What do we know of actor Edward Norton, really? Ever since his stunning big-screen debut as the manipulative and mercurial maybe-murderer Aaron in 1996’s Primal Fear, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, he has made upturning expectations something of a signature. Even as the revelation of that first performance was still reverberating through audiences, Norton buffed up and hulked out to play neo-Nazi gang leader Derek Vinyard in Tony Kaye’s 1998 drama American History X (curb-stomping the part en route to another Oscar nom), and then turned in what is perhaps his most beloved performance, as the split-personality cipher narrating David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999). Over the next several years, he continued to widen his range, playing creeps, villains, criminals, and even an innocent abroad, as well as the inevitable comic-book character in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.
But the more Norton mixed it up, you’d imagine, the more difficult it might have been for studios to know what to do with his awesome talent. Was he a leading man, a villain, a character actor, or indeed something more on the line of an auteur? For some time now, Norton, 45, who grew up in Maryland the son of an attorney/conservationist and an English teacher, and who went on to study history at Yale, is rumored to have been involved, behind the scenes, in polishing the scripts of several movies for which he did not receive credit. In 2000 he directed the romantic comedy Keeping the Faith and is now planning to direct and star in his adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel Motherless Brooklyn, about a man who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. In Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s marvelous Birdman, out now, Norton adds yet another twist to his career path, playing the domineering actor Mike Shiner.
“No man,” Hawthorne wrote in The Scarlet Letter, which provides a revealing clue in Primal Fear, “can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude.” So what face does Edward Norton wear to himself? In early October his friend Bennett Miller, director of this fall’s Foxcatcher, sat down with the actor in New York to find out.
EDWARD NORTON: Hi, this is Edward Norton and Bennett Miller talking on Thursday, October 2nd.
BENNETT MILLER: If they were hoping for something funny, they picked the wrong two people.
NORTON: I actually do think that you’re funny, which may itself be funny—not mean-funny, but ha-ha funny. The funny that I tend to like is witty funny. I think you are funny. Alejandro is funny in a different way.
MILLER: You’ve worked with some pretty great directors, and now you are embarking on your second feature. What attracts you to directing?
NORTON: I’ve really only done it the one time, on Keeping the Faith. And in that case [writer and co-producer, Stuart] Blumberg and I had worked on it together so long, we thought, “Why do we want to explain all the work we have done to figure this out to someone else?” So we decided to do it ourselves. Motherless Brooklyn is sort of the same, except it’s just me. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, trying to crack what was the right way to approach the character and this novel. I wrote the script, and a friend of mine who’s a movie executive said to me, “You’re insane to get someone else to direct this; you should do it.” It’s such a particular idea and a particular vision. And at a certain point, it’s better to ante up and try to realize the vision that you’ve had in your head. And I think it’s fun to take something from soup to nuts. As you know.
MILLER: So it’s not so much a compulsion to do it, but circumstance and necessity. You don’t lie around thinking, “Man, I really would like to direct something.”
NORTON: No. I’m pretty busy in my life and I’m very aware of what it takes to direct a movie. It takes a lot out of you; it takes a lot out of the rest of your life, from other people in your life. I don’t lie around hungering for that consumption very often. I start to get fixated on a story and a character and an idea, and at a certain point, I really want to do it. It’s a compulsion to explore a specific thing, as opposed to a compulsion to direct, generally speaking. See, I don’t get the sense that you need to direct at all. Sometimes I get the opposite sensation from you, that you’re like, “I really should go do something else.” But then you are drawn back in by a particular story, like a hangnail in the brain.
MILLER: I’m afflicted with it. I do have that compulsion to organize moments into a larger thing.
