Ed Norton

"I don't have to walk away friends with everybody"

Edward Norton is not an idiot. This much we know. Read any article about The Greatest Actor Of His Generation™ and much is made of his intellect. He read History at Yale. He can speak Japanese. His memory makes an elephant's seem flaky. He's, like, Really Smart. Okay. So here are a few things you may not know… Edward Norton is funny. He thinks Born To Run is a terrific album. He loves The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He knows The Office scripts scarily well and does a David Brent impression to rival his Nigel Tufnel ("Eleven. Exactly. One louder"). He keeps a cassette recorder by his landline to record memorable phone messages, as a kind of aural diary. "I have tapes back to the early '90s: tapes of people I know that have died, funny messages, hysterical messages, or even intense things. I've gone back and listened to those tapes and, man, the flood that it triggers in your memory and emotion…"

Total Film has seen a lot of Norton during the last 12 months, since chatting to him for the 100th issue article declaring Fight Club the greatest film of our lifetime. We've driven together from the Polish border to Prague, on the final day of shooting romantic mystery The Illusionist (out later this year) and caught up in the chaos of the Cannes Film Festival to discuss mesmerising quasi-Western Down In The Valley. This weekend, we're in New York - a few blocks from the 36-year-old actor's apartment, scoffing omelettes and discussing everything from cheap cynicism to the War on Terror. As often as profiles claim Norton is bright, they also invariably use the word "intense". Or maybe "difficult". Or some other euphemism for "pain in the arse". But passion should not be confused with aggression. Just because Norton knows his own mind doesn't mean he's not interested in yours. He just cares. This is evidenced even in our photo shoot, as Total Film's suggestions are discussed and taken on, huddled conversations are had with photographer Glen Wilson - an old college friend - and suddenly you have a sense of Edward Norton: storyteller. The Narrator in Fight Club, the charismatic ideologue of American History X, is directing this shoot…

It's his preference for collaboration above cashing cheques that leads to films like Down In The Valley, one of the year's best; full of "left turns" and a performance that draws further comparisons with De Niro in his prime. On this clear but bitter day, Norton isn't so much God's lonely man as his bloody freezing one ("Exactly") and if he is - to use a reductive label he'll probably despise - his generation's De Niro, he's De Niro with a tongue… He can talk. And talk. And talk. On the page, edited down, he may seem an Angry Young Man; earnest and, yes, "intense". In person, his chatter is more ambivalent, thoughtful, punctured with smiles and a sense of humour. Back in the restaurant, after hours of talking politics, generational despair, career crises and the odd movie, he examines the bill. "They gave us all our tea and coffee for free!" He grins. "That's hope for the world right there…"

So was it fun to play a cowboy?
Yeah, it was fun. I don't do them if I don't think they're going to be fun. And by fun I mean challenging. I've gotten to the point where if I feel I only dimly understand the whole thing I'm going after, or if it scares me a little bit, then generally that's a good thing to work on.

There's quite a difference between this and your last movie, Kingdom Of Heaven, though...
Oh that's Lawrence Of Arabia, cast of thousands. It's like, hang out in the Spanish hotel with all the British actors and wait for your working day… Oh my God, it was so fun! I always wanted to do a movie like that. You know, I found out the costume budget on Kingdom Of Heaven was bigger than the entire budget on Down In The Valley. That really deflated me at one point. We were begging our financiers for, like, $240,000 for three extra days' shooting. They must have spent $240,000 on Evian in Morocco, you know what I mean? I was like, maybe if the Moroccan Army won't drink for a day…

Certain actors, like Robert De Niro or Sean Penn, have a very contemporary screen image, which is how we've always thought of you. But in Down... you've got this whole Montgomery Clift thing going on from Red River...
I love that film. And there are some echoes of Lonely Are The Brave. There's something in the impulse that's the same - creating a Western that's contemporary to its time, which is rare. Hud is a good one. You gotta see Hud. It's a terrific film. When we were doing Down In The Valley I went back over it and I couldn't believe how dark it was. It's so dark. Newman is just so uncompromising in it. He's such a shit. And he does not back off it. He doesn't sort of grin his way around it, you know? Hud is like the anti-cowboy. His values suck. He's a lazy, spoilt Texas rancher. He's a proto George Bush! It's a subversive vision of the modern West.

