Edward Norton’s passions and pastimes are many: There’s his new fund-raising social network Crowdrise; the foundation he started to preserve the Masai region of Kenya; climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro; surfing in Fiji … But this interview will be skipping all of that to discuss the high-profile job that made it all possible: acting. For our latest in-depth, free-flowing, and virtually uncut Vulture Transcript, New York contributing editor Robert Kolker — a friend of Norton’s since the second grade — talked with the actor about his filmography (from American History X and Fight Club to his new movie Stone with Robert De Niro, which opens in limited release this Friday), how growing up in suburbia helped stoke his ambition, and what movies have fired him up lately.
Researching your role as a convicted arsonist in Stone, you visited inmates in Detroit. We’ve talked a little in the past about how our jobs both let us talk to people we’d never otherwise meet.
You’re just lucky: You talk to them, but you don’t have to then pretend to be them.
And then they get to see it?
And then they write you angry letters?
[Laughs.] Actually, I have a correspondence with this one guy that I met in the Michigan prison. There were a few guys [on whom Norton based his performance] — but there was one in particular who was really just wildly compelling. He gave me more. He really gave me fantastic lingo and language and stuff.
The language is amazing.
Yeah — there’s not a shred of that in the script. Not a shred of it. The script was set in the South. [Director] John Curran moved it to Detroit. All the phraseology was from these guys. It’s an incredible patois. I met dozens of guys, but one guy started to become really interesting to me. And he’d been really great, he was a white guy who helped start the Crips gang in Detroit.
Was he incarcerated?
Yeah, he was in the Jackson prison where we filmed. And he said to me, “I know the guy you wanna meet.” And then turned to the corrections officers and he said, “It’s so-and-so in cell block so-and-so.” And they’re like “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, I get it.” Not the guard but this administrator, and they went back out and they brought this other guy in, and as soon as he walked in the room I was like, “Oh my God, this guy’s it.” As soon as he opened his mouth and started talking, I was really fascinated. He had cornrows — actually, a couple of guys did, but he had cornrows. And his voice just sounded like it was being run though a blender, really cracked and broken and husky.
So you hear that voice, and you think to yourself, “How do I get me one of those?” Then what do you do?
Yeah, well, on a superficial level I found him really interesting. But he ended up being the guy who had very authentically gone though this process. Prison for him had turned into an autodidactic exploration of how was he going to fix his life. The things he was piecing together, they were different from the film, but they were really related. He was assembling this self-built idea of how to change his view of life and kind of liberated himself. And he was really anxious about his condition and he was really articulate about what the process of being assessed for parole does to prisoners. All of it was really fascinating, and for me, once you’ve got a line in on that, then it’s just like a gold mine. Then it’s just, make tapes. Record it as much as possible, go through the script with these guys and have them just throw out everything that’s fake and fill in blanks with just gold. We didn’t ever sit and write into the script, you know, the line, “I don’t want to beef with you, I just want to be vegetarian.” This is a thing that guy said to us, ’cause he’s getting close to his out time, and he was like, “When you get in that mode, no matter what anybody does to you, you have to just take it. You have to be a vegetarian.” And I was like “What?” And he’s like, “Yeah, no beef with nobody.”
But I came away with sheets and sheets of stuff and I would say to John, “What do you think of that, what do you think of that, what do you think of that?” And he says “I love that, love that, I love that, I love that — not that.”
So you changed all your dialogue?
Yeah, but John and De Niro and I had been working for months on the script. And reengineering it, and actually, John more than anybody, this was John’s film. John read the play. [Playwright] Angus [MacLachlan] had kind of written it up into a screenplay of his play, in a way. It didn’t feel like a film to me. I didn’t really get it or want to do it. John was really passionate about it. He kept saying, “Look at the script as an armature. Forget the details, forget the plot, chuck it out. What I like about it is the idea of one character judging another — and the difficulty of pinning down what’s authentic in us.” John transformed it completely. And by the time De Niro and I got to it, he had done quite a lot to actually engineer it for the two of us.
