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IT'S NO ACT Film: With talent and class, rising star Edward Norton fulfills his objective -- making it on his own.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the late '70s, Toby Orenstein recalls, she gave a local child a small role in a production of "Annie Get Your Gun."

Orenstein, active in Howard County dramatics since Columbia's founding in the early '70s, recollects that the child knit up his face in concentration and then asked a question that has haunted her on down the years. She had heard it from no child before or since.

"What," asked the 8-year-old Edward Norton, "is my objective in this scene?"

"He was amazing," she remembers, delightedly. "Later I watched him on stage. He'd come up with some business of playing cards. But there was a family ruckus elsewhere on the stage, and when that happened, he'd pause, because he was eavesdropping. Now that shows some serious analysis of the scene; he had thought about what a real child in those circumstances would do."

All of which may or may not explain why the tall, thin young man who glides into a Baltimore book store-restaurant for a chat with a reporter can turn to his immediate left and see himself on the cover of the current Interview magazine, under the description: "Edward Norton, America's Hottest Young Actor."

It may explain why, after shocking audiences in last year's "Primal Fear," he's landing in two major films that open within a week of each other: On Friday he defended Larry Flynt all the way to the Supreme Court in Milos Forman's "The People Vs. Larry Flynt"; next Friday he'll sing and dance his way into your heart in Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You," even though he admits that nobody, not even his great believer Toby Orenstein, ever told him he could sing or dance.

Peaks and valleys

Oh, you may be thinking, to be Edward Norton! Young, attractive, smart, brilliantly educated (Yale), successful in the toughest industry in the world, on the cover of magazines and you would not be far wrong. His has to be one of the better lives going on in America.

But you would not be far right, either, for even as he enjoys the weather on this shiny pinnacle, he will suddenly withdraw: His face goes gray, his eyes lock into that thousand-yard stare, his throat clicks dry as road dirt; and intimations of mortality are clearly on his mind. Death, either recent or looming, seems everywhere. He gulps, shakes his head, refocuses, and comes back into the conversation.

Certain things are not mentioned, at least not in units so coarse and bald as words. His beloved grandfather, James Rouse, the visionary developer (of Columbia, among many other projects) died last April; his mother Robin, 54, a former Howard County teacher with a reputation of immense charm and vitality, is critically ill, still in the aftermath of an operation to remove a brain tumor at the Hopkins Oncology Center. Edward did not spend the summer among gossamer hot young beauties in Manhattan, but mostly in Columbia, taking care of the business that had to be taken care of -- that is, loving and caring for those who loved him first and best.

And if you're not sick of such quiet nobility, let's throw in one more gist of geste, one more clutch of class. Edward's uncle Jimmy Rouse -- the painter who owns Louie's -- went to school (Yale) with a certain guy, and when Edward got this big role and "Primal Fear" was about to be released, Jimmy wanted to call his old college chum. But Edward wouldn't let him. Seems the college chum was a movie reviewer. Seems it was Gene Siskel, yes, that Gene Siskel, the national TV film reviewer (the bald one, not the fat one), and Edward didn't want Siskel grading his performance in light of his relationships. Siskel's review was an honest, untainted rave, as was Ebert's, as were all the critics'. For the truth is, Edward is a very talented actor, and everything he's gotten he's gotten on his own, not out of connection to a famous and prosperous family.

In fact, few in Columbia ever knew that his mother, Robin, was born a Rouse; she was just Robin Norton, mother and teacher; her son was just Edward Norton, Ed and Robin's oldest son, of Wilde Lake High School and Toby Orenstein's Columbia School for the Theatrical Arts, who got good grades and first became entranced with the stage when he saw his baby sitter, Betsy True, in a local stage production. He was 5 at the time.

"He ranked among the talented actors we worked with over the years," Orenstein remembers of Edward's time at her school. "But was he super-talented? Was he a triple? No. He was so unassuming, but charming and analytical. He had a very good sense of who he is. He was very committed."

True herself, now a professional Broadway and regional actress, recalls him with relish and amusement.

"I never knew this until he said it, but I suppose he saw some of my performances and caught the bug. I think he wanted to be one of the things kids always play -- oh, he'll kill me for saying this! -- a mouse or a flower or something."

She thinks it was probably "Mary Poppins."

