Edward Norton for “Red Dragon”

Edward Norton would rather be relaxing on his day off from rehearsing the play than sitting in a Manhattan hotel room helping to promote his latest film, Red Dragon, the latest tale in the eerie Hannibal Lecter saga. “Obviously you do what you have to do, and in my case I just decided to be more selective.”

Publicity shy and ferociously private, Norton, dressed in a turquoise shirt, black trousers and sporting a neatly trimmed goatee beard, is genuinely cordial and warm. Sitting at arm’s reach on the hotel room sofa, Norton agrees that he is not easily drawn to what one can define as mainstream material, the obvious, perhaps. “I suppose that’s right. I mean I like ‘genre’ at times, but it’s more about whether or not it’s well done,” Norton says. “For instance, Rounders is a very genre film but it was very unique in the sense that I hadn’t seen a poker movie in a long time and more importantly, it was very well written and the vernacular was very authentic.”

No film could have ‘genre’ all over it than Red Dragon, a prequel to the previous two Hannibal Lecter films. This one casts Norton as the FBI cop responsible for Lecter’s initial arrest and now needs his help to catch a very chilling new serial killer. Starring an ensemble of actors, from Britain’s Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson, to Phillip Seymour Hoffman and of course Norton, Red Dragon may be genre specific, but for some reason, actors, not stars were attracted to the material. Norton says that this was a unique process.

“I give a lot of credit for the unlikely strength of the cast to Brett [Ratner, director] because he’s just relentless in his enthusiasm and the intensity in which he chases and persuades people to get onboard and I don’t say that with any sarcasm. I think that is one of his strongest qualities in that he IS relentless with his enthusiasm which is very infectious. I don’t think that most of the people involved, including Tony [Hopkins], would tell you that they were interested initially in the idea of doing it.” In addition to Ratner’s boyish enthusiasm, Norton adds, “a lot of the credit should go to Ted Tally’s script because it was very good and very solid, grounded more in the territory of his first one. It had complicated relationships and it was played in a grounded, psychological drama way as opposed to the slasher approach.”

Yet amidst the more showy work of the film’s villains, Norton’s task was to underplay a character, whose job was to partly drive the narrative, yet seem almost invisible. For most actors, a thankless task, no scenery to chew on, and it was something that the actor thought about and questioned before committing to the film. “I’ve played the loopier character in other films but Brett was very articulate the first time we sat down. I but I’m just not sure that, that I want to put the time into doing this because there’s other things I’m working on. I said I think that there’s many people that you can get who will do a good job with this and he said let me make a case for why I want you specifically to do this. He said that he wanted to keep this very close to the ground and he needed somebody who’s not going to wear internal things to externally. He wanted a great deal of understatement and I was very intrigued. Most people don’t say that and he was right. I realized that was a different sort of a challenge than I was used to because across the process of making a film, it’s so broken up, that it does take a lot of restraint across the four or five months that you’re doing one of these things to trust that it’s enough.”

The offer to do Red Dragon came at a time when Hollywood was on the verge of going on strike, and Norton admits, that “for the first time in a long time I didn’t have anything that I was putting together or had been really tracking. I didn’t have any of my own intensely pursued creative projects which were at the sort of realization stage.” For the first time in a long time, Norton found himself potentially out of work. “I just kind of thought: I don’t really make these big movies that often but here’s one that I can actually sort of stomach and that has Tony who I’ve known for a while and just admire enormously, why not?”

Born and raised in Baltimore, Norton has no clear idea of why he wanted to act, saying that it changes all the time. “I started doing it when I was really little, like five years old. My mother was an English teacher, who taught Shakespeare and took us to see plays when we very young and I remember being just very captivated by it. So early on I think it was almost purely the fun of doing it, being kind of a natural ham in a way.” Norton laughingly remembers making “funny voices and things when I was a little kid.” Then in high school he gave up acting for athletics because he had attended an athletics-focused high school. “Then was I was about 17 or 18 and an English teacher took a few of us to see Ian McKellen doing that one man show he did called Playing Shakespeare, and it had an enormous impact on me, because it was the first time that I had an adult response to acting. I remember thinking at the time that it was the first time I perceived it as something you could really do on an adult level that had something substantive in it.”

At college, Norton appeared in “a ton of plays” but resisted studying, choosing to study Asian languages. Norton almost went to work in Vietnam, but in the last minute changed his mind. “I didn’t want to follow through on it because it started to creep into my brain that if I do that, then I’m not going to do this and I’ll be letting it go which I couldn’t do.” Norton began taking it more seriously.

The actor attained almost instant stardom with his film debut in 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. Norton went on to further prove his worth in such films as American History X, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Fight Club. The actor also made an unusual directorial debut with the romantic comedy Keeping the Faith, and last starred opposite Robin Williams in the critically misunderstood Death to Smoochy. Norton also will be seen shortly as Nelson Rockefeller in the much anticipated Frida, starring Norton’s girlfriend Salma Hayek. “It’s very, very good and very original,” he says. Norton is also an uncredited screenwriter on the film, he admits. “I got shafted by the Writer’s Guild at the last minute, but I wrote the draft that got made.” Clearly angry at the Guild, he describes the organisation as being “very arcane and in my opinion, a very corrupt system which I think is heavily biased against people who are not Guild members like me.”

Norton is clearly atypical in this industry of stars. Refreshingly honest, he avoids the trappings of Hollywood stardom, preferring to live in New York, though it still remains a challenge for him to avoid the ‘business’ of acting in this country. “You can’t avoid thinking about it. I always remember Stella Adler’s great line that an actor’s talent lies in their choices, not just within the material but OF the material. I don’t like it when I see people who seem to me like they’re sort of divesting themselves of their responsibility for their own career. You have to choose and your choices are your own. I think you’ve got to take a hand in it certainly, but it’s less the business of it all than it is the, the disproportionate amount of attention that gets paid to it,” says Norton.

As for managing to avoid the fame aspect of it all, Norton avoids that by continuing to call New York home, “which is wonderful and it is different, because the world is at work in all its different ways in New York and so I think there’s an inherent humility built into New York that’s grounding for me. Also I think people are more grounded in their response to public figures here.” Norton will continue his run of Broadway’s revival of Burn This until mid-November, and hopes to direct another film soon, “a far more intense drama than Keeping the Faith,” he says smilingly. Edward Norton is clearly actor first and star second and he is happy to keep it that way.