And De Niro, who plays your parole evaluator, what did he bring?
I think more than anything, what he’s so great at is that he’ll never get into a long and nuanced scene and let the script dictate what to do. Just because the script says this leads to this, and then to this and to this — he just won’t do it unless it earns it. He doesn’t fake things. You can almost feel the boundary lines in him — and so when the cracking points come, they’re so interesting. He doesn’t tart things up and give a lot of broad cues to what’s going on inside this guy, so that the cues he does give you are so incisive and so subtle. I really love this stuff. When he’s giving a eulogy about the brother, and he’s on his notes and he stops to try to say something authentic, the way that he’s unable to speak — I just don’t think anybody does stuff like that like him. There’s something kind of shocking about how real his inability to access his own emotions is.
I remember reading about 2001’s The Score, and you’re bringing in your safe-cracking guy, and De Niro’s bringing in his security guy — everybody’s’ doing their homework.
Yeah, I had my cops, he had his SAS guy …
But does it ever feel like a staff meeting? Do you ever come across an actor who feels like too much of that is a buzzkill? Someone who treasures spontaneity, and who just shows up and says “Just tell me where to stand?”
Sure. But I think there are phases of the process. To me, the research and the detail — I don’t bother anybody else with that, and they don’t bother me with it — or without it. The alchemy of the whole thing is, that’s a sort of clinical or right-brain absorption, but then it has to pass through the prism, and go and become an interpretation. Within the interpretation, then it’s got to be dynamic. It’s got to be spontaneous and improvisational and surprising. And I think you do have to surprise yourself. You have to let it channel through you and then it becomes a little wilder — a little more impulsive, or inventive, or whatever. The one being done well makes the other more rich, because there’s more to pull on. Whatever you want to call it — whether it’s mimicry, or empathy, or an impulse to pretend, to imagine yourself as something else and represent it — that’s when you start getting yourself into the half of it that I think is more poetry.
But you’re not looking for the criminal within you or anything. It’s not Method-y at all.
I’ve never called myself a Method actor. I never got much out of that whole line of thought, personally. The problem is there’s this romance, this sort of legend of the Method and the Actor’s Studio and Lee Strasberg. But the truth is that actual distinction about what these different ideas were, and what is what, has been totally lost. You’re describing it correctly, but the truth is, every lazy entertainment journalist, basically they say that someone’s a “method actor” if they do anything …
If they gain ten pounds …
Yeah. Ironically, it’s sort of the opposite. The Method as Lee Strasberg described it was the idea that your emotional memory and your sense memory was the conduit through which you accessed all of what you needed for the work — and it was the deepest and most intense way for you to bring out the deep truth of a certain piece of work.
Do you encounter people who do it that way?
No, that’s the irony. I haven’t worked with a person in my career who I would say is a Method actor.
So when you’re sitting down to do a scene with De Niro, he’s not off to the side meditating, trying to dredge up some secret emotion?
No. And the irony is that De Niro was a student of Stella Adler’s, which Brando was too. I don’t believe Brando was a Method actor, really. He was obviously a famous student of Stella’s and so was Bob. And Stella Adler was intensely negative about Lee Strasberg’s ideas about Method. She countered by saying that she thought that the greatest gift to any actor was their imagination and their choices about what they could come to understand about the material. What happened was a lot of actors came along that were nontraditional leads. They were Travis Bickle and Ratzo Rizzo, you know. Character actors were becoming leads because they were representing a kind of character, an antihero.
So you’re talking about a trend in taste and fashion and sensibility, not in acting?
Yeah, much more than dogma. What people started saying was the Method was, in fact, just kind of realism. De Niro gaining weight in Raging Bull is not like the Method. It’s just commitment.
He’s just drinking a lot of milkshakes.