"He was a cute kid," she recalls, "who loved it when I read him stories in funny voices. He was very likable, but nobody ever said, 'Oh, he'll be the next Dustin Hoffman.' We didn't think like that. We were kids, we were just having fun."

Not just a pretty face

The man this boy grew into is, at 27, slim, almost pale, fair. A spritz of goatee clings to his chin, like flecks of shredded wheat he'd forgotten to wipe off after breakfast; he's dressed quietly in black and, with a crooked nose and a long, thin face and light blue eyes, isn't a pretty boy or a face man by any stretch of the imagination. No one would confuse him with Brad Pitt, among other reasons because his sentences all have verbs in them. But there's a kindness in his eyes, as well as an intelligence, that's extremely beguiling and which the cameras, to judge from his first three films, pick up on immediately.

Thinking, always thinking. Disciplined, always disciplined. Control, always in control. But maybe also worried, always worried.

"I always envied," he says, "people like Keith Richards. For them it was a career or back to the streets or the mines. I could do other things. There's a kind of knot of tension about the decision."

Indeed, as everyone says, Edward could have done anything. A history major at and graduate of one of America's elite universities, he later spent time with the Enterprise Foundation, the organization founded by his grandfather and his second wife to develop low-income housing around the world, and worked in New York and Japan under its auspices.

"I don't know how ambitious I really was," he says. "If I had had an overwhelming, daunting passion to act, I'd have gone to New York after high school. That never occurred to me. I wanted to go to school. I didn't act at all my first year there."

After a year, "I was drawn back to it -- I'd been doing it since I was 5, after all -- but I never majored in it. I'm not a Yale-trained actor. There was no upside to the undergraduate theater program that I could see; it would have been a waste of the opportunities the school presented. I was never in the theater in-crowd."

That's Edward too: upsides, downsides, the calculus of the rational; he has big dreams, yes, but possibly like his grandfather, they're moored in reality. He thinks things through, acts professionally, understands the rules of the game, does site surveys and sells the product. Same principles, whether the product is a refined acting instrument or a shopping center, and he has a little contempt for those who don't quite get it.

In fact, he remembers a date with a girl who was in the theater in-crowd at Yale and her astonishment that he wasn't majoring in drama. "You don't really want to be an actor," she decreed.

"And I thought, what a bunch of ----! It didn't seem sensible to me: devoting your whole being to theater and coming out at 21 with the attitude, 'I'm ready, I'm entitled.' That seemed to me unrealistic about the business and the craft. I went a different way."

Later, in New York, he worked full time for the Enterprise Foundation, but performed at night, off-Broadway.

"I suddenly started getting very positive feedback, from agents and other young actors. It took a while for me to admit it to myself, but there came a time when I said, 'You're doing this, give yourself over to it. Do it right.' Part of it is acceptance in your head. I formalized it in my mind."

Slight interruption from an amateur psychoanalyst: Clearly, this young man is rebelling against his family, right? He's trying to escape the pressure of their expectations, the weight of their name, and going off into a profession utterly alien to them? Right?

Actually, wrong.

"It's not at all that I wanted to succeed at something other than Rouse. That never occurred to me. It was pure happenstance that no one else in my family had acted. But there is creativity: painters, oboe players. I never had to justify it. Nobody was more supportive than my family."

Impressive debut

Once started in "the drill" -- that is, part-time waiting jobs, acting classes and the rounds of auditions -- nothing really seemed to stop him, not even the fact that he shared a name with one of the most comic characters of all time, the avuncular sewer worker Art Carney played as Jackie Gleason's sidekick.

"I never heard anything about that. I was always 'Edward,' which kept it at a distance. Sometimes I'll hear a crack, but nothing ever came of it. I had no impulse to change my name."

The big movie break came with "Primal Fear," where his unknown quality was a definite plus to the role.

"It was very strange," he recalls. "In Columbia, they simply could not conceptualize the idea that a Columbia person could be in a movie. I'd be in the mall or a grocery store, and someone would come up and say, 'Have you seen that new Richard Gere movie? You look just like the kid in it. It's eerie!' "

It was one of the most impressive debuts in years, and even months before its release got him shots at projects with A-list directors Woody Allen and Milos Forman.