NORTON: Let me preface this: I don’t feel insecure about any of this work anymore. Maybe I don’t have what I had when I was younger. I’m not really hungry to prove anything to anybody, really. But when I stand outside myself and observe what I think are my strengths and weaknesses going into directing, it’s what you just said, an affliction to organize moments. I’m an actor, and, beyond that, the thing I do most compulsively is writing. So I come at it very much from this sense of character. I get interested in people. And I feel confident in my capacity to absorb and manifest the characteristics of people. I have a real auditory hang-up for dialogue; re-creating the way people talk really is an addiction in my brain. But when I think about directing a film, the thing that stops me short is wondering if I’m a natural at it the way I think you, and PTA, and Fincher are born directors. Maybe some people’s talent is in understanding the ways that film communicates, without dialogue, without plot. Foxcatcher is unbelievably spare in terms of character. Nobody ever says, “Let me tell you about Dave Schultz,” [Mark Ruffalo’s character in Foxcatcher] and then tells you about Dave Schultz so you have information about Dave Schultz. You just get it through this fantastic osmosis. And that’s partly because Mark [Ruffalo] is incredible, and partly because you are really good at organizing moments. One that stood out for me is when he gets out of the helicopter. The way that people move toward him, the expression on people’s faces as they’re moving toward him—I know everything I’ll ever need to know about this guy. And that’s different from the impulse to communicate through dialogue.
MILLER: Especially if what’s communicated by the images is at odds with what the scene is quote unquote about; what gets transmitted through a different frequency is more potent than words. If you track something like a political campaign and parcel out what’s being communicated in a literal and narrative sense, and what’s being communicated by means of emotional and symbolic language, you might find that it’s the latter elements that absolutely dominate and move people. It makes me want to take that language and expose it.
NORTON: Foxcatcher has a quality that I really like in the best of Kubrick’s films, which is that your sense of dread is coming from a place you can’t pinpoint. There’s no overt indication of why you’re starting to feel dread rising in you. What Alejandro did in Birdman is a different kind of risk, to deny you something that you don’t even know you’re addicted to, which is the mental break of the cut [the film appears to be made entirely of one unbroken shot].
MILLER: It’s risky but the payoff is that you are trapped inside the relentlessness of Michael Keaton’s character’s plight. There’s no relief from it. It’s the closest thing that I’ve seen in cinema to an engineered empathy with a character.
NORTON: It made me wonder why don’t we do this more often. The elegance of staying with a moment, without needing to stop and change all the lighting, made [the alternative] seem lazy and indulgent.
MILLER: Do you find that things have to feel vital in order for you to do them? While you’re out there hawking your wares in California-land, what is the fuel that keeps you going? Because, having been there myself, and knowing how demoralizing it can be when your creative aspiration comes into a struggle with material reality …
NORTON: It’s ego. Ego’s a bitch, because it’s really only demoralizing because you feel slightly stung by the fact everybody’s not going, “We can’t wait to work with you! What do you need? Go!”
MILLER: “This vision has to be realized.” “Thank you!” [laughs] And then, of course, the epiphany, which comes to Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman, is that nobody cares. The questions posed by the movie—What is my place? What is my purpose? Who cares? Why do I do what I do? Is it vanity? How do you justify getting out of bed and making the effort?—have been stuck in my head since I saw it.
NORTON: You and I made a short film for Obama in 2012 [We Hold These Truths]. We thought it was going to play as the introduction to the president—and it feels exciting to do that. And then it gets downgraded. Ultimately we just were like, “Hey, we’re happy to contribute, hope it’s good.” And when he was reelected, one of the first texts I got was you saying, “You’re welcome, Mr. President.” [laughs]
MILLER: The telling of the stories, the making of the film, is an end unto itself. It is the equivalent of dancing, the realization of your nature, and you’re getting out of the way of something that is innate to you.
NORTON: I’d agree with that, except, maybe something has shifted for me. When I’m looking for Zen these days—and I’m not saying this facetiously at all—I would really rather surf, scuba dive, or fly my plane. And, when I feel tension about the grind of work, it’s not getting the money to make films versus making films that constitutes the grind, it’s all this stuff. I’ve already spent a lot of my life doing what makes me go. There’s a life out there while I’m still young, able to move, able to just sit at peace in the water—I should be spending much more time doing that, rather than continuing to go through this artistic struggle. I mean, Alejandro’s film was a really unusually joyful experience. I rarely get a sense of Zen, calm, while I’m working.
