Exclusive! Edward Norton: “I love movies… but when I act in theatre I feel like a rock star..!”

A close encounter with Edward Norton by Francesca Lombardo, journalist and author. 

Edward Norton is one of the best actors of his generation with an Oscar nomination under his belt for his breakthrough role in Primal Fear, but he has always aspired to approach film making from a 360 degrees perspective not only as an actor but as a writer, scriptwriting, director and as a producer.

And in Motherless Brooklyn, a period film set in a highly corrupted new York in the fifties – first presented at the Toronto Film Festival last year – he embodies all that as he has been the main actor, the scriptwriter and also the director.

Presented in Rome at the 14th edition of Rome Cinema Festival as the opening film, gaining great accolades and warm reception from critics and the public, Norton wears many hats and give an excellent performance of a character with a disability, something, bringing to the screen odd characters, that has always attracted him.


In 2020 the actor is back on the big screen as an actor only, playing the role of a kidnapper in French Dispatch by one of his long term director partner, Wes Anderson. The film will be released later this Winter. 

Motherless Brooklyn has been a film in the making for nearly two decades, and you wanted to make it for a long time..what stopped you from making it before?

Many things….mostly myself! I got the writer’s block. I started writing it a long time ago then I put in the drawer in 2004 and didn’t touch it for many years. What really interests me about this story, is that it was opening up a window to the deep corruption in the history of New York. It was also about deciding about setting it into this historical period and the fifties were perfect for that. I guess the system blocked me too. Don’t think it is easy when you say “Hey I am going to make a film set back in the fifties” – they are not throwing money at you. 

Talking about New York, the city nearly becomes a character in this story, why is that?

Yes, that’s right. It is is one of the great set in the world and going back into the past of this city, it is historical reconstruction. New York is part of the narrative of filmmaking, and becomes a character itself.

Lionel Essrog, has the Tourette syndrome. What generally attracts you to characters with disabilities?

The more interesting challenge, if you have characters with any kind of condition or disability, is capturing the total humanity as opposed to just the condition.

Primal fear goes back to your early days as a young actor then all of a sudden you have a breakthrough role that gains you an Oscar nomination. But what you had done before was very much theatre. How did you make the transition so effortlessly to the point of bringing such a powerful character to the big screen?

When I look at myself in that film, I wonder, who that child is. I was so young. The theatre creates a certain muscular structure in the life of an actor, maybe a way to approach the text, as you rehearse a lot the role before you bring your character on the stage. I’d compare it a football match. There is no way back and you can’t stop once you are on the stage. The role of an actor on stage is more predominant and creates a stronger sense of responsibility in an actor. In a theatre as an actor you have to have the whole arc of the story in front of you very clearly and the way of acting the arch is naturally progressive. In films, you may go back and forth in time and about shooting a scene. It’s the director who decides. But once you train yourself as a theatre actor, you can transpose this on a movie and keep the narrative arc in mind, it becomes an internal thing and not something that you are acting out. For me, this is the strongest technique that I transpose into film acting or onto the screen, so even if screen acting is much more fragmented you can always keep the narrative arc as a reference. 

You studied with Terry Schreiber. Can you tell us how much he was pivotal for your acting training when you started?

What can I say, in a city like New York and generally in this industry there are too many opinionated coaches but I was lucky to have started with Terry. He completely understands that actors need to be very versatile and have the ability to switch from doing Shakespeare one day or being part of a gang on a film set the next. Studying with Terry, I believe made me a versatile actor because he is an extraordinary teacher. There are a lot of people who don’t want to create functional actors but actors that are addicted to them, they want to create a form of dependency rather than made me independent. Not him. And he is like like a carpenter, he talked about acting as carpentry, he would discuss different methodologies, different approaches, different techniques, he always says, films are not the same as plays, you need different tools to approach different type of acting and that served me a lot during my career.

I think people tend to romanticise the Method acting, they don’t know what it means really, and there is this romantic aspect of naturalistic intensity to keep it consistent but you need to diversify your acting. You also need to be able to adapt your method to the director. For instance, if you are a Method actor on a musical with Woody Allen, you can get fired on your first day!

