Edward Norton, co-star of the "Kingdom Of Heaven" Movie!
An actor of unique talent, Edward Norton attained almost instant stardom with his film debut 1996's Primal Fear. For his thoroughly chilling breakthrough performance as a Kentucky altar boy accused of murder, Norton was credited with saving an otherwise mediocre film and further rewarded with Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Remarkably disconnected from all of the hype that is usually associated with fresh talent, Norton has gone on to further prove his worth in such films as American History X, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Fight Club. The son of a former Carter Administration federal prosecutor and an English teacher, as well as the grandson of famed developer James Rouse, Norton was born in Boston on August 18, 1969. He was raised in the planned community of Columbia, MD, and from an early age was known as an extremely bright and somewhat serious person. His interest in acting began at the age of five when his babysitter, Betsy True (who went on to become an actress on stage and screen), took him to a musical adaptation of Cinderella. Shortly after that, Norton enrolled at Orenstein's Columbia School for Theatrical Arts, making his stage debut at the age of eight in a local production of Annie Get Your Gun. Although young, Norton already exhibited an unusual amount of professionalism and took his subsequent roles seriously. After high school, he studied astronomy, history, and Japanese at Yale, and was also active in the university's theatrical productions.
After earning a history degree, Norton spent a few months in Japan and then moved to New York, where he worked for the Enterprise Foundation, a group devoted to stopping urban decay. Again, Norton continued acting at every opportunity and eventually decided to become a full-time actor. In 1994, he appeared in Edward Albee's Fragments after deeply impressing the distinguished playwright during an audition. Norton then joined the New York Signature Theater Company, which frequently premieres Albee's plays. With a number of off-Broadway credits to his name, Norton won his role in Primal Fear after being chosen out of 2,100 hopefuls. He nabbed the part after telling casting directors in a flawless drawl that he was a native of eastern Kentucky, the same area where the character came from; legend has it that the actor watched Coal Miner's Daughter to learn the accent. The intensity of Norton's screen test readings stunned almost all who saw them, and the actor became something of a hot property even before the film was released. The same year, Norton was cast as Drew Barrymore's affable fiancé in Woody Allen's tribute to Hollywood musicals, Everyone Says I Love You. Like all of the other actors in the film (excepting Barrymore), Norton did his own singing, further impressing audiences and critics alike with his versatility. Then, as if two completely different films in one year weren't enough, Norton again wowed audiences that same year with his portrayal of a determined defense attorney in Milos Forman's widely acclaimed The People vs. Larry Flynt.
In 1998, Norton turned in two more stellar performances. The first was as Matt Damon's low-life buddy, the appropriately named Worm, in Rounders. The fact that Norton's work was more or less overshadowed by the film's lackluster reviews was almost negligible when compared to the controversy surrounding his other major project that year, American History X. Norton's stunningly powerful portrayal of a reformed white supremacist won him an Oscar nomination, but the film itself was both a box-office disappointment and the subject of vituperative disassociation on the part of its director Tony Kaye, who insisted that Norton and the studio had edited his film beyond recognition. Despite such embittered controversy, Norton managed to emerge from the mess relatively unscathed. After serving as one of the narrators for the acclaimed documentary Out of the Past the same year, he went on to star opposite Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club in 1999. Though that film garnered a mixed reation at the box office, a stellar DVD release helped the film to form a solid fan base and Norton next moved on to the slightly more successful crime drama The Score (2001). After dropping a full-fledged bomb with his appearance as a naieve children's show host in Danny DeVito's black comedy Death to Smoochy, Norton assisted love interest Salma Hayek by offering an uncredited re-write of the script. Norton would also make a brief appearance as Nelson Rockefeller in the film. Drawn to the mystique of screen villain Hannibal Lecter, Norton's next major was that of FBI agent Will Graham in the well-recieved 2002 thriller Red Dragon. Though a virtual remake of Michael Mann's 1986 effort Manhunter, Red Dragon stood tall enough on its own terms to gain the respect of both fans of the previous version as well as fans of the book. His appearance as a drug-dealer celebrating one last night on the town before serving a prison term in Spike Lee's 25th Hour drew decent enought reviews, though its ultimate take at the box office proved fairly disappointing.
More fun stuff about Edward Norton
Birth name: Edward James Norton Jr.
Height 6' 1" (1.85 m)
Hobby: Reading, playing the guitar, photography, running, seeing films, writing, rally racing
Music Taste: Radiohead, Hole, Tom Waits, Elliot Smith, Buena Vista Social Club jazz artist, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and R.E.M.
Books: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, J.D. Salinger, Tom Wolfe
Random: Edward is currently dating his "Frida Kahlo" costar Salma Hayek. They've been together since 1999.
He had lost a couple of pounds for "Fight Club."
