The Enigmatic Edward Norton

- Ricky Lo () - November 3, 2002 - 12:00am
First, a reminder: The subject of today’s Conversations is a serious actor, a no-nonsense actor who’s so good in his craft that he won’t allow the audience to see the machinery working. He has a distinct style that is so natural and so casual, it’s as if he’s not acting at all.

Edward Norton on the spot, now winning more praises for his understated performance as FBI Agent Will Graham in Red Dragon (still showing in various parts of the country), the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal, directed by 32-year-old Brett Ratner. Will Graham is the same agent who captured and put the abominable Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal the Cannibal, if you please) behind bars, again played by Sir Anthony Hopkins in Red Dragon which introduces a new serial killer, just as ruthless as Hannibal, by the name of Francis Dolarhyde (a.k.a. The Tooth Fairy) played with chilling intensity by Ralph Fiennes.

Born in 1970 in Columbia, Maryland, Norton studied at Yale University. His father is a noted lawyer and his mother a high school teacher. He’s the eldest of three children. At age 5, he was captivated by a performance of Cinderella and since then, he has resolved to be an actor. He embarked on an acting career via an off-Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Fragments. After months of searching for the right actor without luck, the producers of Primal Fear (1996) came upon Norton and cast him as a boy battling dual personalities. That role earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and launched a career of great promise. He got rave reviews and an elite following for other films like Fight Club, American History X, Death to Smoochy, Everyone Says I Love You, The People vs. Larry Flint and Keeping the Faith (which he also directed).

Beyond his screen persona, Norton wouldn’t allow anybody, not especially the nosey media, to delve into his private life. That was very clear (even if not articulated by the event organizers) during the press junket in Manhattan last month for Red Dragon. You know, no questions about his personal life, please, not even a hint at Norton’s romance with Salma Hayek. Limit questions to the movie at hand.

Was it why Norton begged off from the TV interviews and settled only for a general presscon, shunning the usual round-table exchange of ideas? So there he was, seated alone behind a table on which stood dozens of tape recorders, 10 safe feet away from the 80-plus journalists from around the world, looking and sounding very serious, not smiling at all, as he fielded questions limited to, yes, his career and his idol, Sir Anthony Hopkins.


Your portrayal of Will Graham is so understated…

"When Brett and I talked about it in the beginning I told him that I thought that more than anything what he needed from me was understatement, you know. It’s a character... he’s had these terrible things happen to him, he’s fragile in a way. I told Brett that he’s done too broadly, or if the emotions were written too large on him, it would be too dramatic. Brett was excited about that."

How is it any different from your previous roles?

"It’s different. I mean, I played other characters but doing Will Graham is quite an experience for me, you know, keeping my acting restrained, keeping it sort of grounded."

I understand you were the first and only choice for the role.

"After Tony (Hopkins) said yes, he’d again play Hannibal, Brett came to me and said, ‘I would like you to play Will Graham.’ No one else was involved at that time. I guess if I had said, ‘Oh, I’d rather play Francis Dolarhyde (a.k.a. The Tooth Fairy, played by Ralph Fiennes),’ Brett might have gone for that."

How was it working with (especially) Hopkins?

"I’ve known Tony for a few years and it was exciting playing those scenes with him. That was big deal for me."

Did you also read up on serial killers like what Fiennes did?

"Yes, I had some stuff of my own from previous things that I’ve done. I did share materials with Ralph."

Is society partly to blame for incidents of serial killing?

"I guess that serial killers are like a manifestation of what’s wrong with the modern world – you know, there are people who get twisted by the modern world. Serial killers have become part of our worst nightmares these days. I think it’s a very modern phenomenon. Somehow, it’s bound up in this idea that modern society creates this twisted people or something."

Which of the three Thomas Harris novels did you find the best?

"I think Red Dragon is the best, although I found The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal quite exciting, too. The character of Francis Dolarhyde is very interesting... it’s complicated. In a lot of these serial killers, there’s this kind of monolithic evil characters and Dolarhyde is such a complicated, fully-developed character. The book explores the roots of what created Dolarhyde’s psychology. There’s actually a human side to him."