Everyone says I love you” 1996 by Woody Allen, Can you tell us about what was it like to get a role with Woody Allen so early in your career?

Oh gosh! My strongest memory of that film is that he didn’t tell anyone it was a musical. When I got the part I could not believe it. I remember calling my mother from a phone box telling her that I got that part and this tells you how much time has gone by – the telephone box – we didn’t have many mobile phones really at the time. My mother was incredibly happy. We both have always been great fans of Woody Allen’s films, we watched his films all the time. Then the surprise came. Two months later, I got a call from the production and someone told me that I was going to be sent a music sheet and I remember myself asking why a music sheet. We were going to be make a musical. I am pretty sure, it was that performance that leads people to say, that I was like a young De Niro. 

Talking about De Niro you worked with him twice and also with Marlon Brando, you must have some great memories working with them…

Yes, I remember the first scenes I was in with both of them. Marlon had to drink some water from a glass but spilled the water on his shirt, and De Niro fell asleep on the set.

What did you learn from them?

I can’t really pinpoint that but, in general, Brando had a strong impact and influence on the history of acting and actors. With him, there is a movie acting before and acting after Brando. He has inspired an entire generation after that from Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman, and many others and then he has changed our generation too. There wouldn’t be today’s acting without Brando.

And what I found particularly gripping about Bob was his intensity, his ability to focus. He seems to capture a non-verbal and an internal condition, a non-verbal turmoil. When you act with him, you can feel them thinking and the thoughts that go through his mind behind the words. I could feel his thoughts, and over the years I always tried to capture his way to act and to reproduce it.

The people vs Larry Flint” 1996 This is your third film in the same year (1996), right? 

Yes, you can tell that these three films were done in the same year. I had the same haircut. Someone should have said to me: ‘Hey, dude, change your hairstyle, at least put your fringe on the other side”. I learned a lot from this film. I was still a young man. I’ve learned a lot as a human being, about the ability to look at things in different ways, to dismantle prejudices to present different perspectives of the same, just like what my character said to the jury. It may not be what morally is necessary to make us feel comfortable but we should always keep the freedom to look at things for what they are and not for what we’d like them to be as they make us feel accepted or safe.

What do you think about the say “theatre as a medium for an actor and a film is a medium for a director”?

Yes, I have heard about that. Well, I prefer Dorothy Parkin’s say; ”if you scratch an actor underneath, you find an actor”.

Which medium do you enjoy the most…

I like them both and I love movies but in theatre, you feel more like a rock star, you are much more connected to the audience, and their energy.

What about what Scorsese said about Marvel films that it is not cinema but are some kind of Theme Parks entertainment on the screen?

Well, I think Martin Scorsese has forgotten about cinema.

What do you mean? 

He is so immersed in the craft of movie-making, more than everybody else, probably he is one of the most immersed human beings in his craft. So, more than anybody else is entitled to make comments about films. He has earned the right to express any opinions about filmmaking. But there is more complexity to what he said. That sentence has really been taken out of context and turned now into a soundbite. He was referring to a kind of film which produces emotions and that cinema needs to produce emotions. But there is not and there should not be the same formula for everybody. But people like to take quotes out of context. A bit like the Lawyer I played in Harry Flint; we have a very personal way to view reality and things and we are entitled to our many views.

In AMERICAN HISTORY, how did you prepare for such an intense role?  

Well, I choose the right haircut first of all – you know I was bold there. My friend who wrote the script, said to view the story and the character from a point of view of his flaws and approach this very intelligent person from looking at his flaws.

We talked a lot about the Shakespearean drama, like Othello, where the protagonist, the main character has a great level of intelligence but also big flaw and that is exactly what will destroy him so we applied this to this character, we made a contemporary Shakespearean character that goes through a kind of personal dramatic fall, his anger it is a flaw that will bring him down. It is what will destroy him and turn him into a failed human being.

Edward Albee, one of the greatest American play-writer came to see you in a play when you were still a very unknown actor, is that true? 

