NEW YORK -- The consistently brilliant Edward Norton is always talkin' 'bout his generation, whether he's describing himself to the press or acting in his favorite films.
Again and again, he's gone after projects with a dissident edge. He loves to play complex renegades like the reformed white supremacist in American History X (1998), the discontented office rat turned fistfighter in Fight Club (1999), and the convicted drug dealer in 25th Hour (2002). They enable him to put flesh and bone on seminal questions about the way we live now.
Promoting his new film and new favorite, Down in the Valley, in a Manhattan hotel room, Norton asks, "How can anybody figure out who they are or what's best about them when the culture around them gives them no spirituality, no sense of history, no sense of place, no sense of self?"
In an earlier interview, in 1999, he went on a mad, inspired riff about the comeback of the VW beetle as "the perfect example of the baby-boomer generation marketing its youth culture to us as if our happiness is going to come by buying the symbol of their own youth movement." At 36, he's mellowed only slightly.
In Down in the Valley, opening Friday at the Rotunda, he plays a cowpoke named Harlan who strives to bring a rural humanity and grace to the suburban wilds of California's San Fernando Valley. In Norton's view, Harlan is "trying to use his fantasy life to catapult him into something that feels a little more real to him."
Norton has dramatized that attempt repeatedly -- spectacularly -- in his movies.
He did it with feral force in Fight Club, playing a Gen Xer who suffered from near-terminal insomnia, depression and consumerism, and found relief only when he helped organize a counterculture that wasn't about peace and love -- a counterculture organized around a Fight Club, in which alienated guys get in touch with their inner primates via bare-knuckled scraps that leave them scarred and happy.
Norton did it with melancholy in 25th Hour, capturing a mix of accusation and regret that fit both a New Yorker who prematurely messed up his life and a metropolis blindsided by a terrorist attack.
Norton acknowledges, "If I was going to pull a thread through the movies I've done that mean the most to me, I'd say my interest in them comes from a gut feeling about the dysfunctional aspects of our lives." But he wants to address dysfunction with metaphor and magic instead of melodramatic cudgeling. He plays a magician in The Illusionist (due out in August), based on Steven Millhauser's haunting short story, "Eisenheim, the Illusionist," about a fin de siecle conjurer whose mystique threatens Viennese law and order.
Luckily, Norton has the performing potency to attack issues slyly or with subtlety. His surgical intelligence and poetic impulses, and the remarkable eloquence that he brings to his lean body and thin voice, make him an extraordinary actor. Even as a worried man, Norton is a live wire; even when he enacts self-control, he uses brushstrokes to show the pressures that can make a fellow erupt.
In Down in the Valley, his lonesome rider Harlan manages to rope a beautiful teenager (Evan Rachel Wood) and her impressionable kid brother (Rory Culkin) into a Shane-like dreamscape with tragic yet also hopeful results. According to writer-director David Jacobson, Down in the Valley piqued Norton's interest because it appealed both to his appetite for mystery and his ambition to analyze a generation's unease.
The film "doesn't underline and define everything," says Jacobson. "But it also has a sense of spiritual malaise. It depicts young people left to their own devices without mythical leaders -- without any cultural stars like the rock stars of the '60s, who had a real sense of spiritual values to convey to kids. Edward saw that and responded to it."
This urge to resonate with his core audience has made Norton take on movies like Down in the Valley and The Illusionist instead of simply going for big pay-offs with savvy commercial scores like his 2003 hit, The Italian Job.
In The People Vs. Larry Flynt, (1996) he played the attorney for the exultant pornographer behind Hustler, defending his client against one obscenity charge after another. He took the show clear away from Woody Harrelson as Flynt, imbuing arguments like "you and I can pick up Hustler magazine or read it, or throw it in the garbage can if that's where I think it belongs" with a reedy wit and urgency.
And in American History X, he put on 30 pounds lifting weights and invested his rehabilitated hatemonger with a galvanizing tortured gravitas. Norton showed his gift for conveying the power of plain speech when the man explained to his younger brother (Edward Furlong) why he gave up his life of hate: "It's wrong and it was eating me up, it was going to kill me. And I kept asking myself all the time, how did I buy into this [expletive]? It was because I was pissed off, and nothing I ever did took that feeling away."
Still as lean and tensile as he was in Primal Fear (1996), when he jolted audiences as an altar boy with an explosive secret, Norton remains smart and intuitive. He knows that the messages he doesn't act out explicitly or relay in his interviews may have more lasting effects than the smart, eloquent lines he spins about anarchy and discontent.
Hooked by his quest
Born in Boston and raised in Columbia, Md., Norton got a degree in history at Yale, and spent time doing foundation work before tearing into acting in New York (where he now lives). Talking to him, you wonder how he could have done anything except perform in movies and write, produce or direct them.
His tamped-down explosiveness marks a historical progression from Robert De Niro's modulated seething. The disaffection and anomie of the Vietnam-Watergate era found its embodiment in the young De Niro, an actor who could vary his performances down to his DNA.