MILLER: I’m not talking about Zen so much as an expression of your nature. If you’ve got some kind of talent, doesn’t one sense that there’s a debt to do that?
NORTON: Maybe. That’s a really interesting question. In a very philosophic sense I think doing the work is itself a good thing. But at the end of the day, since we’re taking other people’s shekels to do it, and their work is being able to make a return out of it, it forces you to consider the fact that you’re doing it for other people. The whole construct is built around the assumption that it’s going to get shared, and that someone else is going to find value in it—entertainment, catharsis, enlightenment, or whatever. And that’s a good thing. That’s the C.S. Lewis line [in Shadowlands], “We read to know we’re not alone.” The thing I’m absolutely convinced of, no matter how crazy—technological the world is getting, is that people feel more connected through the good works. Entertainment, and the sort of soporific effect it has on people and their stress, is one thing. But work that’s got real substance does make people feel, “There’s someone else out there who relates to my experience, or who just helped me understand my own experience a little bit better.” And I think that’s still got enormous value.
MILLER: Maybe even more so in a time where we’re so awash with noise and ephemera.
NORTON: Making really great music, making really great films, writing great books is an antidote to all of that. And, as people, as artists, some of the massive disruption that technology is causing is so exciting, the way that people can share creativity now. But at the same time, the film industry just got torched. The risk tolerance for the types of movies we’re talking about is lower, and the reason for that is that the captains of the industry were asleep at the switch when their core business was being disrupted. And they’re never getting it back. In a way, it makes it all the more exciting when the good ones get through. If and hopefully when—knock on wood—I get to make the next film I want to make, my production planning for it has been hugely informed by making two movies with Wes Anderson in the last couple of years [Moonrise Kingdom (2012), The Grand Budapest Hotel]. Here’s a guy who went from where people would just toss him, like, 45 million bucks to make Life Aquatic  to a world in which his particular vision, with all of its aesthetics and—on a movie like Grand Budapest—a pretty big scale, ain’t going to get that. Wes has had to figure out how to do more with less. And he has stripped everything away. By my first day, the first day of “official” photography of Grand Budapest, he had already wrapped Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, and Jason Schwartzman—shot them out, off the books, on camera test days. He’s devised a playbook for making a movie that’s really smart and fun. It takes some of the heat off. Things are happening in a more lightweight way.
MILLER: A lot of the time, excess on a film set is just damaging. And comfort murders the soul.
NORTON: It’s an existentially tough thing. I’ve been friends with the guys in Radiohead for a lot of years, and I watch the way those guys work with incredible envy. Because whatever the slings and arrows of dealing with the record business, at the end of the day, they have total creative autonomy. They don’t need a lot to do what they do, and Thom [Yorke] and Jonny [Greenwood] and the guys have their own joint in their hometown. They roll into it when they decide they’re ready to work together again. They don’t have to talk to anybody. They don’t need anybody’s money. I’ve talked with lots of friends looking for an equivalent to what they did with In Rainbows—make your own thing, build your own microsite, put it out, and say, “Pay what you think it’s worth.” It’s one of my favorite things to happen in my adult life and I dearly wish we could find an equivalent. When you made The Cruise , it was certainly not a production-heavy experience, and it’s one of my favorite films. But I think it’s damn hard to do what we want to do in film with the same lightweight autonomy that you can have in music.
MILLER: When we worked on the Obama film, something that I asked everybody who was interviewed was, “Who are we at our best and who are we at our worst?” Did you ever give that question any thought, personally?
