Movie stars make a living peddling distinct, definable personalities. Edward Norton, a movie star who might have enjoyed the comparative anonymity of a character actor if not for the gossip-media market value of a few of his habits (an aggressive perfectionism that has earned him a "reputation" for "being difficult," a penchant for dating tabloid-famous women), has built a career on the exploration of dual personalities, and the gray area in between them.
Norton famously landed his breakthrough role in Primal Fear by being the only actor auditioned who could convincingly play two people: shy, naive altar boy Aaron, and Aaron's violent alter ego, Roy. That bifurcated part set a template for Norton's career. He plays either clean-shaven, boyish idealists (as in his directorial debut, Keeping the Faith), or hard cases in wifebeaters glowering behind facial hair (American History X) — and even when primarily filling one role, he brings in at least an echo of the other extreme. He's made a number of films that bring this duality into the primary narrative: Primal Fear, the split-personalitied narrator of Fight Club, the Coen Brothers–meets–Patty Duke good-brother/bad-brother shtick of the recently released Leaves of Grass. Even The Incredible Hulk — widely considered a failure in the wake of Marvel's decision to replace Norton with Mark Ruffalo in the upcoming Avengers movie — works insofar as the actor infuses Bruce Banner with the same barely contained darkness that makes him so exciting to watch even in his most passive modes.
This binary dynamic is taken to new ends in John Curran's Stone, in which Norton stars alongside Robert De Niro. Norton's title character, a thirtysomething former drug addict heading into the back nine of a sentence for arson, is a charismatic schemer transformed into a different person after an unexpected spiritual conversion. The film twins Norton's criminal with De Niro's Jack, a corrections officer on the verge of retirement who has been hiding deep discontent and hostility under the cover of pious (if boozy) stasis. In a number of long one-on-one scenes, Norton and De Niro do a conversational dance around issues of spirituality and morality in which, increasingly, the criminal seems to function as the corrections officer's conscience.
"They almost start to swap states," Norton says, sitting in a dressing room at Los Angeles' KCET, where he's just taped The Tavis Smiley Show. "It's about one guy who seems extremely unstable becoming more and more stable, and one guy who seems stable becoming more and more unstable. It's a study of people who are at different points on the curve of moving toward some kind of enlightenment, and it's mysterious to them."
Desperate to game the corrections system, Stone conspires with his wife (Milla Jovovich, excellent as an inscrutable nympho-fatale) to put Jack in a compromising position. It seems like a basic film-noir triangle at first, but the filmmakers, confident enough in their audience's intelligence to thread the story with ellipses, skirt the expected beats at almost every turn. Most bravely, Stone totally excludes the viewer from psychological exposition: No one in this movie is ever sure of what anyone else is really thinking or feeling, and we're left to guess along with them.
"If you think it's oblique now ... I didn't really understand for about a year," Norton admits. "To me, it was impenetrably oblique. I couldn't get a bead on Stone. [Then] the economy tanked. I know it sounds like a weird thing, but it started resonating for me when [Curran] was saying, 'I want to make an economic-downturn film.' You know, that whole notion of lives built on structures of assumed validity — like marriages and church and the constructs that we use to define ourselves — suddenly evaporating and revealing a hollowness at the center that causes collapse. John was going after the moment in a way that was still murky, still elusive."
The closest Stone gets to directly tying itself to the times comes through its sound track, which layers excerpts from conservative talk radio (bombastic hosts bitching about Obamanomics, listeners calling in to discuss "this angst that a lot of people are feeling in this country") onto the score. The movie's attempt at subtle contemporary allegory put it squarely in Norton's wheelhouse. "I'm always kind of turned on if I feel like you're taking aim at something that's rooted in the weirdness or the difficulty of the moment," he says. "I hate to say it, but it's embedded in [Fight Club], the phrase 'We all felt it, Tyler just gave it a name' — I mean, that's what art is at its best, it's like something that you've been feeling but haven't named yet, like it brings it to ground and gives it a name and everybody goes, 'Ah.' "
Perhaps this striving to use film as a sort of cultural reportage has something to do with why Norton has often been held up as some kind of exemplar of his peer group. Some of this is put on him by others — try to find a magazine profile that doesn't brand him as "the best actor of his generation," at least up to his broad comic turn in the widely maligned Death to Smoochy — but a lot of it he steps into himself. In interviews over the years, Norton's frequently invoked the notion of generational responsibility, whether talking about the fight to save the planet or the fight against Oscar gifting. When Fight Club was released to polarizing response, he complained on the record about critics like The New Yorker's David Denby, who insisted that the David Fincher film glorified fascism, telling W, "It amazes me how baby boomers reject the art of my generation."
"I do sometimes think they should take away a critic's pass at about age 45," Norton, 41, says today. "I kind of think they've seen too many movies, and when they're writing about movies I see them interacting with their own erudition."
Norton is, as you'd expect, an intense presence in a room, but for most of our conversation he's been subdued, speaking calmly between sips of tea. He becomes much more animated when the topic turns to film criticism, and the state of "entertainment journalism" — a phrase he annunciates slowly, mockingly. He suspects that the entertainment media's process of instant and knee-jerk evaluation gets in the way of the audience's organic interaction with art.
"I don't think Guernica is, like, intended to be an easy picture to look at," he says. "A lot of what you come to understand about that painting is in fact the inheritance of a couple of decades of people thinking about it. I've been through this experience a few times, where you begin to realize a deep conversation takes time to evolve between a thing and people. When you experience that, it's very freeing because you realize, what gets said 10 minutes after [a movie] comes out is not that relevant."
So why does Norton do press at all? For certain films he has put forth a minimum of effort — at the peak of Hulk's promotional tour, he took off for a charity trip to Africa. But he says he's ready and willing to promote the movies that need his star power to reach an audience. "I don't want the very few people that are brave enough to put up the money to make a film like Stone — which is very, very few people — to get stung by the experience when they reach out to you and say, 'Will you help us support the film in a way that attracts more people to go out and see it?' I think you gotta kind of ante up on some level."
Norton went all in for Leaves of Grass, which finally opened in limited release recently after distributor First Look yanked its release just days before its initial scheduled opening in April. At the time, Norton says, First Look, frustrated at not getting any higher offers for the film they financed, had booked a token two theaters — until Norton and director Tim Blake Nelson intervened. "Tim and I were pretty much begging them, like, 'Would you give us some time to try to find a different situation?' They did, very nicely, and we took it to a couple more festivals and it played really well at the festivals, so that's how we persuaded them to go a little bit wider with it now.
"It's tough, it's just a tough moment to be selling," Norton says. Over the past decade and a half, he's watched the film industry evolve in a number of meaningful ways, particularly the collapse of financing and distribution models for midrange movies. But when it comes to the end of the studio indie-arm era, he sees an upside.
"It's never bad for people to have to fight to get their films made. I think inevitably something will come that's authentically a revolution.Some really well-known filmmaker is going to make a film and they're going to put it out like Radiohead did with their record and they're going to say, 'Hey, what do you think it's worth?' [You'll] download it in HD and watch it on your big screen at home and there's not going to be any studio in the mix — and that's when I think [the studios are] going to start trembling, because this whole notion that they've got some special sauce in the distribution, that they're essential to reach people, it's going to start to evaporate. At that point, if you're a filmmaker, then you can't really say, 'The studio's keeping me down.' You've got no one to blame but yourself."