Do you think Down... is particularly relevant given Bush styles himself as a sheriff?
Yeah, I do, I do! David [Jacobson, writer/director] and I were laughing about it, because we started working on this a couple of years ago and somewhere along the line Bush was really getting into the whole cowboy thing. We thought, "Isn't that funny? This is beyond our self-perception; this is how the whole world perceives us…" But I think Down In The Valley is not so much political as it is spiritual. It's more of an examination of the spiritual cost of modern choices: spiritual alienation, spiritual rootlessness…

So, in a way, it's similar to Fight Club?
Yeah, definitely. It's about the dark undercurrent that starts rolling around in people's psyches when the modern world leaves them feeling lost and empty. When we started out I told David, "You're doing for the West what Scorsese did for the post-Vietnam urban world in Taxi Driver. You're showing how these spiritually bent characters have been cut adrift in an environment that used to live in the American imagination as this place of freedom and individuality. We're still identifying ourselves through the cowboy myth. But fuck John Ford's West and fuck Clint Eastwood's West, what's our West?" If a guy tried to ride across the Valley today, he'd run into a highway every 500 metres. He would feel trapped by totally formless, community-less housing developments that are drowning the lands in this concrete nothingness… The film is really about the children [Evan Rachel Wood and Rory Culkin] and their loneliness. It doesn't matter if you haven't seen the San Fernando Valley, to me someone in Newcastle should get this film, because those kids exist in every blighted suburban place in the world…

You wanted to make a film with some universal truth...
In terms of people that have framed my thinking, there's Joseph Campbell, who wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces and The Power Of Myth. The things Campbell has to say about how stories function, it's like the Bible to an actor or director. Lucas talks about it a lot; he developed Star Wars specifically along the archetypal forms Campbell talks about. He talks about this phenomenon of transparency - if a person can see through a story and see how it's actually about them, then you're entering the realm of the mythic, you're entering into the deep levels of consciousness and of meditative contemplation about the meaning of life and existence. But you have to have that transparency. Sometimes I think I'm good at helping the people I'm working with connect to that second level.

And that's something you specifically search for?
You know, sometimes I say to people, "Fuck all this bullshit romanticisation of the intuitive artist..." If you look at Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro - anyone you want to romanticise as an intuitive genius - I guarantee that before you get to the talent, what you have is very conscientious craft. Always. Part of craft is understanding the way stories function. You've got to be literate. People say to me, "Oh, you're very intellectual - you're very cerebral about your approach to acting." And I say, "All good actors are." I may be verbose about it or I may articulate it in a certain way - someone like Robert De Niro doesn't, because he doesn't really talk about it - but I guarantee you, he does it too. I read an interview with David Bowie while I was in China working [on The Painted Veil, an adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel which Norton is starring in and producing]. He was so relentlessly unpretentious. Even when the reporter was wanting him to acknowledge the uniqueness of his work, he was saying, "people have this fantasy about protean genius", acknowledging his influences and being honest about the fact that, even today, he looks outwards for inspiration. That doesn't deflate my image of a guy like that, it actually elevates it. It makes you appreciate what they're doing even more.

Bono is quite upfront about his influences. He's someone who seems to be walking a hard path at the moment, between being a rock star and a campaigner...
I've been pretty impressed with him. It's very enlightened to choose to seek as much positive connection as he does, even with people who are the instruments of these terrible, terrible policies. It's a very disciplined and enlightened expression of all the best things most of the spiritual traditions, from Christ to Buddhism, talk about. In essence it's "turn the other cheek", "hate the sin and love the sinner", which is a lot more forgiving - more Christian, more Buddhist - than a lot of these things more radical people talk about. It's saying, "You're still my brother, I still want you in on this with me, even if I disagree with you. I'm going to find some common ground." It's humbling to realise the degree to which we all indulge in anger, in response to these things. It's humbling to realise that the people who have affected real change, it's not like they didn't have righteous indignation, but they embraced their adversaries. You realise what courage that takes, because it's easier to be angry.

Like anger can become an excuse, a kind of justified impotence?
Yeah. To relate it to a film for a minute, have you seen Syriana? The people who were negative about that film always seemed to complain about the same thing: "The film is too hard to understand." Comprehension is not the point! The point is to leave you feeling terrified and overwhelmed at the totality of how fucked we are at some levels. That's when I get aggravated by critics… For people our age - not just for artists, but critics, everybody - your mandate is to say, "What's the most I can do with my platform?" You guys at your magazine, people in our generation, filmmakers like Stephen Gaghan or us making Fight Club or me and David with Down In The Valley, with anybody, you have an opportunity through your work. You can take on the generational battle. You know, take other critics to task, literally going, "What are you thinking?"

We need to engage and ask questions... But at the same time we're also rather keen on Star Wars...
It is Total Film, so yeah it's, like, Attack Of The Clones alongside Syriana. You know, I'm the last person to knock the idea of entertainment. I don't think entertainment is an opiate. I don't think entertainment encourages apathy. I think entertainment is one of the joys of life. I think The 40-Year-Old Virgin is an absolutely fucking hilarious movie. I mean, I laughed so hard, I woke people up on the plane I was on. I went home to watch it again - it's fucking hysterical.

But believe me [with acting], I go through cycles of thinking, "This is just fucking ridiculous. Why am I spending my time doing this? I should be trying to engage in a much, much more direct way with the world." I'll definitely go through moments when I think, "Movies are such fucking bullshit - they're so tangential, such a glancing way of getting at stuff, so self-indulgent…" Partly I think I think that because the peripheral reality of celebrity culture comes in on me.

