It was a bit disconcerting to meet Edward Norton last week in New York, where he was doing press for the tearjerker "Collateral Beauty," in which he plays Whit, the friend and business partner of Will Smith's Howard, a man going through debilitating grief after a death in his family.
Norton has made his name by tackling some odd roles: The enigmatic Aaron in "Primal fear," the perplexed, nameless fellow in "Fight Club," the threatening Mike in "Birdman." He most recently voiced -- in a perfect Woody Allen impersonation -- Sammy Bagel in "Sausage Party."
So who knew what to expect when he strode into a small hotel room for our interview and plopped down on a couch. What I got was a friendly, thoughtful, knowledgeable guy who ended up talking more about acting in general than about the movie he was supposed to be pushing.
He even got the first question, asking me if I was an Ed or an Edward, then explaining that he went by Edward because his father is Ed. Norton is so verbose, I only managed to ask a few questions. Here's an edited sample from that chat.
Q: You did a lot of New York stage work before movies. How did you make the transition?
A: "Waiting for Lefty" was the first play I did in New York. It was all Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway stuff. The one I did that probably had the most impact was a production of Brian Friel's "Lovers." (Playwright) Edward Albee saw me in that play, which was what led to him to introduce himself to me. Before that, I had found out about the Signature Theatre Company, which was doing dedicated seasons focusing on one playwright. When I spoke with Albee, I mentioned that there was a one-act play of his called "Finding the Sun" that I liked, but it had no production history. I asked if he would give me the rights to produce it, and he said, "I would, but I just signed on to do a full season with the Signature Theatre, and that one is going to be part of an evening of one-acts. Maybe you should come and audition for it." I did the audition but we agreed that I was probably too old for it. Then Albee said he'd just written a new play called "Fragments" that would get a premiere later in the season, and asked if I'd like to read for it. I got the part, and did it in 1994. I've been a part of Signature for 25 years now.
Q: So how did film happen?
A: I used to go to the theater a lot with my parents. Even though I really liked movies, theater had a bigger impression on me. When I was really young I was affected by movies like "Escape from Witch Mountain" and "Star Wars." But I was affected by the cinema of those movies, not by the idea of acting in movies. In pre-teenage life, my relationship to movies was sort of awe at the spectacle. As I got older, my dad really liked watching things like "The Great Escape" or "The Magnificent Seven" or "Cool Hand Luke" on Sunday TV reruns, and I got hooked into all of his favorite movies. But film seemed so real that I almost didn't grasp the idea of actors. Then I started taking theater classes, so I related more to acting through theater. When I was 15 or 16, I went to the National Theatre in Washington, and I saw Ian McKellen do this incredible one-man show called "Acting Shakespeare," and that had a seismic effect on me. I was so in awe of him that on the school bus going back home I remember having this head-racing experience of thinking, "That's something you could actually do. That's something a grown person can do." I started to think, for the first time, more about what it meant to be an actor. Because that's what the show was about.
Q: And movies?
A: By the early 80s, via my mom and my dad, I had kind of hooked into Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, and even though I was pretty young I'd started to see things like "The Graduate" and "Raging Bull." By the time I was an early teenager I had started to grasp that I really liked certain actors, and the ones I liked were also the ones who made me think I could do it because they weren't the most handsome guys. Like Dustin and De Niro. And as I got immersed in films, I realized that the actors I was really compelled by were the type who seems more shape shifty. And I thought that was something I could do.
Q: What got you interested in playing Whit in "Collateral Beauty?"
A: When I first heard about the film my gut reaction was a little snooty. I thought, "I don't want to be in one of these studio holiday movies that they crank out." But when I read it I was quite moved. It tapped me into that thing where, for whatever reason, at the end of the year, we get reflective. We think, what am I going to do next year that'll recalibrate my life and make it a little bit more of what I want it to be? And I thought about Jimmy Stewart. Of all the actors from that era he's my favorite. He does a thing where he's terrific with the screwball banter, and he can dance across the confection of old Hollywood plot contrivances like a tap dancer. But when it turns around and drops into those key moments where it's actually about something, he's really got gravitas. He's got this great presence to pull you down out of the artifice and make it really land, and you really feel affected by him. That's not what I've done a lot of. Then this script came along and I thought, this isn't my normal thing, but I'm gonna take a wang at it because I felt like this character could have a measure of that kind of Jimmy Stewart thing."
"Collateral Beauty" opens on Dec. 16.
-- Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.