Edward Norton didn't need much time to establish himself as an acting powerhouse on screen. The Boston-born, Columbia, Maryland-raised actor who began his career off-Broadway was turning heads in Hollywood before his first movie even came out thanks to a buzzed-about audition tape for what would become his first role, Primal Fear (1996). The audition, where Norton arrived in character as the stuttering Southerner altar boy Aaron Stampler, took on a life of its own, earning a Nirvana demo-like aura and helping land the budding actor gigs for acclaimed filmmakers (Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You and Miloš Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt) that would come out the same year.
Norton's stunning performance opposite Richard Gere in Primal Fear won the young actor a Golden Globe and netted him an Oscar nomination, an incredibly rare feat for a first-time film star.
That experience also set the standard by which the meticulous Norton, now 50, has approached his career ever since. Like a latter-day Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman — two icons that inspired Norton from his earliest days studying method acting — Norton has long favored gritty, meaningful adult dramas that challenge him as a performer. Shortly after Primal Fear, he starred in Rounders (1998), American History X (1998), Fight Club (1999), The Score (2001) and 25th Hour (2002), along the way establishing a reputation for being a perfectionist (or challenging to work with, depending on whom you ask) for his tendency to rewrite scripts or even take up residency in the edit bay.
Other notable roles that followed include The Incredible Hulk (2008), Norton's foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a role that he chose not to reprise as the Avengers assembled; a trifecta of apperances in the WACU (Wes Anderson Cinematic Universe) with Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Isle of Dogs (2014); and the Best Picture-winning Birdman (2014), in which Norton parodied himself by playing an extremely talented but demanding actor.
While Norton will tell you every film he does is a passion project, his latest work takes it to a new level. He has been attempting to bring Jonathan Lethem's 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn to the big screen since shortly after making his directorial debut with 2000's Keeping the Faith. Norton wrote, directed, produced and stars in the sweeping mystery, which finally hits theaters this week, playing a New York detective with Tourette syndrome investigating a murder that's hit far too close to home. Fellow acting heavyweights Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw co-star.
In our latest episode of Role Recall (watch above), Norton brought the passion while revisiting some of most enduring films. Some highlights:
On how Leonardo DiCaprio and Connie Britton helped him land Primal Fear: "I heard about it from Connie Britton. She was auditioning for the part that Maura Tierney played in Primal Fear. She went to a pay phone and called me and said, 'They're seeing people for this role and I have the spookiest feeling it's made for you.'
"The role was not very fully formed. It wasn't what it became in the film. It was not so clearly defined as a complete con. Leonardo DiCaprio, who's a really good pal of mine, he had passed on it. Weirdly that did a weird thing to me, because of course it's like, a once-in-a-lifetime career shot. But I thought Leo was terrific, I really thought he was one of the better young actors around. I thought he was right. I was like, 'This is a mess.' It was a mess. [Director Greg Hoblit] thought it was a mess, Richard [Gere] kind of thought it was a mess. But then when I came into it, everybody really realized, 'We really need to fix this.'"
On finding the humanity in his reformed neo-Nazi in American History X: "We viewed it as a modern-day Shakespearian tragedy. We were approaching it from the point of view of like the skin of it is modern, but it's timeless. It's a classical approach to a tragedy, like Othello or Macbeth or anything like that. This is a guy with enormous potential, he's not a marginal figure, he's like a general. Let's let you see all the things, all the qualities he has that could've been applied in positive ways and show that rage, anger destroys him.
"It's always better to be able to connect to the fact that a character in his own mind feels right. Like if you're Ralph Fiennes and you're playing Voldemort in Harry Potter, that's a villain. He's a supernatural version of evil. But if you're playing a human character, they have a point of view, and by making him intelligent, it was like an avenue for me to come at it in a way that's unexpected."
On recognizing the humor in Fight Club: "My recollection of Fight Club is at the very beginning, it was like, 'Read this book. Do you think it's funny?' 'I think it's funny, do you think it's funny?' 'I think it's funny.' 'Do we all get it? Are we all getting the same joke?' We're all getting the same joke. OK, this is going to be good. There was a lot of alignment around what we were doing. At core, we knew what we were taking aim at. We knew that [director David Fincher] was doing something. Even if you looked at the storyboards, you were like, 'Oh my God, he's going for broke on this.' … The book was all the things the film is at core. It was sardonic and funny and weird and just incredibly unique. The book Fight Club had this sense of the zeitgeist. It had this sense of a generational complaint. But Fincher made it a canvas, kept the core of it, then turned it into this much more cinematic, phantasmagorical surrealist kind of comedy."
On whom he considers the gold standard among Bruce Banners: It's funny [Mark Ruffalo, who replaced Norton in The Avengers] is one of my old friends from New York theater and coming up together. The Hulk is like Hamlet, lots of people have done it. And for us, it's Bill Bixby [who played Bruce Banner in the 1978 television series], that's just it it. Bill Bixby will always be the best Banner. Some actors have more or less plasticity. Some roles have more or less plasticity. Hamlet can be interpreted a lot of different ways, by a lot of different actors. … Hulk is Hulk. But Banner has got some play in him. In my opinion only really good people have done it. Bill Bixby, Eric Bana [who preceded Norton in 2003's Ang Lee-directed Hulk] is a great actor. I have my spin. Mark is one of the best. I love that it's almost become a tradition.
Motherless Brooklyn is now in theaters. Watch Norton talk about the film on BUILD Series:
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