His character Aaron Stampler in "Primal Fear," which was based on a book, did not have a stutter, but when Edward auditioned he gave him one.
He has dated Drew Barrymore & Courtney Love.
He can speak fluent Japanese.
Eddie has a cat named Maggie whom he named after the character in Tennessee Williams's play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
His architect grandfather, James Rouse, is sometimes called the "inventor" of the shopping mall because of his designs.
He played guitar with a Los Angeles band named Hole in December 1998.
He is an avid non-smoker.
He worked as a waiter in New York before being signed by famed playwright, Edward Albee.
Dedicated "Keeping the Faith" to his late mother, Robin.
Him and Brad Pitt took soap making classes together while making "Fight Club."
Edward and "Rounder's" co-star Matt Damon competed in World Series of Poker at Las Vegas on May 1998.
Norton was one of the many celebrities invited to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's Malibu wedding.
Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, MD, where Edward graduated in 1987, built a new auditorium for the performing arts several years ago. He revisited his alma mater and gave a lecture on the day of the dedication. It is named for Edward's grandfather, James Rouse.
Following graduation, he worked in Osaka, Japan, consulting for his grandfather's company, Enterprise Foundation, which works to create decent, affordable housing for low-income families.
On his return to New York, it took less than two years of waiting tables before the young thespian to capture the eye of Edward Albee, one of the most celebrated playwrights of the 20th century. Albee was working with the Signature Theater Company on a new production of Fragments. One audition and Norton landed the role, as well as a slot in Signature's repertory company. He currently serves on its board of directors.
He played guitar with Courtney Love's band Hole in two gigs in Los Angeles, in December 1998.
In July 1998, after New Yorker jibe in a review of a documentary about Courtney Love, Norton sent the magazine a frameable letter. Norton's missive was in response to "Endless Love," a piece by Daphne Merkin centering on Nick Broomfield's controversial documentary Kurt & Courtney (1998). The film, filled with speculation that Love's husband Kurt Cobain was a murder victim rather than a suicide, features a litany of Love-haters anxious to air their grievances. The magazine's coverage of Broomfield's film "along with Merkin's thoughtful contributions" didn't sit well with Norton.
When Norton met with the director for Primal Fear (1996), he told them that he, like Aaron, came from eastern Kentucky. Norton even spoke with the twang (which he prepared by watching Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)).
He worked as a waiter, a proofreader, and a director's assistant (to try to get his foot in the door) in New York City.
He applied to be a New York City cab driver, but he was rejected for the license because he didn't meet the age requirement.
Received a B.A. in history from Yale in 1991, but took many theater and Japanese courses as an undergraduate. He has said in interviews that he took as many theater courses as he could without majoring in theater.
The theme song for Keeping the Faith (2000) - "Heart of Mine" by Peter Salett - was not written specifically for the film. Salett is a good friend of Edward's.
According to Yale's newspaper, he has wanted to play the poet Dylan Thomas for a long time, but feels he's not physically right for the part.
While a precocious 8-year-old actor, he asked a surprised director of a play, "what is my objective here?" The director was so startled by his interest in acting.
His babysitter, Betsy True, went on to perform as Cossette in a Broadway version of Les Miserables. She was the one who originally got Edward interested in acting, taking him to see his first play ("If I Were A Princess") at age six.
He is a board member of Edward Albee's Signature Company.
Auditioned for the role of 'Rudy Baylor' in the movie The Rainmaker (1997). The role eventually went to Matt Damon.
Got the role for Fight Club (1999) because director David Fincher enjoyed his performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), which was the only film of the actor's that he had seen.
Dedicated his directoral debut, Keeping the Faith (2000), to his late mother, Robin.
Brother of Molly Norton and James Norton.
Received History degree from Yale. 
Turned down the role of Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan (1998).
Serves as a member of the board of directors at the Enterprise Foundation in New York.
Oldest of three children.
Was considered for the role of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999). Director Milos Forman could not decide between him and Jim Carrey and left the decision up to the studio. The studio decided to go with Carrey.
Grandfather James Rouse is also known as the "inventor" of the shopping mall.
Holds benefit screenings of his films mostly at The Senator Theatre in Baltimore, MD to benefit some charities that includes the Living Classroooms Foundation and the St. Frances Academy Robin Norton Scholarship Fund in honor of his late mother.
Producers of American Psycho (2000) wanted him to play Patrick Bateman.
Played "Captain" in a VH1 "Captain & Tenille" Behind the Music skit on "Saturday Night Live" (1975) with friend Drew Barrymore the night before the 1999 Oscars when he was a nominee for American History X (1998). Drew then accompanied Edward to the Oscars the day after.
Dated Salma Hayek. [1999-2003]
Dated Courtney Love. [1996-1998]
His grandfather, James Rouse, was the founder of the city he was born in, Columbia, Maryland.
