In the spring of 1995, a pale, 26-year-old struggling actor moseyed into the New York offices of Deborah Aquila, Paramount Pictures' head of feature-film casting. The studio had auditioned 2,100 others—including Matt Damon—for the role of Aaron Stampler, a Machiavellian killer who feigns a stuttering simpleton persona to end-run Death Row. Armed with a thick Appalachian accent culled from endless viewings of Coal Miner's Daughter and claiming Kentucky roots, Yale grad—and Columbia, Maryland native—Edward Norton hoodwinked Aquila and won the coveted part. "He was a prodigy," Aquila later told The New York Times.
Fifteen years after auditioning for Primal Fear, the debut role that won Norton a Golden Globe and made him an instant star, the "prodigy" remains an anomaly in Hollywood. While his acting peers have gone on to fame and fortune—Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, and Brad Pitt, to name a few—Norton has exhibited a tremendous level of career restraint by consistently opting for material that interests him, budget be damned.
"I've never really related to it in that sense of 'Oh, I just suddenly have a choice to do big hit films,'" said Norton over a series of phone conversations. "It's always a blend of your interests and how people actually see you, or what people have interest in you doing. I've done a few of those kinds of things, but ultimately, they don't interest me as much." What does interest him, it seems, is crime and punishment. After Primal Fear and his Oscar-nominated role as a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead in 1998's American History X, Norton has decided to return to the familiar confines of prison for the film drama Stone, which hits theaters Friday.
In the film, Norton plays Gerald "Stone" Creeson, an arsonist who burned his already-murdered grandparents to death in a scene right out of "In Cold Blood." Robert De Niro stars opposite him as Jack Mabry, a married Michigan parole officer on the brink of retirement who must decide whether or not Stone is mentally fit for parole. Things get complicated when Stone sics his nympho wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), on his aging arbiter.
To achieve his inmate character Stone's distinct urban tongue, spoken with a Midwest twang, Norton met with several prisoners at the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility. "Maybe more than half of all the things that come out of the characters' mouth are various improvisations or phrases clipped from the way these guys talk about their lives," said Norton.
Norton has exhibited a tremendous level of career restraint by consistently opting for material that interests him, budget be damned.
In addition to reworking his dialogue, the prison inmates also provided some grooming inspiration—in the form of cornrows. "They were like everywhere up in these places!" said Norton. "It's just something that a lot of people are doing these days." One of those people is Kenny Powers (Danny McBride), the equally foul-mouthed protagonist of HBOs television series Eastbound & Down. "I went by the first poster of Eastbound and Down and kind of double-taked. 'I didn't approve of that shot!' Then I realized it was Danny," chuckled Norton, in a rare moment of levity.
• Joyce Tang: Ed Norton's Innovative New Charity SiteThe main incentive for doing Stone, however, aside from working with his The Painted Veil director John Curran once more, was reuniting onscreen with film legend Robert De Niro. The two actors worked together on 2001's heist film The Score, and "have been talking for over ten years about trying to find something to do again," said Norton. While The Score was, according to Norton, "more genre and plot-driven," Stone is propelled by a series of two-person encounters—a verbal sparring match between two of Hollywood's biggest acting heavyweights—and is "more the type of thing I had always hoped I would get the chance to do with him."
Stone eventually experiences an epiphany courtesy of the fictional, Scientology-like religion of Zukangor, in which the spirit enters the body through sound. And, although the character experiences a dramatic metamorphosis, the assertion that it's another in a long line of multiple personality roles causes Norton's speech to shift from soft and contemplative to curt and defensive.
"I just don't really see that," said Norton. "I wouldn't watch Kramer vs. Kramer and say it's a study of duality just because the guy evolves throughout the course of the movie." Primal Fear and the recent Leaves of Grass, a black comedy where Norton plays twin brothers—one, a straitlaced professor, the other, a wacky drug dealer—do, however, exhibit "this idea of representing two sides and the two characters will get in one person, or literally two different people," said Norton.
His most famous role, of course, is that of the schizo narrator in David Fincher's 1998 film Fight Club. And in an interesting twist, Stone's biggest competition this weekend will be Fincher's Facebook origin story, The Social Network. Despite the box office showdown, Norton sung his former director's praises.
"Oh I loved it," gushed Norton. "I thought it was so good. The funny thing is everyone's talking about how the movie is anti-Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. I didn't think that at all!"
Last spring, before it was in vogue, Norton was a member of the anti-Facebook crowd. "I haven't personally really engaged in a lot of this new kind of social networking stuff like Twitter or Facebook or MySpace," Norton told Parade. "It's absolutely the last thing that I'm looking for."
Since then, his tune's changed. He's launched the online fundraising website Crowdrise, and tweets regularly under the handle @EdwardNorton. However, he's still frustrated by social networking "within the realm of I guess I would call it 'chatter' or 'gossip,'" which should come as no surprise given the recent rumblings over his messy exit from Marvel's superhero team film The Avengers (Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo.) And then there are the even more recent rumblings of Norton's desire to be cast in Christopher Nolan's upcoming Batman film.
"What is all that?" asks Norton incredulously. "I've never had any conversation with him. I've never even considered that. I think somebody has cooked this up into a thing that has no basis in any reality!" laughed Norton.
A Fight Club reunion, however, remains a possibility. "I kind of have faith that these things find you eventually," said Norton. "I'm sure Fincher and I will find our way again. It would be awesome." He then added, "I think Fincher's a great example to me of a guy who was very, very true to his own aesthetic and sensibility."
A man after his own heart.
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and is a masters degree recipient from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial dept. of Blender Magazine, as an editor at Amplifier Magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.