NORTON: I started, with three friends, this website called Crowdrise that’s sort of the Facebook for personal philanthropy, a place where anybody can have a permanent microsite of their own to stage creative fundraising projects for the charities and causes that they care about. And we did it with serious intent but without any ambition. And three years in, people are raising $100-$150 million a year, and we think that will double next year. There are tens of thousands of charities and hundreds of thousands, getting towards millions, of people now using it. And when I flip through it, I’m just blown away by people. There are so many people who are conscientious and caring about others. I’ve spent time working in countries where I really noticed the absence of civic concern, care for other people. I’ve been in other countries where I feel a palpable, almost tooth-and-claw attitude between people—Machiavellian, me and mine. And you can take for granted being here, with all the bloviating and the media, on a day-to-day level, people in this country are really pretty concerned for each other. And this place is exploding with young people who are—they’re like Nietzsche’s hammer—going to break everything and make something better. The creative energy in this country, and what people are coming up with is very hopeful. On the downside, to paraphrase Thom Yorke talking about the music business, we’re still having to deal with the stench of the last fart of the dying corpse of this regressive vision that America is a white, middle-aged, male, conservative country. Demographically, the writing is on the wall about that. But we still have to endure this fake culture war. And I say “fake” because the culture war is Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? It’s ginned up by the corporate plutocracy as a way of distracting the working-class people that it’s screwing. We hamstring our own natural progressivism in this country, and that’s really stupid. All I can think about is Marlon Brando, when I did [The Score, 2001] with him and I asked him why he stopped doing interviews, and he said, “Because I woke up and realized who I was and what I actually know and how crazy it was that people were asking my opinions about things like politics.” And about a minute later, he goes, “I realized that it was even crazier that I was answering.” [laughs] Half of me totally agrees with that, but the other half goes, “No, we’re all here. We’ve all got to participate.”
MILLER: Somebody once asked Kubrick where he got the confidence to direct films. And he said that, when he looked around at the movies, he realized it wasn’t possible to do worse than everybody else. [both laugh]
NORTON: Okay, what other questions did you write down? I’ll give Rorschach-like answers.
MILLER: Okay, your greatest hope and your greatest fear about our future?
NORTON: They’re the same thing. My greatest hope is that we transcend the most fearful thing, which is that we are rapidly degrading the ecological systems on this planet that support everything we are doing and all life on it. There’s the Japanese word kensho—meaning “the moment of awareness.” We are at the kensho moment—we’re actually a little bit past it. If we don’t get reintegrated with the system that we’re a part of, everything else that we talk about—all of our geopolitical horse shit—is going to appear like people who were sitting at a dinner table chatting idly while the entire house was burning around them. It is a real conundrum.
MILLER: And your greatest hope?
NORTON: That we sort that out. It brings it back around to movies. People say you can’t make movies about your politics or the environment. And, generally speaking, I completely divide those sides of my brain. As an actor, I don’t have any politics. As an actor, I’m driven more by an authentic—I would say an obsessive-compulsive-disorder level-fixation on mimicry, tonality of voice, to literally imitate something until I can just disappear into it. But look at Avatar , one of the most globally viewed pieces of entertainment to have ever been made—the central emotional event of the whole movie was a tree being cut down. And the entire movie, essentially, is saying, “If we let the military industrial complex trash the place that we’re living in, we will have committed an epic crime.”
MILLER: What makes you laugh?
NORTON: I am a sucker for internet videos of people tripping. But I also really like The Onion editorial by a guy selling mason jars or whatever.
MILLER: Is there a gift that you don’t have that you wish you did?
NORTON: I wish I were more musically gifted, more intuitive in playing instruments.
MILLER: If you could go back to being 6 years old and make a decision about what direction to go, what would you do?
NORTON: I wish I had started learning certain things earlier. It’s really interesting getting older and reviewing what you invested time in that still sticks and feels like a gift, versus what just faded into irrelevance in your future life.
MILLER: You no longer tap dance, do you?
NORTON: No, and all the years in those goddamn shoes. [both laugh] No, but I studied French forever, and when do I ever speak French? I clearly should have studied Spanish. I wish I had stuck with music, because that would still be great. I really wish I had learned to surf earlier in my life. I would tell my 6-year-old self to go get a board and get in the water.
BENNETT MILLER IS THE DIRECTOR OF CAPOTE, MONEYBALL, AND FOXCATCHER, OUT THIS MONTH.