Edward Norton is the actor’s actor, an original and unique voice in American cinema. Often playing wildly narcissistic characters, the anarchic voice of Mr. Norton has been turned down a notch as a sweetly naïve host of children’s TV in the otherwise comically barbaric Death to Smoochy. 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 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 prosecuting 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. 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, directed and co-starred in the charming Keeping the Faith and starred opposite Robert de Niro and Marlon Brando in last year’s The Score. Norton recently wrapped the eagerly anticipated Red Dragon.
In Death to Smoochy, certainly the year’s most audacious comedy, Danny De Vito steps behind the camera for this darkly funny satire that combines elements of Barney and Friends with the real-life Pee-Wee Herman scandal while recalling the director’s previously twisted black comedies Throw Momma From the Train (1987) and The War of the Roses (1989). Robin Williams stars as Randolph Smiley, a popular children’s show host known professionally as “Rainbow Randolph.”
Dismissed from his beloved job when he’s caught taking bribes, Randolph becomes increasingly mentally unhinged and the target of his delusional revenge fantasies is Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), otherwise known as “Smoochy,” the colorful rhino character that has replaced him and soared to national popularity. Randolph soon learns that his ex-girlfriend and network executive Nora Wells (Catherine Keener) is sleeping with Sheldon, so he sets out to kill Smoochy, egged on by an unexpected ally: corporate president M. Frank Stokes (Jon Stewart), who should be profiting from Smoochy’s rise to fame, except for the fact that he and his cronies are unable to control the idealistic Sheldon’s on-air agenda.
Norton admits that this was a film he did for fun, as he discusses the project and its irreverent themes, with Paul Fischer in a Los Angeles hotel.
Question: Was it fun not to be the wild and crazy guy this time?
Answer: Yeah, actually I thought Danny wanted me to play Rainbow Randolph. When I read the script I figured that, you know, Adam Sandler will be Smoochy or one of those guys.. Danny and I were in Montreal making competing Heist movies and says: I’ve got this thing I want you to read and I want you to think about it. I read it like at 2 in the morning and I was lying on my back and had these rivulets of tears running down my temples when I was done. This was such a funny script and, so I was thinking to myself: 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 and he said, no, no you’ve got to play Smooch!
Question: Was that surprising?
Answer: I was a little surprised that he was able to convince the studio to let me do that role. I thought he’d you know get me on the other one. But then Danny, of course, told me he had Robin for Randolph and I was so excited.
Question: Were you surprised that the studio would allow a film like this to be made? I mean this doesn’t seem like a mainstream studio movie.
Answer: You know I’ve had this happen a couple of times. But 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 like kind of crunch the numbers and they can’t not make that movie. But, before, that said, I’m really pleased they did make it. And to their credit, you know, they gave us real resources to make it.
Question: Was your character based on any particular TYPE of character?
Answer: He was, I had a lot of people in mind. I mean, he’s Adam Resnick’s script was just hilarious and an amazing percentage of it is still in the film. And what may seem, this blistering pace of a movie and 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 about at one point about how Armani has made him all kind of clothes and everything. And we got Armani to make a whole bunch of hemp suits and everything.
Question: How did you feel the first time you put on that Smoochy suit?
Answer: 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 that Peter Beard photos and some stuff I shot in Africa you know with Rhinos and hair in their ears and you know. You have to like play with it a long time to make sure it’s like you come up with something you look at and that you really feel warmly toward.
Question: What do you look for in a comedy? I mean this is 180 degrees from Keeping the Faith, which was an ecumenical romantic comedy. I mean they’re very interesting choices.
Answer: Yeah, I call this one a fuck-you-if-you-can’t-take-a-joke comedy. [laughter]
Question: In that where your sense of humor lay?
Answer: Sure. You know after Fight Club this seemed like a light comedy to me. I mean, 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 and when I find people who like mine, like Danny and Catherine and Robin that you know. 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. And 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 take where Robin doesn’t say motherfucker like. 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, yet not making it offensive or dirty or anything. I think you’d have to be wired way too tight not to be able to laugh at this movie. And I love that he’s able to do that. He’s able to like give you sort of like a dark chuckle, you know, on an adult level and satirize things in a sophisticated way. So 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.