Grew up in a planned commmunity designed by his Grandfather, James Rouse
His father, Edward Norton Sr. was an attorney for president Jimmy Carter.
As a response to the events of September 11th and the increasing conflict in the Middle East, he contributed to establish the Middle East Peacemakers Fund at Yale University.
Norton already had two Oscar nominations before he was 30.
College buddies with Ron Livingston at Yale.
Was attached at one point to star in Hart's War but walked away from the project and an $8 million salary. The role later went to Colin Farrell
Voted International Man of the Year (2003) By British GQ Magazine
Was once attatched to star as the lead in Runaway Jury
He served as Artistic Director for the Signature Theatre Company in New York from 2001-2003. He is currently still on the board.
Shaved his head and gained 30 pounds of muscle in 3 months by drinking protein shakes, meat shakes (blended roast beef), and lifting weights non-stop for his role as Dereck Vinyard in American History X (1998).
Was born in Boston, Massachusetts and was raised in Columbia, Maryland.
Was 33 years old when Red Dragon (2002) was released. His predecessor, William L. Petersen, was also 33 years old when Manhunter (1986) was released.
He speaks Spanish
He treasures his private life and being able to live a normal life - and can't imagine not being able to take the New York subway if he gets too famous.
Stuart Blumberg, Edward's friend from his Yale college days, wrote most of what was to become the basis for Keeping the Faith (2000). Edward starred, produced, and directed the romantic comedy, but he also assisted Stuart in writing the original story.
His personal quotes
"Acting? It's a longstanding compulsion I've had since I was about five or six years old. I can literally identify the moment it struck me. I went to see a play [If I Were a Princess] in which a babysitter of mine [Betsy True, who later acted on Broadway] was performing. I was completely shell-shocked by the magic of this little community-theater play; it just riveted me."
"I don't smoke and I don't want to smoke. I am not a fan of gratuitous smoking in films."
"Life, like poker has an element of risk. It shouldn't be avoided. It should be faced."
"If I ever have to stop taking the subway, I'm gonna have a heart attack."
"Fame is very corrosive and you have to guard very strictly against it."
"I've never felt any particular encroachment of the 'celebrity' stuff into my life."
"I'm an actor and, each time out, I'm trying to convince the audience that I'm this character. Every little thing that people know about you as a person impedes your ability to achieve that kind of terrific suspension of disbelief that happens when an audience goes with an actor and character [he's] playing."
"The more you can create that magic bubble, that suspension of disbelief, for a while, the better."
"It's a nice position to be in; I'm lucky. At the same time, all the excitement of that has been put into stark perspective ... In some ways, the highs of it have been blunted, which in a way, is a gift."
"First of all, you never make all things for all people and can't always pander to the broadest denominator. I keep an eye toward doing the themes that interest me. Do they move me? Interest me? Make me think? When I run across something that is provocative in an unsettling way, it appeals to me."
"People wrestle sometimes making movies, and I think that conflict is a very essential thing. I think a lot of very happy productions have produced a lot of very banal movies."
"I'm not interested in making movies for everybody. I like making movies for myself and my friends and people with my sensibility."
The Italian Job (2003) $1,000,000
25th Hour (2002) $500,000
Red Dragon (2002) $8,000,000
Death to Smoochy (2002) $8,000,000
The Score (2001) $6.5 million
Primal Fear (1996) $50,000
Interview with Edward Norton about "Death to Smoochy"
Edward Norton and Catherine Keener play the 'love interests' in Warner Bros. Pictures strange, twisted comedy, "Death to Smoochy." Norton stars as Sheldon Mopes, a man who loves kids, eats only health food and lives a squeaky clean life. He makes a living performing as Smoochy the Rhinoceros, a gigantic, purple dancing/singing rhino. Life is relatively boring for Sheldon until kid show producer, Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) enters his life, offering him the chance of a lifetime - a Smoochy kids show on a major television network. The man who held the time slot prior to Smoochy, kid show phenom Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams), was fired after being involved in a bribery and extortion scandal. Fearing another scandal, the network hires Sheldon/Smoochy, a man without skeletons in his closet and no known vices. Proving opposites attract, Sheldon and Nora's dislike for each other transforms (through movie magic) into a passionate relationship.
EDWARD NORTON (Sheldon Mopes/Smoochy)
How did you feel the first time you put on the rhino suit?
It was great. I worked a long time with the costume designer and this guy Chip down at the creature creations studio in the valley. We spent a long time with ears and I brought in a book with Peter Beard photos and some stuff I shot in Africa - with rhinos and hair in their ears. You have to like play with it a long time to make sure it's something you look at and that you really feel warmly toward.
Was Smoochy based on any particular type of character?