Yes, that is right. He was one of my favorite play-writers. I was in my early twenties just out of uni and just moving my first steps in theatre. I remember I wrote a funny letter to him inviting me to see a play he had written. And he liked my letter and he came to see me. For me it was an incredible thing: It was with him that I had my very first professional job as a theatrical actor. He had already won 4 times the Pulitzer prize and he came to see this unknown young actor. He was so tough on his work, I admired him that even if he was in his seventies, he was still so very experimental, so fresh in his way of looking at things and his craft. 

Some of your films have turned into an iconic movie – Fight Club, for instance, did you and Brad Pitt use Chuck Palahniuk’s book as a reference, or was it mostly the director David Fincher, your referent for this film?

The inspiration to do this film initially came from the book of Chuck, which I had read. With regards to Fight Club, this is mostly a director’s film, a Fincher’s film, and it is an excellent combination of technical virtuosity, tight rhythm, and dynamism, which are things that define Fincher and that Finch got in him. I really cannot think of anyone else who could have made that film. It is an example of when a film and a director become the same thing and the acting is all part of an ensemble with that.

What was it like to work on that set?

It was very funny. To me the really interesting lesson to share out of that, is that we all felt very close to each other on the set, as we connected with the story and with each other. It felt very personal to all of us, so this film was made by a very true place.

But it bombed initially, didn’t it?

Oh yes. I remember we showed the film at the Venice Film Festival. Brad and I stood in a room and Brad asked me: “How do you think the film is going to go?”. I said: “I think it is going to go very badly” – and he said: ”I think the same. Well then, let’s smoke a joint then.” and we did (laughs). We were pretty spot on, the film got booed at the Venice film festival, and when it came out at the box office, it didn’t do very well. But these things don’t matter as the audience it was intended for was there and that audience got it and felt connected to it. And behind the non-applauses, the best thing ever of this film, is the kind of relationships that over time it created with the audience and its fan base. It is an experience that has enriched us and it is unforgettable, we have always felt very close to the theme: it was a very intimate experience. It was a film we did it for ourselves and our friends. We said, we would not care, whatever happened and because of that, it was magical just as the connection with the audience we made the film for.

And in fact, it has reached a cult status…

Yes, somehow the film has become what we wanted it to become. Initially there was a sense of delusion but then behind the commercial success it is the intimate experience among us actors and with the director that counted for us.

About: 25th Hour – Spike Lee – you said that he is one of the directors that most has inspired you more in your film making and your work as a director…Why?

I was 18-19 years old when Spike Lee was coming out with his films and I can tell you it was like an earthquake. I was with Phil Hoffman years later and we talked a lot about Spike Lee. Spike shifted for a lot of us the way you make films. He has completely transformed what you can do with films, by being an actor, a writer, a producer, and a director at the same time.

Narratively, he made his films about his city, New York, and the moral questions that America was facing and still face more than anybody else. If there is one filmmaker that explored the morality of America and making it compelling, it’s Spike. Spike made 25th Hours in less than 30 days. Watching his meticulous way of working is very inspiring. It did very much altered my view of how much you can do with little money and in a short time and the strong visual impact of its films also by choosing a city as New York as a set. He has a very detailed way of moving the camera. Now that I directed Motherless Brooklyn, I can see how much of Spike lessons are in my films. I would have never been able to do it if it wasn’t for working with Spike Lee. Yet, I didn’t manage to do the film in 30 days. It took me 45 days to shoot Motherless Brooklyn

On the film the Moonrise Kingdom, what is the biggest lesson you learned from Wes Anderson and by working with him?

I have learned that it is fun to be a puppet. In the Moonrise Kingdom all the characters are Wes’ and they are acting him out, including the furniture. Usually there is no other director in my life I have been happier to repeat a line that he says and happier than being a puppet. I am joking but not. What I mean is that he is very meticulous, he has a vision and you need to fit into that vision which means you need to surrender to any idea of improvisation or changing anything he hasn’t rigorously scripted in. I worked with him various times and he tends to turn the set into a family. Into some sort of theatrical company, you know, like the old way. I got a lot from him about directorial rhythm and wanting to stick to your vision as a director. That is Wes Anderson. I can say that Spike Lee and Anderson are the directors I worked with that impacted the most my filmmaking as a director and also for the making of Motherless Brooklyn.

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