At the 68th Festival del film Locarno, actor Edward Norton, who’s influenced modern cinema in many ways, was given the Excellence Award Moët & Chandon. Amongst 40 accolades and 98 nominations Norton has been given are three Oscar nominations: as ‘Best Supporting Actor’ in the films Primal Fear (1997) and Birdman (2015), as well as ‘Best Actor in a Leading Role’ in American History X (1999). His cinematic work encompasses a variety of genres like international blockbusters such as Fight Club (1999), The Illusionist (2006), Frida (2002) and Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). After having worked with iconic directors such as Woody Allen in Everyone says: I love you (1996) or Spike Lee in 25th Hour (2002), he took on the director’s role in Keeping the Faith! (2000). He owes his popularity to his ability to give concise utterances to diverse characters appealing to different groups of audiences in arthouse and blockbuster cinemas.
Since 2004 the Festival del film Locarno’s Excellence Award honours the work and talent of exceptional actors. Moët & Chandon has consecutively been partner for seven years. Amongst previous laureats stand Chiara Mastroianni, Isabelle Huppert, Charlotte Rampling, Gael García Bernal, Sir Christopher Lee, Victoria Abril, Juliette Binoche and Giancarlo Giannini.
Before the screening of Fight Club (1999) Norton said: ‘When we first screened Fight Club the audience was booing. I spoke with the director of the festival about the very first Locarno Film Festival opening in 1946 when they showed one of my favourite films; Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City. If you think about what watching that film in 1946, with an Italian director dealing with Nazism and Italian fascism and what it did to the Italian people – that was not an easy but shocking film to show one year after the war. But it remains as a document on how people were feeling at the time and is a very powerful connection of what the post-war experience was like. I feel that Fight Club, in its own way, has been hard on a lot of people in the moment but has come to be understood as something connected to the zeitgeist. That’s certainly what we were trying to do and hopefully you’ll enjoy it all these years later.’ Norton repeated that thought in the evening on the Piazza Grande when given the award: ‘In this era of an enormous amount of commercialism around films and entertainment it’s really important to maintain those forms where we celebrate the art in film. The 1946 screening of Rome, Open City says something about the roots of this festival; looking at films that challenge, not just entertain us, and if you look at the filmmakers and actors that have received this award over the years, it really is an exceptional commitment to celebrate the art in film and I’m very flattered to be included in that tradition.’
After the opening movie Ricki and the Flash (2015) by the American director Jonathan Demme, Moët & Chandon hosted the exclusive opening party. Edward Norton was available for a led interview the following day:
When you received your award you mentioned Rome, Open City was one of your favourites – what other movies played an influential role in you wanting to become an actor?
I remember it in phases. As I child I was really affected by Disney movies – maybe you remember Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) – a lot of their movies were amazing to me. I was very effected by Star Wars. There was a wonderful old art déco movie house in Baltimore, where I grew up, and where I went with my little brother. The opening of Star Wars (1977) and the ships come down from the top of the screen wasn’t a life-changing moment but it really had a huge impact on my sense of awe and what you could see in a movie. Later I’d say it was Woody Allen’s films. My mother taught English literature and I remember watching Manhattan (1979) and films like this and asking my mother why he was allowed to do that, because I just realised how fast and free cinema can be. In my adulthood Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) had a huge impact on me, because I grew up in the 1980s in the United States, where in the cites there were all these simmering cultural tensions. It was the first movie I saw as a young adult and walked out, went to the box office, bought another ticket and went back in to see it again, because it was so provocative and one of the first times I saw a film that set up lots of questions it didn’t answer. That was the beginning of my preference for movies that challenge you to think what it is about rather than telling you.
A lot of young actors who know they want to act get straight into it, but you went to Yale university, majored in history, spent some time in Japan – when did this become a job for you?
I started off in the New York theatre, one of my partners and I wrote television scripts, plays and a screenplay, and I was performing in plays. We were trying to hack it from all different angles. We wanted to be hired as writers before getting hired as an actor – we just wanted to make something – I was working on a student film. But I’m not sure it ever felt like a job to me I guess until I was making movies I got paid on.
So the first three films you did, in a fairly close period of time, couldn’t be any more different, from Primal Fear (1996) over Everyone says: I love you (1996) to The People vs. Larry Flint (1996). What was it like to get so much attention, when a few years before no one knew who you were?