He was, I had a lot of people in mind. I mean, Adam Resnick's script was just hilarious and an amazing percentage of it is still in the film. For the blistering pace of the movie and for what may seem very improvisational, an amazing amount of it was in his original script. But, I worked with him a little bit on it. There was always the crusader kind of element of Smoochy and there were references to the fact that he didn't like someone selling sugar to kids, but then Adam and I kind of took that and and pushed it a little further out into a complete commitment. Into like, you know, everything that Smoochy is now. We had a joke at one point about how Armani has made him all kind of clothes and we got Armani to make a whole bunch of hemp suits.
Was it fun not to be the wild and crazy guy?
Yeah, actually I thought Danny wanted me to play Rainbow Randolph. When I read the script I figured Adam Sandler will be Smoochy or one of those guys. Danny and I were in Montreal making competing "Heist" movies and he said, "I've got this thing I want you to read. I want you to think about it." I read it at 2 in the morning. I was lying on my back and I had these rivulets of tears running down my temples when I was done. Such a funny script and I was thinking to myself, "God, you know? Maybe they'll let me play Rainbow Randolph. They'll never let me play Smoochy." So I went to Danny and I said, "Listen, I'm thinking, you know maybe I can take some of this other stuff I've done and flip it over into Rainbow Randolph." He said, "No, no you've got to play Smoochy!"
Was that surprising?
Well, I was surprised. I was a little surprised that he was able to convince the studio to let me do that role. I thought he'd get me on the other one. But then Danny told me he had Robin for Randolph and I was so excited.
This doesn't seem like a mainstream studio movie. Were you surprised that the studio would allow a film like this to be made?
No, but you know I always liked it. I've had this happen a couple of times - particularly with "Fight Club." First of all, I give them all credit for ultimately making these movies, but sometimes the way you can really turn the screw and make it tough for them to say no is if you put together a certain group of people. You start to engage their fear that someone else will make it and have a hit. So I think Danny is brilliant. Once you have Robin signed on to a comedy, I think they almost crunch the numbers and they can't not make that movie. That said, I'm really pleased they did make it. And for their credit, they gave us real resources to make it.
Does this film more reflect your sense of humor?
Sure. After "Fight Club" this seemed like a light comedy to me. I like this stuff. I'm not interested in making movies for everybody. I just don't. I like making movies for myself and my friends and people with my sensibility. When you read a script like this the first thing you think is I hope to God they don't back off all this stuff and try to make it so you can take your kids. I was so happy that Danny didn't. I'm not saying it's bad to make those movies, that's great. It's just that it was such a thrill to make an adult comedy and you KNOW you were making an adult comedy and you know not to shoot an alternative tape where Robin doesn't [cuss]. It's great because there's no harm in it. Danny's a master. I think he has such a deft touch at going as black as you ever want to go and as profane as you would ever want to be while not making it offensive or dirty. I think you'd have to be wired way too tight not to be able to laugh at this movie. I love that he's able to do that. He's able to give you a dark chuckle on an adult level and satirize things in a sophisticated way. That was a thrill for me. And I love seeing Robin in that vein. You know, I grew up on "Robin Williams: Live at the Met" and I loved hearing him just cut loose in such an uncensored way like this because he's obviously so brilliant.
Does Robin get there immediately or was it a building process in terms of the choices that Danny made?
He does have a remarkable ability to accelerate up into that, but the thing that really impressed me about Robin is... I did think the script was extremely funny and the verbiage in it was so specific and hilarious and I wondered if Robin was just going to come in and just plaster over it with his own stuff - and he didn't. He was so restrained and disciplined about when he chose to sort of turn his tap on. He was comma perfect on the script and he'd find these openings to let his own thing loose. I never once thought he ever did anything but enhance the script that was already there. Then on top of that, I thought he was kind of a demonstration of that Mark Twain line about the best extemporaneous speech being the one that's the most meticulously rehearsed. He always gives you the impression that he's just going wow. But the truth is he throws a lot of stuff around and you can see him sort of go, "That sucked, that sucked, this was good," and then he's just like any actor where he works it and works it and over a number of takes, hones in on it. He doesn't just crack out a lot of stuff and let them sort it out in the editing. He worked, I mean he was maniacal about working it, working it, working it.
Was it easy for you to follow Robin?
Yeah, it was fun. It's great. You know Sheldon has such a dopey rhythm of his own and it's great to sort of dance. We did have these really funny pauses together. Danny - in sort of the George Cukor tradition - would just say, "Faster, faster," that was his note. [We would] rip it out about 20 times until you've got Robin hitting every note. It is a stylized comedy in that way.
Is it more of a challenge for you to play this type of character?