Yeah, it’s commitment to absorption in a character, a level of investigation and absorption of a character’s reality. But I think that has much more to do with imagination than it does with accessing yourself. And De Niro, by the way, of all actors, I would say — legendarily before I ever worked with him, and confirmed by working with him — he’s all about cerebral research. Everyone talks about him as like the ultimate intuitive actor, because he’s not a verbal kind of a guy and everything. But he’s like a librarian. He just researches and researches and researches and researches, and then he’s very, very talented at sinking into the reality, the gestural reality of a character. But I don’t see the slightest evidence, in the way he works, that he’s mining his own torture or grief or anything.
Is there anything he’s doing that surprises you?
Empathy. I relate completely to the way he works, which is: investigate, investigate, absorb, absorb, and then channel. I think he’s a channeler. And I think I’m a channeler. I can think of two or three times in my entire career that I even had a sensation that what I was working on was rubbing up against a nerve in me. Or something of me in the moment that I was living was coming though a little bit.
“Wait a minute, my character broke his leg — and I twisted my ankle just last Wednesday!”
[Laughs.] Yes, exactly. Even when people say that Daniel Day-Lewis won’t leave character on the set, I don’t relate to that as Method. I just relate to that as an actor with an intensive commitment to staying inside the reality of his character. I think that’s a concentration technique.
I have to think it also means they’re feeling a certain pressure to deliver.
Yeah. But also, the way movies are made is inherently at war with concentration. Let’s say you’re doing an accent, or let’s say you’re trying to stay in a posture and a mode of being that you actually feel you could kind of lose your grip on if you were constantly trying to put it on and take it off again. Or you don’t trust, to some degree, that you’re going to be able to just easily slip in and out — then I think that that kind of work is much more about concentration than it is about mining your own emotions. And Stone was a good example, because I was trying to represent something that was pretty out on a limb. I mean, when we started working on the whole thing, I didn’t have a beat on the character at all. John said, “Listen, I’ll really only say two things about it to you.” He said, “I don’t care what it is, I don’t care how it sounds or how it looks, but I want it to feel authentic to Detroit. And on first glimpse, I want everybody to feel like this guy’s the least likely candidate for a spiritual transformation imaginable.”
This sounds pretty unusual — a director saying, “Do these two things, but as for the rest, just do that thing you do.”
Yeah. I mean, partly it’s because I’ve worked with John before [on The Painted Veil], and I think he trusts me a lot, and I trust him a lot. He had a laserlike focus on what the movie was about for him. For him, it was an investigation of what constitutes authentic spiritual experience. It was about imprisonment — and authenticity versus inauthenticity. The main character [Jack, De Niro’s character], who judges the authenticity of other people’s spiritual lives while his own life is inauthentic on every level. And the guys he’s judging, who seem to be imprisoned — by the end of the film, these two guys have inverted. One guy who seems to have all the makings of a solid life is revealed by the end to be a hollow man. And the one who has a deep anxiety about his imprisonment has by the end achieved a liberation that the other guy can’t relate to.
Are there different projects, though, where it’s just best to do what’s delivered and not monkey around too much? Like something very particularly written, like 25th Hour?
Sure. Or Leaves of Grass. Tim Nelson’s script was so complete. I really was almost like, “Let’s just go shoot this.” But, that’s a situation where the author is the director. He’s someone who thinks visually. But I would say, on many films, I think 25th Hour, on Fight Club, Painted Veil to some degree, I’ve worked on many films where I’ve felt that the road map of the script was very very, very dialed-in. But then other things just are … other things. Like, you know, Down in the Valley, David Jacobson wrote as a fever dream, it was so different than the thing we made, it was the thing he poured out of him. And when he brought it to me, he was like, “It’s not a movie yet — but it’s a set of ideas and themes … ”
You essentially midwifed that movie; it was his movie, but you …
We worked on it for six months together, we were upstairs at that dining-room table for six months. Because even David, he wanted to work on coalescing it — and he just happened to have brought it to me when he was in the earliest of early phases with it.