"Woody Allen is a sober, thoughtful, intelligent guy. He doesn't form a social relationship with his actors. If you think you're with a neurotic, you're wrong. He's more like a professional CEO, with an eye for detail. He was very quick and specific. He wasn't collaborative, but he would listen to you, because he was happy for the spontaneity a new idea would bring. He shoots films in long takes, which is much more theatrical and a different kind of challenge.

"Milos, on the other hand, is a shooter. So many takes! He looks at a film in the editing room like a sculptor and assembles the pieces. Once he said we were done and I told him we'd never gotten it right. He said, 'You gave me a beginning in Take 1, a middle in 3 and an end in 6!' He is extremely collaborative. He sees the script as an armature. It was probably my best collaborative experience. He was always encouraging us to try out stuff."

Forman is equally enthusiastic about Edward Norton.

"I love dot guy!" he proclaims loudly from a hotel in Switzerland.

Norton was the first young actor brought to the renowned Czech expatriate after Forman had signed to do the film. He was looking for a man to play Larry Flynt's longtime and long-suffering lawyer, Alan Isaacman, who in effect becomes the audience's representative in the increasingly insane world of Larry Flynt.

"After I looked at so many others, I knew Edward was still the one," remembers Forman. "I didn't even see 'Primal Fear' until after."

He says he's able to offer the sense of collaboration because "You open only to an actor who is giving everything without hiding behind pretense or ego.

"He really is the hero of the film. He is my ambassador in the world of weirdness. The collaboration reached the point where I was reluctant to tell him what to do because I wanted to see what he would bring each day. It was always better than my suggestion!"

Yet the two roles are, in a sense, holding parts. Both are solid ensemble roles; neither will advance his career or, in all 'u probability, hit with the same power as the "Primal Fear" turn, and, ever-analytic, Norton is very aware of this.

"Of all the things that have come from the movie noise," he says, "the best is an ability to be selective. I can sift through a lot of stuff, and if I think 14 others could do it, I just lose interest. I'm not interested in the banal naturalism of acting."

Appeal of dark side

Instead, this handsome young man from a handsome, successful family, from a town that was conceived consciously as a diverse American paradise, admits that he has an attraction to darkness.

"I have found that I connect with these kinds of roles for whatever reason. I was getting a lot of work along these lines in the theater. Drug addicts, killers, I don't know why. That's why when a friend in L.A. found out about 'Primal Fear,' he called me and said 'This one is made for you!' It was right up my alley. I feel at home there. I can't explain it."

So, given his penchant for doing it his way, it can be no surprise that in his next film he plays an American Nazi -- for the only director in the world who didn't want him in the cast.

The movie, to be called "American History X," already has people talking; the audition tape Edward made, with his hair shorn off, his goatee at full brush, his body dappled with jailhouse tattoos, his muscles bulked up from a month in the gym, has become a minor classic in L.A., circulated in film culture like contraband.

"I've been holding out to find something that would be really the strong thing to do. You have a certain window of opportunity to assert yourself. I had to look for something to grab. You have to be smart about what you do. You're doing yourself a disservice if you aren't."

That's also why he's working for a director who actually said to the "hottest young actor" in America, "I don't see you in this part." (Norton does a drop-dead funny cockney accent re-creating director Tony Kaye's line.)

" 'Let me do a screen test,' I told him. You have to be ready to give your chops on it! That's especially what you should be doing. It's also the ultimate victory."

Private moments

But victory is fleeting, as always. Later in the afternoon, he heads down to a Federal Hill gallery where his uncle's paintings are on display. Jimmy Rouse is there, and asks his nephew how Robin is. The two men confer quietly, and a reporter wanders away, sensing his presence is not necessary. But the mood is altered: Now it's somber, reflective, intense. Edward separates even from his uncle and drifts off into the paintings. Most are landscapes done in Canada, where the huge, happy family retreated every year. Birch trees catch the light, the lakes are feathery with ripples, the greens blaze with intensity and almost deliver the smell of that fresh Northern pine.

Clearly, much comes back to him. He withdraws, stands alone before one, painted from a hill where he likely stood many times, with his mom and dad and his brother and sister; and after they were done, they went down to the big house, to be with Granddad.

It's a private moment, not to be intruded upon, merely recorded from afar: The man with everything contemplating loss.

Pub Date: 1/12/97

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