to take the full measure of or be disturbed by or anything like that.

INTERVIEWER: Well, first of all congratulations on all your success. I wanted to know what made you want to take this on? What attracted you to it?

EDWARD NORTON: Well we've all been really careful where this particular film is concerned to not in some ways be mistaken for explaining what we think it's about because for just the reasons I said before, a lot of people were involved in making the film.

In the core creative team I think we have a certain amount of creative synergy in terms of being unified in aiming at certain targets with it. But I think everyone also had very individual specific impulses or responses to the material that were particularly important to us. So some of what I want to say I don't want to be confused for necessarily saying what I think the film is about but it was some of what drew me to it.

It's a novel. It was a novel. And the genesis of it was Fincher, David Fincher the director, sent me the book initially and just said, 'You know, this is something that really I think is really cool. I'll only make it if I can get very specific people to do it. And I'd love for you to do it. And will you tell me what you think?' So my first encounter with it was in the form of this novel and it's an amazing book. It's an amazingly modern piece of writing. I felt like it named a lot of things that I saw or felt in the energy of my generation. I feel like the things that made me want to do it were that I've cast around.

I've looked for things as an actor and director that I thought were specifically kind of generational nerve pieces or pieces that I thought were about my generation and it's particular dysfunctions and relationships with the culture. And I haven't run into very many. And I never felt like the films that were getting made that were targeted at us, sort of the "Reality Bites" version of us as a generation were very on target for me. I always thought it was a very baby boomer, kind of concocted, somewhat over simplistic. And I thought somewhat disdainful reduction of us to this kind of Gen-X, slacker, aimless, low energy, angst ridden kind...

...of banal realism and I just didn't buy it and I certainly didn't respond to it. It didn't seem to me to speak to some of the deeper things that I was feeling. And this was the first thing I'd read where I just laughed all the way through it. I laughed because I just, you know, there was passages in it that were just instantaneously impressed in my brain. Most of which are in the film. This idea, and I'm not saying that anything is in a blanket sense, correct, I'm just saying that these suggestions of these ideas are really provocative to me, that the ideas of a generation that's had it's value system largely informed by advertising culture.

That's been on a certain level in the absence of collective spirituality has inculcated with this notion that the external signifiers of your material life will make you happy. That you'll find spiritual peace through home furnishing. And it just made me laugh, it made me laugh because I was in the process of furnishing my house, you know. And it was making me feel calm, like, for a while. And I felt like so much of what peeves me about the culture that I can't necessarily put a finger on, were named in this book.

It was a lot of these ideas. And there were things you related to specifically, there were things Fincher and I related to specifically. I think he was very focused on this idea of men and their sense of being displaced, their role in the culture being displaced. Of absentee fathers and the effect of that. And there were other very provocative ideas that were discomforting in the sense that, well we're at Yale so we can talk this way, but it was more like there's stuff about it that are kind of classically Nietzchean almost.

I thought this is a piece about the challenge of individual self overcoming. Of making yourself evolve and of shattering old value systems and received value systems and institutional kind of hierarchies to free yourself individually. And about what happens, what are the practical limits that applying that as a philosophy in the real world. And at what point does that start to become everything that it was seeking to free people from the negative and destructive and dehumanizing in the sense of all these guys giving up their names to become part of the movement that's supposed to be freeing them?

I was thinking, 'Jesus, you know, this is like a critique of fascism almost.' Or it's a critique of how Nietzsche becomes Hitler and it was just so full of stuff and without easy resolution and I like that, I like that. I started thinking about it and I couldn't put it away and that to me that's everything I think art should aspire to on a lot of levels. I felt like if half of what was in this book could come across, if we could transpose it into cinema in a dynamic way, in a way where these ideas didn't just become pedantic, then it would be great.

And I thought that he was the guy to do it because Fincher is I think one of the ones who's really pushing the outer limits of the medium in a way. And without saying on any level, presuming to say what you take from it or what the conclusions of it are, those, those were the things that drew me to it. You just don't find many things like that. You know, it fit very squarely in the tradition of like The Graduate to me or Dr. Strangelove. Satiric black comedy that's really aiming at something people don't want to talk about and so we kind of just took our shot with it.