As someone who has known you a while, sometimes it’s hard to see you in the roles that you play, but not Leaves of Grass. The two brothers you play are Bill and Brady, and Bill has, like, a ton of you in him. There’s your intellect, there’s warmth, there’s charm; how sincere you are in the opening scene — I saw that and thought, Well, there’s a lot of him shining though. But then that part of you becomes lampooned in the rest of the movie. It’s self-mockery — literally, because you’re playing the other character doing the mocking.
You know, I loved everything the film was mashing up together for just the reasons you said. But a lot of those two characters is Tim Nelson doing that to himself. The particulars of the mash-up are Tim’s, for sure. I think that’s why Tim and I would really get along, because, yes, I could relate, too.
That’s funny, because you’re also obviously known for doing dual roles and characters who go through astonishing transformations.
Yeah, it did seem to me like it was a new and even more extreme extension of the idea. Whether it’s a fakery like Primal Fear — or someone going authentically crazy like Fight Club. Leaves of Grass was just the chance to literalize it, in a way.
I remember having long conversations like this one with you shortly before Primal Fear came along. I remember talking with you about films and about acting and about your career hopes. There was an undercurrent back then to all of it, though. You were like everyone else I knew in their 20s, including me, in how you were constantly wondering, “How can I become the person I want to be? And how can I get there? I see it, but how can I become that?” And what made you perhaps slightly different than a lot of us, not to be too Malcolm Gladwell about it, but you had done your ten thousand hours of practice …
You had been doing your work since a very early age as a child actor. So when the time came for your screen test for Primal Fear — one of your first moments in front of any sort of film camera, and your first one in front of a major studio camera — it’s not like you were going in cold. You had told me once, you had years and years of training to fall back on and you could kind of trust that what you had learned would be helpful in that situation.
Yeah, I think all that’s true.
So, now, that was fifteen years ago. Is there something about the way you approach the work now that you would tell the person that was going in for that screen test? Anything new you’ve learned over the time?
I don’t mean like, “Don’t be afraid, little boy,” I mean more about craft.
Mmmm. You know, I — sometimes I don’t feel that different in my approach. I don’t think there’s anything I did back then that I would sort of shrug and roll my eyes and go, “Yeah I don’t really have to do that anymore.” I’ve learned a lot. It’s gotten more and more clear to me that things that don’t necessarily hook me at first or that I am resisting because I don’t think I’m right for them or I don’t understand them will often produce, definitely, the most interesting experiences for me. Many of the things that other people say, “I thought that was great” or “I thought that really worked, it meant a lot to me,” have been things that I’m unsure of. I think that when I’m nervous that I’m outside the box of what I am going to do a good job in, then in fact sometimes, (a) I have an interesting experience, and (b) it actually produces work that I think is better.
The Incredible Hulk made you nervous?
No. No, it was definitely, definitely really interesting and a real learning experience — but for external reasons, not actor reasons. It was a fascinating experience in terms of making something in which there’s a serious interplay between reality and this whole kind of imagined world of things.
The problem for me was, just as you’re transforming, you’re replaced by CGI.
So you don’t get that Edward Norton payoff one relies on.
[Laughs.] Yeah. It meant that I would get some days off, which was nice. But you know, like what you were saying — that we were all kind of trying to make yourself into the person that you want to be — I’m not sure that that process ends. It may hold for a bit in the sense that you’re chasing a certain vision and you’re realizing it, and that’s exciting and fulfilling. But hopefully, if you’re lucky, your success brings an expansiveness of experience with it, and you get into new visions of what you’re doing might be.
That explains the eight side projects you have going …
Yeah. But weirdly, I actually find that the things that I’m doing have become a little too much. Maybe fifteen years ago I was aiming at a lot of things. And now in a way I’m aiming really avidly at doing less things.