The gossip rags, the award shows...
Oh my God! The award shows just fucking rude me out. I get really, really down on the whole thing. I mean, I'm glad Capote, Syriana and Good Night, And Good Luck are being celebrated, but on the whole the thing that goes on between November and March is like an orgy. It's out of control. It doesn't speak well about the excesses that surround the business. It's disgusting. It's that totally disproportionate elevation of the artist and it's gross. I don't like the self-congratulatory, self-important behaviour I see. I start to go, "I should do something else." But when you strip that away and look at the potential of something like Syriana or Do The Right Thing, you go "All right, fuck all that. Fuck the magazines, fuck the award shows, fuck the selling of lifestyle." Somewhere, these pieces have a very direct conversation with people, they have this capacity to make you think about what's dysfunctional about reality. That's a good thing. It's something that reinvigorates my sense of it being worth doing.

There's a split in your films, between those that get strong reactions and then what Fincher calls "Saturday night movies": Primal Fear, The Score, Red Dragon - which is not terrible, but...
For me, there's not even a middle ground. The People Vs Larry Flynt, American History X, Fight Club, 25th Hour and Down In The Valley, even Frida, to a degree (I was involved in that as a writer) - none of those movies have been financially successful. None of them. But on my own internal meter, I've been very artistically satisfied by those films and they are the ones that, almost incontestably, have hit with audiences in a much more significant and lasting way. Whereas Primal Fear, The Score, Red Dragon - almost all were big hits and I think they are what I would call… graciously they're Saturday night movies. Those are good genre films, but they're like ether, you know? I mean, Red Dragon's got a terrific cast, it's reasonably well-made, but it just… disappears. Movies like that come and go and it's as if they weren't there. They just don't lodge. I feel pretty confident that Fight Club, American History X and 25th Hour will stick around a lot longer than Primal Fear, Red Dragon or The Score. I would love to see Down In The Valley do well, because it helps affirm that making those kinds of movies doesn't have to hurt the people who put up the money for them. And it helps us make the next one.

Have you learned over the years about who you want to work with? There was that conflict between you and Tony Kaye [director of American History X]...
Sure, yeah. It's like anything; getting older and looking at relationships of any kind, you refine your radar for people you're going to fall into a bad pattern with and people who you kind of have that simpatico with. Sometimes you still end up wrestling with people in a creative sense, but I don't believe creative struggle is a bad thing. I think it's essential. Filmmaking is a highly, highly collaborative process, there's no way around that, and when you're pushing each other you generally end up pushing it higher. I've seen Russell Crowe say certain things, about how it's an actor's responsibility to defend his own work and his own sense of his role in the piece against even the incursions of a director. And sometimes you do have to stand up for what you know about your character…

But it can get you a reputation...
There's a fine line between contentiousness for its own sake and a very valid defence of your work. When people say Russell's a prick or he's difficult or whatever, it's like, "Fuck off! If you can do it, do it yourself." You know, it drops my jaw when people come over and say, "I don't know, do you think it has enough intensity?" I'm always like, "I can't act the word 'intensity'. Give me a verb, you know what I mean? Tell me to criticise her harder or whatever…" I saw someone actually go over to Robert De Niro and say, "I think maybe a little more intense…" You just feel like going, "Are you even listening to what you're saying?" You know, if being 'difficult' in the service of the film means that you perpetually - as I think Russell Crowe definitely does - lay down good performance after good performance, then if the occasional producer or director says, "He's a pain in the ass", or, "He's tough", then, well, c'est la vie. I don't have to walk away friends with everybody. But all the best directors I've worked with have been people who seek out debate, because if there's a diamond somewhere, that's what polishes it. It's like Fincher said in Total Film's Fight Club piece, actors are not puppets. I think the truest sign of a great director is when they put their script and storyboards away and watch what actually happens in front of them. They look for those moments where an actor helps discover more in it than was on the page and they seize those moments, you know? Even a very controlling director like Fincher on a movie like Fight Club, a movie that's very studied and very precise, he's not the kind of guy who goes and closes down something inspired happening…

Fincher talks about directing as "collecting moments"...
I thought you caught a very true thing about Fincher. Some people are very quick to pounce on me being a pain in the ass or challenging directors, or to pounce on Fincher as someone who's really autocratic and combative with studios. You know, it's like, yeah, but… Fincher and I don't get in a room together and assess those aspects of ourselves as a negative. I challenge Fincher, he gets aggravated or whatever, but that's part of what he knows gets the result. And the truth of Fincher - I think you caught that vibe - is he's very humble about process… He knows that Fight Club was the gift of all time to him - he knows that it was his to fuck up or make right. It was the right piece for him at the right time. He's incredibly irreverent about it all.

You were talking about craft. There's that Sam Goldwyn quote, "The harder I work, the luckier I get"...
I love that! The harder I work, the luckier I get... It's like the more you do your homework, the more you're free to be intuitive... But you've got to put the work in.