How did he summon the fierce emotions necessary to play characters such as the skinhead in American History X (1998), for which he received a second Oscar nomination), or the ex-yuppie in last year’s controversial film Fight Club?
“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.”
“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.”
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. 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.”