Question: Does he get there immediately or was it a building process in terms of the choices that Danny made.
Answer: Well, 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. I mean he was so restrained and disciplined about when he chose to sort of turn his tap on. He was, like 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. And then on top of that I thought he was kind of a demonstration about 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 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 just like any actor where he works it and works it and over a number of takes, and 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.
Question: Was it easy for you to follow him?
Answer: Yeah, yeah, it was fun. It’s great. You know Sheldon has such a dopey rhythm of his own and you know, it’s great to sort of dance and he we did have these really funny pauses together. I mean Danny in sort of the George Cukor tradition. He would just say faster, faster, that was his note and so it was rip it out about 20 times until you’ve got Robin hitting every note and it is a stylized comedy in that way.
Question: Did you have a children’s show you grow up with?
Answer: I mean I put that line in about it’s a throw away. Just as they’re entering Nathan’s Hot Dog in the beginning about Sheldon saying I was born November 11, 1969 which was the first date Sesame Street aired in because that’s I grew up on the golden age of Children’s television. I think Robin and I were talking about it. There were still all the residual genius of you know Chuck Jones and the Warner Brothers stuff. There is a whole Joan Dance Community Television Workshop, you know, public television educational programming things happening. And that stuff is so creative. Frank Oz directed me in this Heist movie and at one point I finally decided this has nothing to do with what we’re doing. I know we’re doing a totally different thing, but you had such a huge impact on my youth, you know? Like those guys were such brilliant performers and the weave and the intention behind the whole thing was so amazing and I think it’s it’s just been a real seismic shift in most, in Children’s programming. Not that there are any show 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 to really get anything substantive than I think I did.
Question: Can you talk about working with Brando in The Score and what you learned from him?
Answer: Yeah. I didn’t have a whole, whole lot with Marlon in that movie. I mean we had two scenes really with the three of us. They were heist movies so they were kind of mechanical in a way. But he’s but he remains incredibly you know, he’s a very nuanced. He was very understated. I thought I actually thought there were some stuff he did that were more understated than what ended up in the movie, for my taste, but Marlon’s sharp as a tack.
Question: Is it more of a challenge for you to play these kinds of characters as against the harder edged?
Answer: No, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of stuff. I mean, you know I think. No, you just have to hook in. Because it’s all the same. It’s all that hooking into whatever that person’s value system is. You know, 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. To me it’s more about hoping that all the you know, 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. But the director has to somehow communicate what band and spectrum this is functioning in so that everybody’s operating in the same cylinders in a way. And you know with a movie like Death of Smoochy, you know, I would say if there was a challenge, other than kind of coming up with a way of bringing the character to life and flushing them out and stuff like that. It’s about early on, all really, really checking in with each other. Checking in with a lot and going, you know, 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 and I would go okay, you know. It’s about figuring out how far, like in this movie, obviously it’s not on the ground. It’s about how far off the ground is it.
Question: Is there any film you choose to do just for fun?
Answer: Yeah, I did this for fun. I think it takes aim at all kinds of interests, in little messages. You know, I love Smoochy’s sort of motto that 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. But, you know, I did this movie because I was laughing at it and 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. Because I think it’s it’s the perfect anecdote for the times we’ve all been, you know, weathering.
Question: What was the most exciting sequence you had making the film? Which sequence did you have the most joy in filming?
Answer: I’d have to say that one of the most fun experiences, was the ice show at the end. I’ve skated all my life and we were there in Maple Leaf Garden and Danny’s staining the ice purple in Maple Leaf Garden and he’s got a, you know a mezzo soprano from the Metropolitan Opera with a rhino horn on her head and Wagner playing and he has these lights going and nazi banners.
Question: How’s Red Dragon coming along?
Answer: It’s going fine. Amazing actors. It’s really based more on the book. Manhunter you go back, if you go back and read the book it departs in a lot of ways from the book. This is a little bit more faithful to the book.