What did you learn from Hopkins during the shooting of Red Dragon?

"Most of what I learned from Tony I learned over the years watching his films. I met him a couple of years ago and one time, after I did my first movie, he sent me a nice note and a compliment through someone else. Then, a magazine put us together in ‘different generations’ feature and Tony knew about it. When I saw Shadowlands and Remains of the Day almost the same week, I wrote in my journal how much I learned from watching his performances. I read it to Tony when I met him. We’ve been friends since then."

Understandably, you two have a harmonious working relationship.

"It was easy for us to plug in to the dynamics between Hannibal Lecter, his character, and Will Graham, my character. Even though Lecter and Graham are enemies, even if they hate each other’s guts, they actually have a great deal of admiration and respect, and even affection, for each other. After everything that has happened, Graham feels sorry for Lecter who, in turn, has this compassion for Graham. Since Tony and I knew each other, it was easy for us to play those two clashing characters. It was very simple working with Tony. He had no pretension and he didn’t make a big deal out of things. He came to the set very prepared, which I did, too, and he’s very open to my ideas. It was pleasant working with Tony because he’s very humble."

Obviously, you’re not just a friend but also a big fan of Hopkins.

"You’re right. On the set, we threw ideas between each other, we experimented a lot. We would do a scene and he would say, ‘Oh, maybe we should try to do it more this way,’ and I would say, ‘Maybe we could also do it some other way.’ He has reached a level where he makes acting seems so easy; after all, he has been doing it for years and years. I guess he’s such a master at this point that, I think, he has moved beyond analysis of his work. He’s very intuitive; acting has become second nature to him."

Are you careful with choosing your roles?

"Oh, yes, I have to be. You don’t want to do anything just, for example, to have a chance to work with somebody. There are many actors I would like to work with but it has to be the right role. Sometimes, someone sends you something and you tell yourself, ‘Hey, I want to do this.’ But you know it’s not right for you. I think it’s important not to force things."

How did you get started in acting?

"I have a theater company in New York I’ve been with long before I began doing movies. That’s where I got my start in theater. We do one playwright every year; the playwright is usually in residence with us and we do a whole season of that playwright’s work. We’ve done a lot, from Arthur Miller to Edward Albee."

Any play your company is currently doing?

"Yes, Bernice. It’s about grief... it’s about someone who dies in an accident and how the people around him go through the process of grieving and coming to terms with their loss. I think it’s a very relevant play, considering what happened in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. Until now, people in New York are very focused on those kinds of feeling. Bernice is set in New York and the experience described in it is similar to the experience of thousands of New Yorkers who have lost loved ones in the 9/11 incident and even those who haven’t."

What have been the changes in your life since you became a big star?

"I don’t know... Well, I own my apartment in New York instead of renting it. Changes? Not many, I guess. I live a normal life."

You are such a very private person in a very public profession. You must love acting so much to endure occasional intrusion into your privacy.

"I value my privacy so much."

Any frustration as an actor?

"I think the biggest frustration in being an actor is .... well, if you’re a musician or a writer or a painter or a photographer, there’s nobody who can stop you from doing what you do; you just go out and do it. And even if you’re not paid for it, it’s irrelevant. You have autonomy. You have control of your own work. Being an actor is existentially being in an unpleasant state. When you’re starting out, you can’t do it unless someone gives you the opportunity. It’s psychologically very unpleasant, I find it very unpleasant. And more than anything, if you start to have a certain amount of recognition doing it provides the ability to control your own destiny in a way, to make your own creative choices."

What’s the downside, if any, of being an actor?

"There are minor inconveniences of being recognized. I’ve been living in New York for 12 years and I love riding the subway and walking around. Losing your anonymity is trickier than most people think it would be; it’s not always the most pleasant thing. For example, you might think twice before you get on a subway car. And if you’re tired, you just don’t feel like reacting with people always. But these things are very minor compared to the positive things about being recognized."

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