With Edward Norton, what you see is what you get." At least that's what John Curran, the director of The Painted Veil, said of his unconventional star.
Neil Burger, the director of The Illusionist, sees more shadows. "Edward's an actor of amazing stature, intensely smart and, at times, I'd guess, an enigma even unto himself."
With his deceptively reedy voice and profile and his consummate performing skills, Norton, 37, has been a warm-blooded shape-shifter on- screen and a model of eloquence off-screen -- any gifted filmmaker would want him both as a collaborator and a spokesman for the team. From his breakthrough film, Primal Fear (1996) to three movies released within the past nine months -- Down in the Valley, The Illusionist and now The Painted Veil -- this actor has specialized in characters who aren't always who they appear to be. He has pulled off contradictory, fractured roles even in generation-defining films such as Fight Club (1999). To put it mildly, he resists typecasting. His fans of all generations follow him to see how far he can stretch his talent. He's the American Daniel Day-Lewis.
In Curran's own career, he has created lucid movies about emotional deception, whether it's American college-town adultery in We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004), starring Naomi Watts, or British-colonial adultery in the China-set The Painted Veil, which co-stars Watts and Norton and opened in Baltimore on Friday.
But when Curran called from a Boston stop on his promotional tour, he explained, "Edward is up-front about who he is and what he's all about. I don't think there's a couple of different Edwards."
Norton is eager to speak for his generation, and, refreshingly, he's up front about his knowledge and enthusiasms, from ecology to poetry. "Edward's interests are so varied and his knowledge is so rich," Curran said, "I suppose people could mistake his multifaceted quality for a know-it-all quality. But nothing could interest him less than being a know-it-all."
Indeed, at a benefit premiere of The Painted Veil last month for the Howard Hospital Foundation, Norton's overriding message was that anything he knew paled before the skills at work at Howard County General Hospital. The event filled the Senator Theatre with friends Norton had made as the Columbia-raised grandson of the late James Rouse, that planned community's visionary designer, especially the medical professionals who've treated his family over the years.
Curran, also present, dubbed it "Deep in the Heart of Nortonville." But Norton was happy to move the spotlight off himself and onto "these doctors and specialists and surgeons who can diagnose you and heal you." At the same time, during an interview on the second floor while the film unspooled below, Norton acknowledged that what he does has universal uses, too -- including, perhaps, emotional healing.
The Painted Veil tells the story of a mismatched couple: Walter Fane, a British colonial bacteriologist in Hong Kong (Norton), and Kitty, a seemingly shallow London woman (Watts) who marries him in a desperate attempt to escape her family. After Walter discovers she's having an affair with a diplomat (Liev Schreiber), he takes Kitty with him to fight an exploding cholera epidemic in a remote village. They find common ground and hope for a happy future. What begins as a mingling of altruism, face-saving and punishment becomes a journey of understanding.
"I don't think there's a married couple at the Senator tonight who is not going to relate, I hope, to some aspect of taking your partner for granted, or judging them," said Norton. "The challenge of working on this film was of working on this relationship without passing judgment on Kitty and Walter and without creating simple foils."
Norton himself has been romantically linked with high-profile entertainers, including Courtney Love and Salma Hayek. But everything that's come out in the press about these past affairs suggests good feeling. Love recently said she regretted that she stopped practicing Buddhism and chanting because when she did those things, she got a great role in a film (Larry Flynt's wife in The People vs. Larry Flynt) and "a fantastic boyfriend" in Norton, who played Flynt's lawyer. While promoting The Painted Veil last month in Mexico, Norton said he was delighted by the success of the TV series Ugly Betty, which Hayek created, produced and appears in.
Norton did an uncredited rewrite on Frida, Hayek's 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic, and takes a hands-on approach to his productions. He's one of the producers of The Painted Veil and collaborated for a couple of years on the adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel with the screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia).
Jacqueline West, the Oscar-nominated costume designer who clothed Norton for the offbeat L.A. romantic drama Down in the Valley, loves the way "he'll throw his whole mind, body and spirit" into a movie, and then, "just when you think he's concentrating so hard, he'll break into a big smile, like a boy. He has a really warm, good heart and really good people around him, but no entourage." When Warner Independent and Watts encouraged Curran to meet with Norton, Curran immediately felt "He had the same kind of enthusiasm and passion for, and even, in a rough way, a similar vision for how we'd want to develop the movie."
Norton played a white-magic matinee idol in his last hit, The Illusionist (available on DVD tomorrow). Both Curran and Burger, The Illusionist's director, agree that being a matinee idol would never satisfy the actor in real life. "I think what's more interesting to Edward, and more fun," said Curran, "is to have a character come back from incredible odds rather than walk though romantic numbers." In a clip being shown on the talk-show rounds, Walter tells Kitty he doesn't despise her, he despises himself for once having loved her -- and Norton fills that utterance with both savagery and pathos. Curran noted, "Edward recognizes that love and hate can coexist. That's far more interesting to him than seeing a couple arrive at a happy unity at the end."
At the Senator, Norton said, "Sometimes I go back to the thought that all good movies are love stories, and The Painted Veil is fundamentally that. It's about this timeless thing between men and women and the difficulty of truth, even with the person you're in love with. I think Maugham is saying the painted veil is the illusion we hold of what we want our lovers to be, and when the veil is ripped away, the question is whether you can find a way to transcend disenchantment."
He and Watts "had to take a blood oath, or at least a pinky pact. Both of these characters are by the end much more fun than they seem to be at the beginning. But to play them, you have to commit to them in all their limitations -- and it's an extremely intimate set of performances because they are totally, inextricably intertwined with each other, in a dance. She had to commit completely to Kitty being bored, childish, petulant, and pretty fatuous; and I had to commit to a guy who was not a good lover. He's clumsy and not socially adept and not particularly sensitive to her."
Norton, a history major at Yale, studied the rise of Chinese nationalism. But he said Curran was the one "who really pinpointed the shooting of Chinese workers by British troops in 1925 as being this enormous event for this period. It was a turning point in the history of Chinese nationalism: An enormous wave of anti-foreign resentment swept the country."
It was also a turning point for the movie, which was filmed in China.
"Once you decide you're actually going to put cameras on that landscape, the story's already expanding and you can't put it back in the box. By making you experience Kitty's journey, and her experience of Walter's work, more first-hand than in the book, you're making more explicit the fact that both of them, particularly her, get humbled by their experience of the larger world."
The movie's China deepens Walter in another way. The character now more fully embodies "that arrogance of Western rationality that says, 'everything would be so much easier if you'd let me come in and fix things for you.'" The implacable yet volatile grandeur of Asia "breaks down the narrowness of both Walter's and Kitty's views of life."
Norton said, "The result, I think, is a very timeless sort of story. It makes me want to paraphrase a great line from T.S. Eliot, something Ron Nyswaner told me at the very start of the picture: Every great journey begins with an outward physical journey and ends in a transformation of the soul."
Boston; raised in Columbia
Columbia's Wilde Lake High School, Yale University
Primal Fear (1996)
Favorite Norton films:
American History X (1998), Fight Club (1999), 25th Hour (2002), Down in the Valley (2006)
Highest-grossing Norton film:
The Italian Job (2003)
For Primal Fear, best supporting actor, National Board of Review and the Boston, Los Angeles, Southeastern, Texas and Kansas City Film Critics; also nominated for Academy Award