No, I've done a lot of different kinds of stuff. No, you just have to hook in because it's all the same. It's all about hooking into whatever that person's value system is. Everybody's got a value system and a set of motivations and the only difference is, with a movie like this, the challenge is not whether it's a comedy or a drama, it's with every movie. It's such a big group of people working creatively, collaboratively on the film; it's the director, the costume designer, the production designer and a cinematographer and actors and all of that has to gel. Somehow it's all on the director, I think. The director has to somehow communicate what band and spectrum this is functioning in so that everybody's operating on the same cylinders in a way. It's about early on really, really checking in with each other. In the beginning, I just kept going to Danny and saying, "Is it there or is it even more?" And he would go, "Even a little more." It's about figuring out how far off the ground it is. That's fun and in that case you really rely on trusting the director to put you all in the right place and in the same place.
Did you have a children's show you grow up with?
I put that line in, as they're entering Nathan's Hot Dog in the beginning. [The line] where Sheldon's saying, "I was born November 11, 1969 which was the first date Sesame Street aired," [I put it] in because I grew up on the golden age of Children's Television. I think Robin and I were talking about it. There was still all the residual genius of Chuck Jones and the Warner Brothers stuff. That stuff was so creative. Frank Oz directed me in this "Heist" movie and at one point I finally decided that has nothing to do with what we're doing. I know we're doing a totally different thing, but it had such a huge impact on my youth, you know? Those guys were such brilliant performers and the intention behind the whole thing was so amazing. I think it's just been a real seismic shift in children's programming. Not that there aren't any shows out there, but they receded in the landscape for selling dolls and toys and Barney and all that horseshit and I just, I feel bad for kids now. I think they've got a lot less [chance] to really get anything substantive than I think I did.
What do you do for fun?
I did this for fun. I think it takes aim at all kinds of interests, in little messages. I love Smoochy's motto - "You can't change the world, but you can make a dent." I think it's the warm part in the middle of Danny's movie. I did this movie because I was laughing at it. I felt like we did this this time last year, but in the wake of everything that's gone down, I'm very happy to be involved in a movie like this that's coming out. I think it's the perfect anecdote for the times we've all been weathering.
Edward Norton Rewrites Salma Hayek
I always liked Salma Hayek when I ran into her. We always had nice conversations, but I never understood exactly what she was up to. Her choice of movies wasn't very good: Chain of Fools, Wild Wild West, 54, The Faculty, Fled, Fair Game (you can't even remember it — Billy Baldwin and Cindy Crawford — so bad they can't play it on cable). Then she starts dating Edward Norton, who's a smart guy. So you know she's up to something, but you're never sure what.
Now, after seeing a sneak, early rough-cut screening of Hayek in her newest film, at last I can tell you what she wants — or at least what she's going to get: an Oscar nomination for best actress. For years Hayek, who is half Mexican and half Lebanese, has wanted to make a feature film about the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. For a while, another project about Kahlo starring Jennifer Lopez (Dios mio!) stood in the way — but the path was finally cleared, and Hayek managed to combine with stage genius Julie Taymor (Broadway's still-astonishing Lion King) to make the movie of her dreams.
Frida is that movie. It doesn't open until October, and maybe even then only a handful of people will see it, but I hope that is not the case. Taymor, who made the overreaching, ambitious Titus with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, has at last found the proper material to establish her as a film director. Her use of puppets, dream imagery and clever montages makes Frida absolutely riveting. The movie feels like a series of Joseph Cornell boxes all come alive and run amok.
At the same time Hayek and co-star Alfred Molina, who plays Kahlo's longtime husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera, keep the action moving. They establish this couple in such an odd, unusual and romantic relationship that their Mexican soap opera continues to fascinate even in its downtime. But the Riveras rarely have any lulls. They are either fighting or making love — or both. They are always painting, and their entity, as such, improves upon the Jackson Pollock/Lee Krasner marriage in last year's Pollock.
The title of this story is about Edward Norton, though, and I will tell you what I heard at my screening. Norton did a top-to-bottom rewrite of the finished script after many other screenwriters, including Gregory Nava, Walter Salles and Clancy Sigal among others, contributed enough to get their names on the credits. But Norton apparently had fresh enough eyes, and good enough sense of Hayek, to reshape parts of the script to suit her. It was a good gamble.
Norton, by the way, is one of a handful of "star" cameos in Frida, which are designed to lure in wary audiences. Norton plays a young Nelson Rockefeller, the man who commissioned Diego Rivera's famous mural in Rockefeller Center and then had it demolished because it had Communist references. Also passing through Frida most comfortably are Ashley Judd as the legendary photographer Tina Modotti; Roger Rees as Kahlo's father; Antonio Banderas as the artist and activist David Siquieros and the rarely-seen Valeria Golino (where has she been?) as Rivera's first wife, Lupe Marin.
Frida, which will shortly open the Venice Film Festival, gained some notoriety earlier this spring when Taymor and Miramax, the film's distributor, disagreed about its length. At issue was the sequence which recalls Kahlo's affair with Trotsky (played by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush). All I can say is thank goodness this stuff wasn't cut. The whole of it, including a trek to the top of the Mayan ruins, is historically stunning and quite wonderful.