I’m serious, I’m really — if something shifted for me, it’s that I would like to reclaim the focus that comes with having less responsibility. Because you, you just — I don’t know if you find this to be true, having to write regularly — but it’s incredible how much effort it takes. I find it can take me days, if I have to write, to actually get the brain working in a concentrated way. And the ability to sustain that by keeping the doors closed on all that other stuff is really hard. And some of it has to do with the fact if you load yourself up with all these responsibilities. Now these responsibilities can bark at you perpetually and it’s really, really difficult. So I kind of find myself looking for, aspiring toward …
Doing less. Doing less so I can actually enjoy what I’m doing more.
On the list of fewer things, are movies still on that list?
Yeah. I think I’ve always been selective. I actually think it creates an enhancement on, sort of, your potency as an actor. Without naming names, there are people who are so constantly present out there that you just don’t have any authentically shocking experience watching them onscreen anymore. But I’m very, very comfortable with the idea that things come along when they’re supposed to. I haven’t done anything this year — I’m as busy as I’ve ever been in my life, but I haven’t been drawn into making a film this year.
There’s the Lewis and Clark HBO mini-series that you’re producing …
Yeah. We’re in a real crunch for getting scripts done, we have a wonderful, wonderful, writer on that: Michelle Ashford is amazing. But we elected early on to have one writer and one director and I think it’s a great thing, but it’s, perhaps, too much of a burden. So we’re all picking up slack in different places, and I’m helping with the script.
When we were growing up, what were some of the movies that made you want to do what you do? I ask because I know Woody Allen and Spike Lee were touchstones for a lot of us back then. We even would recite the Hulk’s opening sequence.
Watching Annie Hall, I had the distinct sensation of going, “There’s no rules. You can do anything!” And, “This guy’s doing anything he wants!” It was like a hand grenade. I mean, The Graduate had a big impact on me when I saw it.
You’ve talked about Fight Club being The Graduate for people our age.
I think we related to Fight Club in many of the same ways that people related to The Graduate when it came out. The Graduate captures the whole sensation of a certain time in life. And Do the Right Thing was massive. I wasn’t a kid then, but in terms of formative experiences, seeing Do the Right Thing in the movie theater, that was definitely one of the most explosive moments. It definitely affected my whole ambition of what you want to do making movies. It was one of the most provocative — in a great way — movies I had ever seen. This free, bold, original form: busting convention, talking about things no one talked about and leaving you with this sensation that it was made about right now — it was, like, the most contemporary movie I’d ever seen. I was the most cutting-edge film I’d ever seen because it was such a great dissection of what it meant to live in the United States right then. The minute I saw that movie, I was like, this movie will matter more than anything else that comes out this year.
Sometimes I think the movies I like from back then are ones I didn’t discover till later. Like, I wasn’t in the theater at age 16 watching Blue Velvet.
That’s why Do the Right Thing was a big deal to me. I wasn’t, like, a super-hip kid. That was a movie I happened to go to with some friends the weekend it opened. It was like the same way that when I first heard the Clash — remember that radio station, WHFS [the dearly departed alternative station in Washington, D.C.]?
I remember when my cousin tuned me into WHFS and I heard the first Britpop thing, and I heard the Sex Pistols. I remember being really affected by the Clash and the Smiths. You get this sensation of these other worlds that were exotic and sounds that were sort of different. I felt that way about movies in that period. I saw things that seemed exotic to me because they were different and I was growing up in happy, suburban Maryland, and I was drawn to anything that felt like it had an edgy or an exotic reality to it — or a set of tastes. Even Woody Allen, that was counter — because that made New York look so cosmopolitan. I went to all the same mainstream movies as everybody. But those were the ones that dialed me in, set my taste aspirations.
Do you ever dial into that feeling when you’re trying to create movies now?
