In his decade-long career Edward Norton has been nominated for two Academy Awards, and won a Golden Globe along with numerous other awards for his performances. His impressive resume includes such flicks as Primal Fear, Everyone Says I Love You, The People vs Larry Flynt, American History X, Rounders, Fight Club, Keeping the Faith, The Score, Death to Smoochy, Red Dragon, The 25th Hour, The Italian Job, Down in the Valley and The Illusionist.
The film Frida, for which he wrote an uncredited screenplay, was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two. In 2003 he won the Obie Award in for his performance Off-Broadway in “Burn This,” by Lanford Wilson. He produced and directed the film Keeping the Faith, produced Down in the Valley and is currently producing five other films including Dan O’Brien’s Buffalo for the Broken Heart and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn for which he is currently writing the screenplay. Norton also founded and runs Class 5 Films in partnership with his brother Jim Norton, writer Stuart Blumberg and producer Bill Migliore. The Painted Veil is Class 5’s second major film release this year.
Norton is a committed social and environmental activist and after acquiring this project, manage to convince Naomi Watts to sign onboard. for five years, Norton, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and producer Sara Colleton had been developing an adaptation of this W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel, and they were hoping to finally get it produced. Now they have and he sat down recently to talk about the film to the press.
Question: What was it about this material that instilled such passion in you that you stuck with it for so long?
Norton: [I’ve been with it for] seven years. I guess, simply put, I think that, like anybody who loves movies, when you watch David Lean films, or a movie like ‘Out of Africa,’ or something like that, you cannot help, as an actor, but think how fun it must be to have one of those kinds of experiences, and what a challenge it must be to make films with that kind of scope. I don’t think many of those films get made, and I think, a lot of times, when they get made, they don’t get sent to me. So, when I saw one that I thought had that potential in it, it was very hard to stop ruminating on it. And, on a specific level, I thought, as an actor, it was such complicated [story].
I don’t tend to see my life reflected in movies about people who meet when their dogs tangle up. I’m not being specific. I’m just saying I thought that it was the kind of romance that touched me. I felt like it was a story about the long struggle of men and women to actually understand each other in a forgiving way, and I found that very touching because it’s challenging. It’s a challenge to say, ‘Am I capable of that?,’ or ‘Have I done that? Have I been forgiving, myself? Have I had the courage to forgive somebody ever?’ And so, when you have that kind of response to a piece of material, to me, it’s a good place to start because you already see what you can offer through it and what it might give back to people watching it. All of that, to me, is rare. Those things don’t bang across my desk every week, or every year, so all of that made me very persistent about it.
Question: Your character can be so vicious in some of the scenes. Does that help you get out any kind of aggression, or passive aggression, in some of those moments?
Norton: I don’t think there’s any of us who can’t relate to the desire to poison our loved ones. [Laughs] No. I don’t know. I don’t think I use acting as an outlet for things I don’t get to express in life. I don’t know. And yet, there’s some sort of funny satisfaction in that.
Maybe it’s a way of venting off things inside you. I don’t know. I sound high falutin, but I always gravitated myself to Stella Adler, who’s one of the really great thinkers about acting. She was always saying that, fundamentally, she considered it an imaginative process, and I kind of agree with that. Other people, I’m sure, have completely different attitudes toward it. I’m just saying that, for me, personally, I enjoy the imaginative part of it.
Question: What did you like about the character, and was it tough for you to get the English accent down?
Norton: No. I think those things are almost like musical ear. There was a dialect coach on the film. I have never liked dialect coaches, but for this, we had someone I thought was actually incredibly helpful. Any time a character emerges in slices and keeps deepening in revealing levels that were not obvious on initial encounter, that’s very compelling.
Question: How do you think people meet each other, nowadays, since you say you can’t identify with people in films who meet when their dogs tangle with each other?
Norton: I said that jokingly, but actually a really good friend of mine met the love of his life when their dogs got tangled. So, I’m just saying it didn’t happen in my life. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen.
Question: Do you believe in coincidence?
Question: Can you talk about your experience with China prior to this film?
Norton: I only missed the air conditioning one time, the entire time. Mostly, we had air conditioning. I’d spent some time in China because my father lived in China for a long time, but I had not been to the big cities, Beijing and Shanghai, and I had not been where we filmed, in South Central China, in the mountains there. The experience of all the places we worked was new and fresh to me, and really wonderful.
It’s wonderful to work with Chinese colleagues and initially feel like you’re struggling to communicate across the language barrier, and then, in a fairly short time, find that you have much more in common with these people who also do what you do. They’re your brothers in filmmaking, and they know the same things you know. You find the little quirks of the way they work that is different from the way you work, but on the whole, I liked it much more than just being a tourist. I liked it much more than just traveling through a place. To work in a place and know the people is much more rewarding.
Question: Did you pick up the language at all?
Norton: No. I can’t claim any facility with Chinese.
Question: What did you discover about Naomi Watts from working with her? Anything surprising?
Norton: Just one observation among many, but when Naomi showed up in Beijing, she was very tired. She was coming off ‘King Kong’ and, the first week of the filming, we had to do a lot of those scenes in the house in China, which are some of the heaviest scenes in the movie. That was, literally, the first week of filming and it was very, very, very challenging to do that without reference points of what the scenes are before.
She was very tired, and I almost saw her take a deep breath and do that thing that I think really, really good actors do, which is, instead of combating the state that she was in, she just took it and put it right into the work.
She just embraced the way she was feeling in that moment and said, “Well, that’s what this is. I’m not going to try to layer something over it.” The thing that was beautiful about it was that it was perfect for the state Kitty is in. I think any actor who’s worth anything fights the eternal struggle between what goes on [in their head], and the releasing of that and just getting into it.
It’s great when you’re working with someone and you watch them make themselves available to the moment, as it is. It’s beautiful. It’s great. I really can’t say enough good [things] about her. It was almost certainly the most intimate interaction I’ve had with another actor. I haven’t done a film where the two roles were that inextricably intertwined with each other. I just could not have asked for a better tango partner.
Question: Is it difficult to do love scenes?
Norton: Not when you’ve worked with the people for a long time. Not if it’s embedded appropriately deep in the process, so that there’s trust and comfortability. I think by the time we worked on that in this film — and it’s a modest scene with nothing too difficult about it — we wanted them to be together. It’s nice. And, it’s also very technical. A lot of it is akin to dancing and choreography. It needs to be choreographed.
Question: What’s next for you?
Norton: I made a film called ‘Pride and Glory,’ but it won’t be out until next year.