Norton does something different. There's a seeker's energy and romance to even his most self-destructive and schizophrenic characters -- such as Harlan in Down in the Valley, who confronts the mirror just as scarily as De Niro's Travis Bickle did in Taxi Driver.
What hooked you into Travis Bickle was the magnetic intensity of his obsessiveness with the squalor of the city and his need to act as its redeemer. What hooks you into Harlan is his longing to be whole.
Playing a would-be ranch-hand working as a gas jockey, Norton invests the role with a magnetic soulfulness. You believe his softness and formality would cause a bored, unhappy Valley Girl to fall for him. There's a key line when Harlan tells the girl's disapproving father (David Morse), a corrections officer, that he treats him in a way you shouldn't treat a person. Harlan wants to be a person. He even knows what a person is.
"As I talked to David and we developed the idea," says Norton, "it was about a psychic feeling that I think a lot of people my age relate to: that the modern world has cut you off from a feeling of authenticity."
The movie follows Harlan and the others as they drift through the fragmented landscape of the modern West, divided by highways and tract housing. "The rest are looking for something they can't put their fingers on. But Harlan can put his finger on it: he has the most clear-eyed sense of what he feels has been lost. He says in his letters, 'I look for open faces and I can't find them; people don't even seem like human beings to me any more.' "
The movie takes sad, painful, disorienting turns. But Norton says, "I think this movie will connect the way Fight Club connected: Young people will look at it and say, 'This is exactly how we feel about things. This speaks in our language.' "
From the inside out
"I love working with Edward, " says Jacqueline West, costume designer for Down in the Valley, whose credits include The New World and Quills. "He's always reading. He's always thinking about his role. He is very private. But he's also the most complete Method actor I've ever seen. He became a top-notch rider. He became the fastest draw in the West. And when it came to his character he felt everything from the inside out."
Once, when he was about to film an Edward-Hopper-esque scene of Harlan eating doughnuts in a diner, with rain pouring outside, when his girl comes by and surprises him, Norton sensed Harlan would feel naked just wearing a shirt.
West suggested he try putting his jacket on over it.
"He did put it on," recalls West, "and his whole posture changed. He was transformed. Eventually, he'd want me there whenever he'd get dressed. He asked my opinion, but he would know what felt right."
Norton doesn't discuss his own romantic attachments, though he's been linked with women as different and fascinating as Courtney Love (who played Flynt's wife) and Salma Hayek (he did an uncredited rewrite on the script for Hayek's production of Frida). He may recognize the irony of making a movie that attacks suburbia and being the grandson of James Rouse, who designed the planned community of Columbia. But all he tells an interviewer, with a smile, is that "I did grow up in suburbia, but it wasn't blighted, like the Valley in the movie."
The actor did talk with Jacobson, often, about his father Ed's advocacy for environmental and historical preservation with organizations like the Nature Conservancy. (His father's first wife and Norton's mother, Robin, an English teacher, died in 1997.) The actor's own ecological activism, Jacobson says, helped sharpen the story's "environmental angle, about the connection to nature and being cut off from it, everything being paved over and erased." Once Norton got involved with Down in the Valley, "Harlan became a little more conscious about how the modern world was beating up the natural world."
Norton directed a charming, under-seen romantic comedy, Keeping the Faith, in 2000, about a Catholic priest (Norton) and his rabbi best friend (Ben Stiller) in love with the same childhood girlfriend (Jenna Elfman). Directors he respected, like Fight Club's David Fincher and Larry Flynt's Milos Forman, advised him, "Don't sit on your hands and wait and think you're going to step in and direct a masterpiece -- if you're going to direct you need to get at it, and if someone gives you the money, just do it, don't be precious about it."
Actually, there's nothing precious about him -- he's in movies for the long haul. He proved improbably touching as the leper ruler of Jerusalem in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven last year, acting behind a silver mask. He spent six years launching an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil and finally got to produce and act in it in 2005. And he still nurses hopes of playing a detective with Tourette's syndrome in his own adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn.
Although American History X briefly gave Norton a reputation for being difficult because he clashed over the editing with the film's director, Tony Kaye, Jacobson welcomed his star's input. He says, "I think it might have been nice for Edward to work with someone who was secure enough to take in what he had to offer, and not see it as an invasion or an attack, which is what I think happened with Edward in the past."
Norton, in turn, admires Jacobson equally for his philosophy and craft.
Down in the Valley ends when the heroine cautions her little brother, in Norton's paraphrase, "not to articulate what we're supposed to make of what we've been through: Don't try to put a word on it, don't say anything, just think it. That really moved me because so few adults do that. And that's the only way, if you're honest about it, you can confront life. Life is often too complicated -- too painful and beautiful at the same time -- to put a word on it."
Columbia's Wilde Lake High School, Yale University
Primal Fear, 1996