“In some ways, I was always more interested in other people’s experiences than my own,” said Edward Norton. Since receiving an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a psychopathic killer in Primal Fear (1996), Norton, 30, has continued to impress critics and audiences alike with his depiction of violent characters.
I spoke with Norton at New York’s Essex House. His demeanor was as cool and cerebral as a Ph.D. candidate. Yet, all the while, he methodically broke wooden matches into tiny pieces: a clue, perhaps, to a less placid quality he cannot entirely conceal.
How did he summon the fierce emotions necessary to play characters such as the skinhead in American History X (1998), for which he receives a second Oscar nomination), or the pugnacious ex-yuppie in last year’s controversial film Fight Club– men who live by rage and violence?
“It’s something I have a capacity for,” he said. “I don’t mean that I’m full of rage and violence. I’m not. But portraying that kind of character has always felt right in the middle of my strike zone. When I went to do American History X, I was thinking: ‘I’m going to eat this thing alive.’ It was a lot easier for me than light comedy.”
Norton became intrigued with the theater at age 5, when a babysitter took him to see a musical version of Cinderella at a drama school. He soon was enrolled in the school. His family encouraged him: “There are a lot of musicians and painters in my family,” he said. “I never had anything other than full support.”
At Yale, he majored in history. He also studied Japanese and rowed crew.
Norton is proud of the research he does for his roles. To play the neo-Nazi in American History X, he spoke with racists about what sparked their hatred. For Rounders (1998), in which he lived in New York’s underground poker world and even competed in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
“I always felt that acting was an escape, like having the secret key to every door and permission to go into any realm and soak it up,” he said. “I enjoy that free pass. You get to exercise all your emotional muscles without necessarily having to experience the consequences.”
His new film, Keeping the Faith, opening next week, was written by Stuart Blumberg, a friend since college. “I hung out with priests,” Norton said. “I discovered what the world of the Catholic Church, its rituals and practice, was all about.”
Keeping the Faith was a new challenge for Norton – a chance to direct. Though he said he worried about being too autocratic on the set, Jenna Elfman had a different impression. “Ed is smart and intuitive,” she said. “And he’s very responsive to suggestions.” She added: “He’s really quiet, but once you know him and are a friend, he’s extremely free – free and goofy and playful and open.”
But Norton seems determined not to be an open book to those he doesn’t know well. “I think it diminished my capacity as an actor to take you along, to be an empty vessel,” he said. “I also find it reductive. There’s this Hemingway story about soldiers coming back from World War I and telling people about their experiences, then feeling really cheap afterward. That’s how I feel whenever I’ve given over my own complicated human experiences to the gristmill of anecdote. So I guard against it.”
That may be why he likes living in New York City. “Nobody makes me uncomfortable here,” he said. “It’s a place where you can be eternally anonymous.”