INTERVIEWER: I want to get back to what you said about the presentation of male/female roles in society. And how male stereotypes weren't really examined, they were more relied upon. And I wanted to know what you thought and what Helena thought about that presentation?

EDWARD NORTON: The question was about how issues of masculinity were presented and what Helena thought.

I think Helena came into the process later and I think she came in and asked a few very pointed questions, especially to Fincher on a lot of those scores and just about how her character was going to function in a way that wasn't strictly the target of misogyny. I think that for me Marla, the Marla Singer character, is kind of like Elaine Robinson on crack. You know, in a sense, to me it's very much a story about a person who feels at odds with everything he's expected to engage in. Who hits a juncture in his life and chooses to move toward the seduction of negativity and nihilism.

But there's this place in it that's, you know, this 'Graduate' analogy is sort of mine and Fincher's and it doesn't mean it works for anybody else but it, it helped. We were thinking of it a lot and you know I feel like there's similar films in the sense of what their dramatic arcs are. Because there's this presentation of a guy who's kind of hilariously desperately out of sync with all the things he's supposed to participate in who kind of has this Elaine Robinson or in Marla's case, especially, he has this women who's kind of like his female doppelganger. She is him. And he recoils from it.

It's like he recoils from the image of himself and moves toward what turns out to be this idealized vision of himself as opposed to himself the way he is. There's this moment that I really like in the phone booth where he attempts to call her. There is this moment where he could call her and go after the simple human connection that ultimately by the end he kind of realizes he should have gone after all along. And he almost calls her, and he hears her voice and it sounds too much like him and he hangs up and he goes the other way.

He goes toward this idea of a new version of himself. And explores that negativity and all it's excess. And then finds them excessive and to me, you know, you can put anything you want on that. You can put Freud on that, you can put Nietzsche on it. But to me it was almost like a drug metaphor, it's like watching the people I know who get on a heroin kick and think to themselves, 'You know, I'm living outside, I'm a cowboy and I look sexy because of this and this is making me. I'm a renegade and cowboy.'

And they wake up one day and realize they're deteriorating. That's what interested me.This idea of the seduction of the negative. Like, you know, sort of Tyler as Mrs. Robinson. This exploration that has consequence, terrible,terrible consequence and that you have to do is wake up from it and ultimately reject it to get to a sort of new middle ground. And Fincher was always talking about how, you know, there's sort of this Buddhist parable, if you have to kill your parents and then you have to kill God and then you have to kill your teacher and how my character sort of gives up on everything that his parents have expected him to engage in.

Tyler gets him to give up on God, but ultimately he has to give up on Tyler and give up on the excesses of what Tyler is suggesting that men ought to be. And, you know, he finds himself sort of stoping short of drawing his own line, finally. He's found what his own boundaries are, he's not his old self, but he's not willing to go all the way in this new self. And at the end, you know, for me he's somewhere uncertain but new and when he says to her, 'I'm okay,' despite the hole in his face, I believe him.

Like, this time I think that's how I take it. And I think and Helena felt connected to a lot of that. She expressed a lot of it.

INTERVIEWER: I was wondering what your intentions were and your emotions are and why are you doing this?

EDWARD NORTON: Well kind of what I said earlier. I think provocation can be healthy, you know, I think provocation, for a certain kind of film, not for every kind of film is good. But if it comes back to mean that either people are talking or debating, you know, or they say 'We were debating that over dinner a couple nights ago and some people were really pissed off by it.'

Or 'We were arguing about it three nights after we saw it,' that's it, that's all I'm looking for, that's a highly positive outcome to having cooked something up and thrown it against the wall. If it's actually making people kind of question anything vicariously, then that's great for me, I think that's terrific.

HOST: I want to thank Mr. Norton and his support of the Yale Film Society in his decision to visit us tonight.


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