But then again, all of Frida is a joy to behold. I kept thinking all the way through it, "this is what Surviving Picasso should have been like." Taymor (and I should mention here the great music score composed by her partner Elliot Goldenthal) has endeavored to do something beyond the term "biopic" and stretch the limits of our imaginations, and she's had a great success. As for Hayek, we'll be seeing her at the Golden Globes, the Oscars, etc. She's the first Mexican actress since Dolores Del Rio to make such an impact. If this a result of NAFTA, then we made the right decision after all.
Edward Norton Fights His Way to the Top
Like the poker player he portrayed in Rounders, Edward Norton has learned to keep his cards close to his vest. At least when it comes to his personal life.
The eldest of three children born to a lawyer father and a teacher mother, Norton grew up in Columbia, Maryland, with the burning desire to be an actor. He believes that the roles he chooses are all his fans need to know about what makes him tick. Norton wants his acting to stand alone and to be unencumbered by any fodder about his personal life.
After graduating from Yale in 1991 with a degree in history, the now 30-year-old Norton eventually wound up working at New York's Signature Theatre Company, known for staging the plays of Edward Albee. A phenomenal audition landed him a role in 1996's Primal Fear, opposite Richard Gere, as the accused killer of a bishop. A Kentucky mountain dialect, cloaked in altar-boy innocence with a streak of psychosis, made the role Norton's breakout performance; so riveting that it garnered the newcomer Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actor.
Norton followed this up playing Drew Barrymore's boyfriend in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You; as Larry Flint's lawyer in The People vs. Larry Flint with Woody Harrelson and one-time steady Courtney Love; and as a reformed white supremacist in American History X, with Edward Furlong and Beverly D'Angelo. The latter led to another Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Actor. Perhaps just to keep fans guessing, Norton turned down the role of the title character in Saving Private Ryan.
In his latest film, Fight Club, Norton plays a Gen-Xer who tires of his white-collar world and enters the realm of the fight club to which he is introduced by a new friend, Tyler, played by Brad Pitt. Attempting to overcome frustration with their boring everyday lives, young men beat each other to a bloody pulp, which eventually leads Tyler to near-messianic status.
During a late September heat wave in Los Angeles, a very articulate Norton spoke with a great deal of thought and intelligence about his new film and about growing older.
Q: In Fight Club, it’s implied that young men today are angry and looking for a way to express their rage? Isn’t that a gross generalization?
Edward Norton: I totally agree with that. I think it's a very important distinction. There is nothing in the film that's a suggestion. First of all, it's important to distinguish what a character in the film suggests and what the film suggests. What Tyler is proposing is one half of the dialectic in the film. By the end, the other characters have pulled back from that and the film kind of leaves it in your lap to decide. So whatever Tyler's espousing isn't necessarily to be confused with the message of the film.
Q: But what do you think?
EN: I'm just saying that it leaves it open to you to figure out — like the narrator — how far do you want to go with something like this? But I also think that even Tyler is not really espousing violence directed outward against other people, as a form of redemptive gesture. He says, "Hit me." It's about, "I want to have real experiences. I don't want to die without having had real experiences in my life." I think the aggression in Fight Club, and the radicalism in Fight Club, is very much directed inward. I think the Fight Club is kind of metaphoric for the fight against your own impulses to get cocooned in things. Which is why, when the guys fight, they get up and hug each other at the end and thank each other for the experience. It's the gesture that's helping them strip away the fears; the fears of pain and the reliance on the material signifiers of their self-worth.
Q: So what do you do to get out your own aggressions?
EN: I think people do all kinds of different things.
Q: Since you're not like that in real life, how long does it take you to get into character for a fight scene?
EN: The intense fighting stuff has to be very well choreographed. I think one of the strange ironies of film is that sometimes the violence in film that seems the most intensely brutal is actually the kind of acting that's the least emotionally connected. I get more of an emotional rush for the fight in the car, when we're arguing, or when I'm burning my hand, or something like that. Technically, with fight scenes, you have to repeat them in very small fragments, over and over.
Q: How did this script change from the original, the one that director David Fincher had when he first approached you?
EN: It's very true to the spirit of the book. There's very little text in the film that's not verbatim out of the novel. I think the ending is amplified into a more cinematic ending. In some ways, it's shifted a little more toward the redemptive, in the sense that there's a definite pulling back from Tyler — a defeat of Tyler and a retreat from everything Tyler's going towards. In this film, like at the end of The Graduate, he's accomplished something. You don't know what he's accomplished exactly, but you get the sense that he's reached some kind of middle ground between his old self and this side of himself that he's been battling.
Q: You've spoken about how you think these ideas apply to your generation.