It was exciting. The films I made with Woody Allen and Miloš in that stretch – we made them before Primal Fear came out. It was a very pure experience, as in there was no one externally affecting the words. I remember making Woody’s film in Paris, Lukas Haas and Natalie Portman were on the film, and we were all just kids walking through Paris and no one knew who we were; it was fantastic, you know. For me, having grown up watching his movies, the value of those experiences was that I was very curious how he makes them. Miloš Forman was one of my idols and what was fascinating was seeing how different the creative methodology of these different filmmakers was. The director of Primal Fear was totally different from Woody Allen, who was totally different from Miloš Forman, yet they all produce certain types of results. Miloš in particular was very generous to me, like a mentor; he had me work on the script with him but then he let me sit with him during the editing process, watching and asking questions. In that period, coming out of theatre, one of the things I learnt was how malleable film is; how differently it can be shaped and as a performer it made me realise that, unlike in the theatre, you can experiment more freely with the performance in some sense, as you’re not making the film; you’re making the raw clay the director is going to turn into the film later. It’s some way liberating, as it’s the realisation you don’t have to perform perfectly. What you want to do is explore with the director and give them a lot to work with. And that was a real revelation.
That also raises the question of taking risks, because something like Primal Fear, there are so many different kinds of risks: from playing somebody who may or may not be the villain of the story to the accent you had to adopt for that role – then you fly forward a couple of years to a film like American History X (1998), with another role not easy to take on. What sort of considerations do you bring to the table, especially at that early stage?
My friend David and I were working on a screenplay, he had written a version of American History X and we needed six months until we got it into the shape it became; with a bit more of a classical, almost Shakespearian dimension to it. For us, what was driving it was that at that time we were seeing so many young people who were angry and finding things to blame on their anger. The idea of actually doing a story that’s just about the impact of anger – in many ways now, with so much of what we’re seeing in the world, what Europe is experiencing with the tension of immigrant communities and all that – we were seeing versions of that in the US and were just interested in it. But the funny thing was that I wasn’t even sure that I should play that part. I felt like maybe it should be somebody else and it took me a while of experimenting to convince myself that I should do it. It just didn’t feel like me, obviously, and I thought it would be too much of a stretch for me to persuasively represent that, or incarnate it. Then we did it and the experience was very interesting and challenging. The lesson I learnt from it was that when I have that sensation that I’m not the right person or the role frightens me, that’s actually probably something I should do, because that sense of insecurity produces a kind of focus and choices that are interesting. I’ve gotten more and more confident doing parts I don’t feel confident about, if that makes any sense.
Well, it dovetails quite nicely to Fight Club, which was screened here the other day, so it’s fresh in a lot of people’s minds. But a role like that in some ways – I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie – you were playing two characters. It’s hard to envisage that movie without the fame it has accrued over the years. What do you make of it?
I was such a big fan of David Fincher’s films at that point that I probably would have done anything with him; so I was excited that he rang me up about it. It all started with Chuck Palanhiuk’s novel and David didn’t even send us the script at first, just the novel. I read it and thought it was such a darkly, funny novel intended to be funny. But you could certainly imagine it being done wrong. The first thing I said to David was: ‘I thought it was hysterical, are you trying to make it funny?’ and he said that that was the whole point. Great, because it seemed satirical to me, like many films I love, like The Graduate (1967): satirical examinations of what happens when people react at that moment they’re expected to join the adult world in some ways but don’t relate to the adult world they’re supposed to join. The more we worked on it the more I felt like it would be for our friends and that our parents would probably hate it. That was exciting, also! We weren’t 100% what the balance of it was going to be, but we were doing something about an emotional experience that us, and our friends, have been through. That alone made it real fun to work on; to try and fill it up with details that made us laugh because we thought it makes our friends laugh.
It also raises a question about your collaborative process, about wanting to work with Fincher and all those filmmakers you worked with and were familiar with beforehand. When it comes to somebody like Spike Lee, who, as you mentioned before, played such a crucial role in your own affinity for the medium of film, how did you navigate that kind of experience knowing this person through their movies and then actually being in their movie?
