Jack of the Trade
By Francesca Chapman
Philadelphia Daily News, July 13, 2001
In his latest 'Score,' Edward Norton breaks 'flake' role
NEW YORK - He's had significant roles in just half a dozen pictures and has only one directing credit to his name, but Edward Norton won't just act anymore.
In making "The Score," the 31-year-old star had the chance to work with movie legends Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando.
That wasn't enough for the Yale-educated, twice-Oscar-nominated thespian.
"Edward's first concern was, 'Can I contribute?' " director Frank Oz recalled. " 'I don't just want to be an actor, 'cause I have ideas.' "
These words, uttered by a leading man, are rarely music to a director's ears. Yet Oz insists he was happy to hear them.
"I said, 'Great, as long as I'm the guy making the decisions, that's all. As long as I'm the a------,' " Oz laughed.
Norton made that deal to play Jack Teller, an eager young thief who helps De Niro's veteran safecracker Nick Wells with a major-league heist in "The Score."
"Frank said a very smart thing to me, which kind of hooked me into it," said Norton, draped across a hotel-suite sofa on a recent muggy Saturday.
"I said, 'Well, I'd love to work with Bob, but I kind of played a role like this in 'Rounders,' " John Dahl's 1998 drama about card sharks. "I played the flake."
In screenwriter Kario Salem's original script for "The Score," Norton explained, "Jack was not very competent. And I said, that's too much like 'The Color of Money' for me - the cliche of the older guy schooling the young cannonball. You can be a colorful flake in poker, or in pool, but in high-tech burglary? I don't believe that that guy exists."
Oz concurred, adding that it wouldn't make sense for De Niro's character, an exceedingly diligent pro, to work with an incompetent partner.
"And I said I totally agree," Norton summed up enthusiastically. "And one of the first things we did was make [Jack] an ace - a guy who is young and aggressive, but absolutely has the chops to back it up."
The rewrite not only made the story more logical, it gave Norton's role more weight. Jack Teller turns out to be a little more complicated than his comic early scenes suggest.
"Less the 'rookie,' and more a guy asserting his talent a little too aggressively," Norton said. "And that made it more interesting to me."
As "The Score" unfolds, Nick, who manages an elegant jazz club between thefts, and Jack - along with their fence Max, played by a fey, wheezy Brando - pore over their plans for the heist.
They want to grab a jeweled prize that's stored deep in Montreal's Customs House. To make the score they'll have to hack into computers, break into the building, dodge guards and surveillance cameras and blow open a state-of-the-art safe.
"I've always kind of liked heist movies," Norton said. "All the way back to 'Lavender Hill Mob' and 'Heat' - a classic modern bank-robbery movie," not coincidentally staring De Niro as another thief.
"They can be so fun. I call them men-at-work movies because. . .it's just about watching people go through an arcane, semi-mysterious technical process - and it's just the pleasure of watching people work in an arcane world."
De Niro and Brando ad-libbed much of their dialogue in the planning scenes, Oz said, likening the two stars' bantering to "playing catch with each other."
But Norton penned entire scenes.
"I wrote one scene that was toward the end of the film, where Bob and I are in the jazz club, and I ask him about stringing together a career," he said. "And he gives the advice saying, 'The talent's not enough, that you have to have discipline.' "
It "was all based in my sense of what makes Bob great as an actor," he added.
Was the scene based on a conversation the two stars had ever had? Not quite.
"I had read this interview in which Bob had said that the most important thing [acting coach] Stella Adler said to him was that talent's not enough," he said.
And then, speaking deliberately to get it right, Norton recited: "You are responsible as an actor for the choices of material, as much as the choices you make within the material."
"I was probably 16 or 17 when I read that, and it really struck me."
And safecrackers, like actors, also have to be careful about the jobs they choose.
"I liked that idea," Norton said, "and thought that once we were able to infuse that in, it gave the whole thing a little bit of a second level, you know." *
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