EN: I don't know that I'd want to put a simple label on the whole thing, but I do think a lot of why I responded to the book — and why all of us responded to the book — is that it was one of the first things I read that made me think, "In a much more substantive and complicated way, this is really on the pulse of the energy I feel in my generation." Much more than I had felt with these kind of Baby Boomer-created Reality Bites visions of us, as this kind of reductive, aimless, angst-ridden slackers. I felt Fight Club — in a way that none of that stuff did — really probed down into the despair and paralysis that people feel in the face of having inherited this value system out of advertising. There were so many things in the book. My first encounters with Brad and with Fincher were just kind of sitting there going, "I loved this," and reading these aphorisms out of the book. They were really things you felt like you could almost whack up on a big poster and they would become a banner. It was the first thing I read that I thought could really be what The Graduate was for that generation or Rebel Without a Cause; something that really rooted around in the dynamics of this frustration.
Q: What about the focus in the press about the violence in this film? How do you react to that?
EN: It's coming from a lot of people who haven't even seen the movie. That seems like lazy journalism to me.
Q: Were there unusual struggles with the ratings board?
EN: Not at all. That's the standard fare. There's not one major scene that we shot that isn't in the film because of violent content. Not one.
Q: Are you worried about copycat violence from this film? Like blowing things up?
EN: This is no arsonist's handbook. There are no instructions on how to make a bomb in this.
Q: That was done intentionally?
EN: Yeah. But you know, I've gotta say, that kind of stuff comes from people catching a buzz on a movie that they haven't even seen, and looking for easy copy. The critical community calls for more sophisticated films, more complicated films, and more eclectic films to come out of the studio system. When they get one and don't grant it a more sophisticated eye, then the onus is on the critical community, in my opinion. Because if you examine this movie and really listen to what it says, there's nothing in it that's suggesting violence against other people, or anything like that, as a means to an end.
Q: Do you think real-life fight clubs may emerge?
EN: Yeah. But if people didn't make art that critiqued the dysfunctions in a society because they were afraid of copycat things, then Nabokov never would have written Lolita, The Beatles never would have made that record, Scorsese never would have made Taxi Driver. Every movie that's ever been called dangerous or radical is now a cultural hallmark of a whole generational energy. It's much, much more disturbing and dangerous to me to suggest that a cultural medium as potent as film should not look at the ways that we're unhealthy, in a complicated way. That's living in serious denial, as a culture, to say, "Let's not make films about the violence that's in this culture."
Q: In the film, you're talking to co-star Helena Bonham Carter, who asks you what's going on. You look at Tyler, who gives you a sign that this conversation is over. It's almost like you're the submissive to a master.
EN: Right. I love the way that's edited and put together, because I think it's where it starts to really answer to this surrealness. But my thought on what you're saying is — and in talking to Fincher about it — is that in the character of the narrator, there is this juncture in the phone booth when he has the choice to move towards her, or move towards Tyler. And in moving towards her ... in a way, I think she's almost like his female animus. She's exactly the same as he is, on a certain level, and he can move towards her and have a connection. He can go toward this more seductive, negativist approach or someone who's essentially saying, "Let's try something else. Don't go towards what you know already." So he moves towards that. I don't mean negative in the sense of bad, but in the sense of, let's contend with what we've been sold on.
The scene that's really interesting for me is in the car, when they fight. Because what's revealed there is, in essence, that it hasn't been so much of a commitment to the philosophy in the same way that Tyler's committed to it, or a commitment to the pursuit of his ideas. Really, for him, it's been the satisfaction of having a relationship, a personal connection with somebody. And in that is the root of his jealousy when Helena comes into the picture. Because in the car, what they really end up saying is, "I thought this was our thing, and why do you leave me out?" It's kind of a relationship fight from his end. And Tyler is saying, "This is not about our relationship. And if that's why you've been in this, then you've got a big surprise coming. Don't make this about you and me because this is much more about what's being explored here." And in that is the emotional hurt for the narrator. And I think it's at that point that they start to split.
Q: Do you think you have life figured out better now?
EN: The thing I liked about the film is that it does touch on something that I feel is part of what's going on in our generation in its 20s. We've been kind of having our mid-life crisis in our 20s.
Q: Just wait until you really hit middle age!
EN: [laughter] Yeah, I know. But we have, in essence, been going through this. The film is, in a lot of ways, about that process of figuring out what you don't like. About starting to name the things that make you unhappy.
Q: Did you feel old in your 20s?
EN: It's not about whether I felt old or not. Personally, I think that going through your 20s is hopefully going through a lot of the experiences that let you start to identify what it is that you like and don't like. You stop receiving your ideas about what you should like and don't like from other sources.
