The two-time Oscar nominated actor discusses playing a prison convict opposite Robert De Niro in his latest film
Actor Edward Norton first gained attention over a decade ago for his Oscar nominated performance as an alter boy accused of murder in Primal Fear. He followed that up with a second Academy Award nomination for his powerful and commanding role as a reformed neo-Nazi in American History X. Since then, the actor has gone onto become one of the premiere actors of his generation and appear in some of the most interesting and acclaimed films of the past decade and a half including The People vs. Larry Flynt, Rounders, Fight Club, Frida, Red Dragon, The 25th Hour, The Italian Job, Kingdom Of Heaven, The Illusionist and The Incredible Hulk.
Now Norton returns with a new film called Stone, which opened on October 8th and not only reunites him with acting icon Robert De Niro for the first time since their 2001 movie The Score, but also marks the second collaboration between he and director John Curran, who first worked together on 2006's The Painted Veil. In the new film, Norton plays a prisoner up for parole, and De Niro is his correctional officer who gets involved in a relationship with his wife, played by Milla Jovovich. We recently had the honor of speaking with Edward Norton about Stone, his character, similarities to American History X, working with De Niro again, Milla Jovovich's performance and the aftermath of The Incredible Hulk.
To begin with, we spoke to director John Curran the other day and he mentioned that the trailer for "Stone," along with the fact that you and De Niro appeared together in "The Score," might give people the impression that this is an action/thriller when it is really a human drama about the search for spiritually. Curran went onto say that he feels like that misdirection helps carry the movie so that it is not what you would expect it to be. Do you agree with that assessment and do you think that the film's misdirection helps keep the story fresh for the audience?
Edward Norton: Yeah, I definitely do. Lets put it this way, I think that the story of the film has two people starting to manipulate somebody and then half way through the film, I think what is really unique is that you begin to realize that even this manipulation has been a misdirection of a sort. You begin to realize that the film isn't about that manipulation that this character is starting to have, which might be an authentic experience that is derailing even his manipulation. To me part of the misdirection of the movie is that it starts off going like it is going to be a conventional manipulation and at the critical moment it goes deeper into a place where you realize that actually what is going on here is even more destabilizing, which is that something is actually happening to him but now it throws everything sort of off balance. Even his wife who is working on this manipulation with him doesn't even know what is going on with him. I think I would have been not very interested in this particular one if I thought it was just sort of about two people working somebody over with surprise endings and stuff. I think to me a huge part of the appeal of it was that John was determined to leave people with a lot of questions. Leave people with a lot of ambiguity about what was authentic, what happened to Stone and where these characters are going at the end. I think the fact that he sort of ends up making it a story about people who are on these trajectories in their spiritual life as apposed to wrapping it up neatly was very exciting for me. I thought it was very courageous in a way.
Curran also mentioned that when he first gave you the script to read that you didn't really "connect" with it. That it wasn't until De Niro was on board that he had you take a second look and while you still had some questions about the character, which you talked over with him, that you finally accepted the role. Can you talk about why you didn't connect with the script when you first read it and what it was that you talked over with Curran about the character that eventually helped you change your mind?
Edward Norton: I think I was afraid in the beginning that it was intended to be a manipulation of this guy by a seduction. It seemed like a genre convention to me that I wasn't tuned into. It wasn't until John started talking about it in terms that were more illusive. He started talking about actually dealing with De Niro's character as an example of the dangers of having a life, which is on the service a good life but that yet has a lot of denial in it, a lot of in-authenticity and the collapse that that can cause. Where as a guy who is imprisoned and not seeming like a candidate for spiritual experience or equip for that goes through an experience that achieves a kind of a new grace in a way that is very unexpected. I really liked that and I thought those ideas that John was talking about were more provocative to me. It just took me a while I think to see that John was aiming at bigger targets. But that too to be honest, Stone as a character was sort of to me, sketched a little bit vaguely and maybe as a Southern white cracker. It wasn't that I didn't like it. I just didn't find it very specific so John drew me in, I would say, with the big theme. Then when John said, "Look, don't worry about this script. I'm not going to set it in the South, I'm going to set it in Detroit and I really want the character to feel like he comes from the margins of urban Detroit." I started to feel like I had a different view of it and a little but of a queue into what might be a way to investigate and create something more specific.
Since you are still so widely associated with your Oscar nominated performance in "American History X," were you concerned about playing another convict in a movie again and that perhaps there would be a lot of comparisons even though "Stone" is a completely different character? Do you think that the work you did in that movie somehow enlighten your work on this film?