Yeah, you get older and you dig deeper. I interviewed Bruce Springsteen the other day for this artists’ series kind of thing, and it was so interesting to hear — and to me, affirming. We all apply a certain kind of romance to people like Springsteen, because you say, He’s so authentic. The things he did were so organic; he was just expressing the things around him. And I love talking to him and finding that all these same things that we’ve been talking about here — that the right-brain part of it all for him — was there from when he was in his early 20s. He was affected by certain artists and certain things. He had a real vision of the character he wanted to create and build and the narrative that he wanted to tell. He was saying, “I constructed that brick by brick — from the beginning! I knew what I wanted to say. I wanted it to be epic. I wanted it to have a Homeric quality.” He was saying, “I wasn’t some sort of savant. I was into Flannery O’Conner, I was into Terrence Malick. And Dylan.” He just started rattling off the films and the books and everything. I loved hearing from him that the ambition was always there.
Was there someone in your family that pushed you to have that sort of ambition? Because I can say, I grew up a few houses down from you, and not everybody on our street was quite that ambitious.
No, there was a lot of literature, a lot of art, but I didn’t come from artistic roots particularly. I don’t know, I had the performance impulse, but I didn’t start connecting with those ideas of thematic scale or ambition till I got more into my teens and I started seeing things that I thought were so heavy and I thought — that starts to become compelling. The idea of doing that kind of work, and you start thinking, Whoa. I do feel like I connected to things that are speaking to, like, a generational condition or something that people are going to recognize. Those are the experiences that turn me, us, all, on. I didn’t get into the movies to be the next Burt Reynolds or Schwarzenegger. I love those guys, but that wasn’t what kept me up nights. I think to some degree you aim at the creative targets.
What have you found inspiring lately?
I love that documentary Catfish. You see that yet?
Ah, it’s so good — it’s so good. I couldn’t have disagreed with a review more than Tony Scott’s review. I thought it was dismissive of all these things that were really great about the movie. It’s so of this moment — so revealing of the moment that we’re living in. I thought that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was an incredible film. I love that German film, The Lives of Others — you see that?
Yeah, it was great.
In films, I don’t think that anything’s going to feel revelatory or a seismic shift until filmmakers start seizing the actual opportunity of the online world. There’s a thing percolating — a capacity in these tools to reach these people and communicate with them directly. Many, many films that have become absolute touchstones didn’t do well commercially, but they developed their own community
Fight Club’s a good example of that.
Or American History X. I’ve worked on many films that ended up having a whole conversation develop that were completely separate from that mechanism. But that’s going to go to the next level. It is going to happen. Somebody’s going to make a film, and they’re going to scoff at he idea that they’ve got to go though these gatekeepers who are the arbiters of how thing’s get out. And they’re going to crush the industry — the same way the music industry’s been crushed.
So you’re saving your money — is that what you’re saying?
[Laughs.] I talked about this with David Fincher. We were talking about the fact that it’s always nice when people give you a lot of money to make movies in a certain way because they want to put them out. And you can get in this mode of like, “Well, if their business model still works in that way then great, let’s take the money and do it.” But, at the same time, we’ve got no one but ourselves to blame if we’re not putting up the effort to make the end-run around that. At the end of the day, I do think it’s going to happen. Someone’s going to do what Dickens did. Once Dickens realized he had his own audience and he didn’t need the publishers, he took things like the Pickwick Papers and serialized it. Someone’s going to make a film, and they’re going to put the first fifteen minutes online for free. And it’s going to go around. And when the audience is big enough, they’re going to put the next fifteen minutes out. Then they’re going to say, “If you want to see the end, you’ve got to buy it.” Or they’re going to do what Radiohead did; they’re going to make their movie, put it online, and say, “Pay what you think it’s worth.” Or they’re going to say, “You can get it from us direct.”
As someone invested in traditional ways of storytelling, does any of that frighten you?
No, I think it’ll be great. I think film can probably still hold the ground as the most globally dominant form in which we look at our storytelling. But this stuff is coming along. You used to say, “Oh, there’s the movie-theater experience.” And I do think there’s something to seeing things with other people. But if you work in the business I work in, you get enervated by the vice grip that the distribution pipelines have. It limits the kinds of films that get made. It limits the ease with which you can make an eclectic kind of a thing. So I’d love to see that shattered and all over the floor. It would mean I would have twice as many interesting things to work on.