Edward Norton speaks about high-stakes poker, says bluffing can pay off
In back-room Manhattan poker clubs, Edward Norton, 29, learned what it's like to be inferior. He and Matt Damon hit the clubs to prepare for their roles as card sharks in the new movie Rounders. They even entered the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas -- and were quickly squashed by real rounders ("the absolute opposite of suckers").
"Poker is not a game of chance," says Norton. "It's a game of psychology, strategy, math. When you sit with people who are better than you, you know you're outmatched. It's like playing tennis with Ivan Lendl."
Even before he immersed himself in the poker world, Norton had the instincts of a fearless player. He knew how to bluff. When casting directors were looking for someone to play the Appalachian murderer in Primal Fear, the Maryland-born Norton fibbed that he grew up in Kentucky. Using a hillbilly accent he'd picked up watching Coal Miner's Daughter, he won the part.
He went on to a celebrated role as the weary lawyer in The People vs. Larry Flynt. In the upcoming American History X, he plays a neo-Nazi, and he's now doing a boxing film, Fight Club.
Often described as press-shy, Norton says keeping his personal life to himself is like having a poker face. "If you load people up with prior knowledge about you, it's much more difficult for them to see you as the characters you play. It erodes your effectiveness," says the Yale graduate.
Norton is a grandson of the late James Rouse, the famed real estate developer (Baltimore's Harborplace, Boston's Faneuil Hall) and humanitarian. His grandfather taught him social responsibility, he says, and encouraged him to be an actor, even though it was a long-odds gamble. There's a poker rule: Trust everyone, but always cut the cards. To that, Norton counters, "Hopefully, everybody has someone in their lives with whom they don't have to cut the cards."
Money isn't everything:
"When I was in Vegas, they talked about how Bill Gates comes to town and plays $3 and $6 [poker]. I completely understand that. Poker isn't just about money. It's about gamesmanship, the ego of it."
Life, like poker, has "an element of risk. It shouldn't be avoided. It should be faced."
Get your houses in order:
Norton worked three years for The Enterprise Foundation, his grandfather James Rouse's program to create decent low-income housing. "The unavailability of affordable housing has a lot to do with so many social problems."
Bare-knuckle Edward Norton
Edward Norton, star of controversial film Fight Club, talks about his role and film.
Edward Norton sure is attracted to trouble. When he's not fighting with directors over neo-Nazi movies (American History X) or dating Courtney Love, he's championing the most brutal and controversial Hollywood release in years.
In Fight Club, Norton plays a corporate dweeb seduced by Brad Pitt's walking, talking id monster to beat him and other willing guys silly, and by taking punches himself finally feel something real in his droning, consumerist life. It hasn't dampened Norton's provocative instinct: his next film will be about a priest who falls in very un-Catholic love.
Fight Club has been called fascist, anarchic, anti-capitalist propaganda and too violent. What, to you, are the film's main points?
The specific crisis of men is definitely dealt with, the experience of feeling emasculated by modern society. Brad and I have a discussion early on about how we're not hunter-gatherers any more, we've become consumers, receivers. Instead of having a proactive role, we've become people who distinguish between duvets and comforters. Also, having been the first generation really raised from the cradle on television, and having had our value system, to a great degree, informed by an advertising culture that sells a lifestyle, we've now reached an age where we have a lot of material things and realised that we're still not happy.
So you beat and get beaten to relieve that frustration?
It's not meant to be taken literally. The film is about two people who say, "We're fed up with this, let's try this." They split at the point where one wants to carry it out, see what the practical limits of this kind of nihilism are, and the other wants to retreat from it, because on a practical level it's making him feel as terrible as he was feeling before. It's almost a critique of how things get misinterpreted.
Many have already failed to see such fine philosophical points beyond the bloody messes the movie's bouts end in. If you make a movie like this and you don't irritate some people, then you've done something wrong.
But people were concerned that the film was too violent and would inspire copycats.
If a violent culture didn't have critiques of violence in its art, it would be a culture in denial. And that's much more dangerous, to me, than the potential for that critique to get misinterpreted.
You like to make movies that stir up controversy in the media, yet you hate being scrutinised by the media yourself. Contradiction there?
Anybody, I guarantee you, who's had the experience of the reductiveness of media today - because of the speed and pace of it, and the need to market and package it - knows it oversimplifies things. And when you are the subject of oversimplification, it's a horrible feeling because nobody likes to have their complex humanity boiled down into some thing. That is not enjoyable. But criticism can be healthy and good. Not everything you do is going to be for everybody, after all.
So you don't worry when these controversial films are box-office disappointments?
There's this success paradigm [in America] that dictates you hit a certain thing or certain things happen. But that's not the way life is, it's not the way creativity works, or ought to work. You've got to continue; even when you've endured a certain risk and scored or achieved something you've wanted to achieve. You've still always got to draw the right lines and say, "I'm going to make choices that make sense for me."