In Select Theatres May 25, 2012
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In Depth

People In Film | Edward Norton

Edward Norton | Imitating The Inimitable Wes

MOONRISE KINGDOM, the seventh feature film by Texan auteur Wes Anderson, takes place in 1965 on an island off the New England coast. It is there that a 12-year-old boy and girl fall in love and run away together –– throwing the island community of New Penzance into turmoil. Many of the director’s trademark idiosyncrasies are evident even in the trailers: the meticulous visuals with their obsessive symmetry and retro-nostalgic color scheme; the deadpan wit and warm-hearted whimsy; and off-kilter characters played by actors familiar from previous Wes Anderson concoctions, including both Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. But Anderson devotees can also look forward to some choice additions to his acting clan, among them Edward Norton. As Scout Master Ward, a math teacher in charge of a local of troop of “Khaki Scouts”, Norton might seem an eccentric casting choice for such an earnest, can-do optimist of a character – particularly in light of the edgy intensity associated with Norton’s screen personae, a catalogue of intelligent but troubled characters. But such a departure was exactly the tonic Norton needed after playing so many tormented souls. "I couldn't be more in the mood to just, like, play in Wes's sandbox,” Norton confided to The Guardian ahead of shooting. ”I think he's one of the most original and distinctive directors around." Not only did the film mark a welcome change of pace, Norton never had to look too far for inspiration. “Actually, my character in the film is not dissimilar from the way Wes directs a film,” Norton told Entertainment Weekly. “[My character] doesn’t have a shred of cynicism about him. He’s a real believer. It was probably the easiest gig I ever had, because all I had to do was turn to Wes and say, ‘How would you say this line?’ Then I would just imitate it. He’s a great person to work for and with. He’s really a lot of fun.”

Edward Norton | Instant Stardom

Edward Norton in Primal Fear

There are few actors who can boast making such an immediate impact as Edward Norton, who nabbed a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination with his electrifying debut in Primal Fear. With no more than a string of off-Broadway credits to his name, Norton was among more than two thousand hopefuls who auditioned for the pivotal role of Aaron – a stuttering schizoid choirboy turned murderer. The intensity of Norton's screen test readings stunned everyone, so much so that Norton became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after actors even before the film was released in 1996. Audiences also marveled at Norton’s chilling transformation, a breakthrough performance that truly elevated what would otherwise have been a routine Richard Gere courtroom thriller. Legend has it that Norton perfected such a convincing drawl that casting directors believed his story that he was a native of eastern Kentucky. Truth is he was born in Boston, the son of a former federal prosecutor under President Jimmy Carter and an English teacher. He grew up in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland that was founded by his grandfather James Rouse, the real estate developer who also helped pioneer the shopping mall.  Precociously bright from the get-go, Norton decided very early on that he wanted to pursue acting. “It's a longstanding compulsion I've had since I was about five or six years old. I can literally identify the moment it struck me. I went to see a play in which a babysitter of mine was performing. I was completely shell-shocked by the magic of this little community-theater play; it just riveted me."

Edward Norton | Chameleon with a Dark Side

Edward Norton in American History X

“There's clearly a very alive-and-well dark side to Edward Norton," Primal Fear’s director Gregory Hoblit told Vanity Fair. "I mean you don't have to be Charlie Manson to have a dark side. Edward is no choirboy. You don't bring that kind of depth and richness to the work unless you've got it.” Sure enough, two of Norton’s earliest roles are among the most visceral – and controversial - depictions of inner fury witnessed on the big screen. His portrayal as a reformed neo-Nazi skinhead in American History X earned Norton a second Oscar nomination in 1998. A year later, in David Fincher’s polarizing Fight Club, he appeared opposite Brad Pitt as a lonely yuppie who discovers a cathartic release of aggression through brutal underground fist-fights. Although not a commercial success at the time, Fight Club has since acquired a cult following. It also helped cement Norton’s reputation as the heir apparent to that holy trinity of 70s-character actors-turned-stars: Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Like that celebrated trio, Norton has demonstrated considerable acting range. His portrayals are as varied as they memorable – everyone from Worm, the sleazy gambler in Rounders, to Monty Brogan, the drug dealer celebrating a last night on the town ahead of a long stint behind bars in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. By Norton’s own account, the challenge in pulling off such layered transformations is part of their very appeal. “No one is easily reducible, so I like characters who have contradictory impulses or shades of ambiguity," Norton told reporters at the Toronto Film Festival. ”It's fun, and it's fun because it's hard.”

Edward Norton | Split Personality

Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You, The Incredible Hulk, and Down In The Valley

Not surprisingly, given his facility for switching psychological gears, portraying duality has become something of a calling card for Edward Norton. Whether it’s the mood swings of a deluded cowboy in David Jacobson’s psycho-drama Down In The Valley or his sly impersonation of a disabled cleaner while trying to pull off a heist in Frank Oz’s The Score, Norton is never less than convincing. Sometimes, his penchant for multiple identities takes on a literal dimension: witness his performance as contrasting twin brothers in Tim Blake Nelson’s indie comedy Leaves of Grass and, of course, his Dr. Banner – a.k.a. the not-so-jolly green giant - in Louis Leterrier’s update of the superhero The Incredible Hulk. Such a penchant for split personalities extends to Norton’s own choice in roles. Not all of his characters are quite so dark and tortured. There are those that play off Norton’s amiable and clean-cut “everyman” appeal. For his biopic The People vs Larry Flynt, director Milos Forman cast Norton as the porn king’s long-suffering lawyer. Also quick to recognize his versatility was Woody Allen, who cast Norton to play Drew Barrymore’s enraptured fiancé in his Hollywood musical tribute Everybody Says I Love You. Naturally enough, Norton did his own singing and dancing. “He made the part funny and completely believable,” gushed Allen to The New York Times. “He is incapable of a fake moment.''

Edward Norton | Renaissance Man

In a 1997 New York Times profile of Norton, Ann Biderman, the screenwriter who wrote the final version of Primal Fear, was among those who recognized the guitar-playing actor’s multiple talents. “He's an amazing musician,'' she noted. ''Unlike a lot of people, Edward could have been anything.'' Indeed, while at Yale, it was not drama that Norton studied but rather astronomy, history and Japanese. Following graduation, Norton worked in Osaka, Japan, consulting for his grandfather's company, Enterprise Foundation. He also appeared in an ESL textbook, Only in America, used by a major Japanese language school before the acting bug took over. Such broad interests continue to be in evidence today. Norton has not only taken a stab at directing –– with the romantic comedy Keeping The Faith, in which he cast Milos Forman in a role alongside himself, Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman –– he also been vigorous force in environmental and social activism. President of the American brand of the Maasai Wilderness Conversation Trust and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, Norton also raises money for pet causes through the micro-donations platform Crowdrise. Needless to say, Norton himself co-founded Crowdrise, a well-regarded and evidently successful initiative that he describes as “pretty much the most fun you can have making a difference without taking any illegal substances.” His acting might run a close second.

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