Edward Norton: No, I didn't actually see them as very similar characters at all. I think American History X is more what I would almost call a classical tragedy. Its got a character that's designed to be dysfunctional, its more like Othello or something. He was really a powerful, kind of; in control person who you can tell could have been anything. He's smart enough, strong enough, has great potential and who sort of destroys himself through one flaw of anger but to me he's a much more commanding character. I look at Stone in some ways as a more, it's a weird word, but poignant. In the beginning he seems so desperate, so resource-less, he is so anxious and not in control. To me, the most that I can say about them is that I do think that they are both stories in which a character makes a journey towards grappling with his demons in a way. I think they are definitely both stories about grappling with your demons but the characters themselves really didn't remind me of each other at all.
The character you play in this movie is physically different than anything we've seen you do before. You are a completely different person on screen in this film. Can you talk about the transformation that you took in order to create and become this character?
Edward Norton: I got the character almost totally just from interviewing guys in a prison up in Jackson, Michigan. It helped with both the external and the internal I think. It was very interesting to talk to these guys about the anxiety that they feel when parole is coming up. When that moment is coming of being assessed. They had incredible stuff to say to John and me about the length that people will go to, to try and create a portrait of changing themselves. Then just meeting these guys and talking to theses guys was great. We tried to focus on finding guys that are from Southwest Detroit or Eastside Detroit and they gave me and John, I would say all of or a large majority of the lingo, phrases and terminologies. We just back filled it into the script from all the conversations that we had with these guys. All of those lines that people laugh at in that first scene and even later. All the things about being a vegetarian and all the talk about sex and the pumps and the swirl, so much of that whole scene came out of these guys. There's a line that I really, really like in one scene where he is saying, "You want to know about my bad childhood?" Then the line he says is, "There is definitely stuff that I thought was normal at the time and now I see it is unhealthy," and that was literally something one guy said to us about his perspective on his own life, that he had to learn that the world he came up in was not normal. Some of those things are to me what makes him human as a character because you can see that he has a certain amount of self-perspective. I thought that came very much out of these guys. A touching part of these guys was the ways that they were self aware of what had brought them to where they were.
What was it like re-teaming with Robert De Niro?
Edward Norton: It was great, I love working with him. He's like one of the most concentrated, low-key actors. He's great, just great. I loved it.
I heard that you and De Niro did not rehearse before you shot the scenes in his character's office, how did that approach help you and do you think the fact that you two knew each other and had worked together before helped you to approach these roles and this material?
Edward Norton: Absolutely. We talked about them. Long before we worked out the characters or anything we talked about the overall arc of things but then months later when we shot it. That's true I think when I came in and sat down it was the first time that Bob saw me. We wanted him to meet the character in the same way that is happening in the scene.
Actress Milla Jovovich gives a very impressive performance in this film in a pivotal role and Curran mentioned that she read for the part and that you and De Niro played a large role in her being cast in the movie. Can you talk about her performance and why you thought she was the perfect choice for the project?
Edward Norton: I think she's incredible. I think she is going to blow people away if they are only familiar with her from these action movies. I think she's just like really brilliant in it. I can't say enough good things about her. I thought she was serious, creative, improvisational and great.
We loved you in "The Incredible Hulk" and are very sad that you will not be continuing with that role. While I'm sure you've already said everything that you want to say on that subject we were curious if that experience soured you at all on the prospect of starring in other big budget, studio films that are based on comic books or super heroes? Would you take on another project like that if the script and the circumstances were right or are you done making that type of movie?
Edward Norton: No not at all. I don't have any bad feelings or anything at all, not in the slightest. I said what I had to say about that but even in that I think I said that I had a great time doing it and I'm totally grateful for the opportunity. Louis and I got to take a crack at our version of it and these things recycle and its totally fine. I'm sorry that people are disappointed, I totally get it, but I don't carry any bad feelings or negativity about stuff like that and I look at all things the same way. I don't look at any genre, as like, oh I would never do that. I'm always interested in an original take on anything so I'm always open to that. There are so many things that make these things fun and interesting. It can be funny. It can be that the subject matter is something that you don't know anything about. It can be a group of people that you've always wanted to work with. Its kind of one of the great things about being an actor is that if you're lucky and you're working, you can do things for different reasons and flex different parts of your brain, you know?
Finally, what can you tell us about "Motherless Brooklyn," the adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's Brooklyn based detective story that you are working on? Are you still planning to write, direct and star in the film?
Edward Norton: Yeah. I think I would definitely like to act in it but the directing thing I think we'll have to wait and see.
Stone was released October 8th, 2010 and stars Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, Enver Gjokaj, Pepper Binkley, Sandra Love Aldridge, Greg Trzaskoma. The film is directed by John Curran.