It’s a good question. I think Francis Coppola said, the best thing about making movies is that you collaborate with people and the worst thing about making movies is that you collaborate with people. It’s hard sometimes but also great. And it’s important to know directors and their work. To me, the idea that someone would roll in to making a film with a filmmaker and not have looked at their work is actually insane, fully irresponsible as an artist, because you have to know the language, style and tone in which they work and calibrate yourself so you can conserve it. I’d written Spike fan letters about his films, so he knew I was a big fan. At the time this was the shortest schedule I’ve ever made a film in, we did it in like 28 days, and there’s no way we could have made that film if the actors didn’t have a shorthand. Phil Hoffman was a huge fan, Rosario Dawson had worked with Spike before… I give you an example: David Benioff, who wrote a screenplay based on his own novel. The novel had a passage in it of this character looking into the mirror and criticising himself. It’s fantastic in the book, but he had taken it out of his own screenplay. When I asked him why, he said he thought it wasn’t cinematic, too boring, to which I asked if he’d ever watched Spike Lee’s movies. Later Spike told me he’d make that something and it’s become, generally speaking, the section of the film that gets cited the most, because of the way Spike turns that monologue into a cinematic feast. When you have confidence in the way a director works, you can surrender to it more and make yourself more available to him as an actor. Being a fan of a director’s work is always an advantage to me, because you’ve studied them already.
So was it a similar experience with Wes Anderson?
For sure. Wes makes animated sequences of the film before, with him doing the voices of all characters. You watch the animation, they set the cameras up in the same way, and you’re just coming in. When I get blocked I ask him to say that line again, he says it and I just repeat it. It’s the easiest job in the world! He’s funnier than we are, his line readings are better than ours – it’s like being a marionette. But joking aside, if you’re a fan of Wes’s films and you really absorb them, then you know that he’s the master of finding poignant heartfelt emotions underneath these surfaces of slapstick humour, but you have to know his films, else you can’t look for those little moments within your own character where it makes that turn into pathos or sadness. I think often there’s not enough prior communication. Great directors always rehearse, always. I’ve never worked on a great film with a really great director who didn’t rehearse. Actors who know a directors’ work that can serve to work better. I sound obvious, but preparation is key.
Thinking of collaboration, when you have an understanding of people before you meet them – how is it like to share acting?
Mostly always great, I never per se had a bad experience with an actor. Maybe I was just lucky to work with talented people. Actors can be more unsettling, harder to navigate in some ways, than a director you know and admire. Someone like Robert De Niro, you’re so admiring of their work, but you don’t know how they get there, you have no idea. The way actors work on things can be very different. It can be a trap when you admire someone like everybody admires Robert De Niro: on set you can get in this mental trap with you having an expectation of seeing the thing you always loved about him. If the way an actor works turns out to be elusive, or where they have a process of getting through that’s magic, and it’s not what you’d expected, you can get caught in a mental trap of not paying attention to what they’re actually doing. You can have an expectation and you’re interacting with a videotape of the way they are in your own head. I had this when working with him for the first time. We were doing a scene of The Score (2001) and I expected it to go a certain way, while he was doing something that was different. As it wasn’t what I had expected I got all caught up in my head, wondering if he didn’t like what I was doing. I had this moment looking at him and he looked at me and nodded, and I realised he found it interesting. That’s when I realised I wasn’t paying attention to him, I was interacting with the writing I’d been doing and with the videotape I had in my mind. I walked around the corner and I was like: You imagined working with this guy for your entire life! Now, it’s happening and you’re not watching, you’re not doing it with him but with something inside your head. I almost damaged my own brain before I went back in and started to pay attention to what he was doing and it was much better than what I had in my head. Then it all went well. It’s interesting the way your brain can trap you.
It almost sounds like that scene in Birdman (2014), that intense moment with the shrug at the end.
(laughs) I think it’s true for everybody; I think surgeons, athletes, writers… I think lots of types of work are served better when you get past your conscious into the unconscious, to the automatic. Athletes perform much better when they’re zoned out and acting unconsciously. That’s very true for actors, you want to really get out of your head and the analytical side of your brain and try to get into a more reactive place.
What about directing? You’re preparing to direct another movie now, but your first film was 15 years ago, Keeping The Faith (2000). What did you get out of that experience and how did it form that filmmaking sensibility you’ve been developing as a writer as well as an actor?
It was strange, it highlighted to me how much work it is. I knew that on some levels but when you’re actually doing it and you realise the amount of time you did devote to it, that it’s a large undertaking. It formed in me an awareness that I only wanted to do it when it was a story of my own devising, my own writing. Being an actor is a pretty nice life and I didn’t want to throw a hand grenade into that for no reason. I actually knew I wanted to do the thing I wanted to do, but I wasn’t ready to direct it because I was struggling to finish writing it. I put it away for a while, then came back to it and finally finished it. It was more the writing of it that took me a long time than the directing part.
The 68th Festival del film Locarno will be ongoing until 15th August 2015.