Edward Norton doesn’t like conformity. An entertainment icon who prefers conservation projects to the red carpet flashbulbs, the Hollywood career for which he has become famous remains incredibly varied. From ‘Primal Fear’, ‘Fight Club’, ‘The Illusionist’, ‘The Incredible Hulk’ and ‘The Bourne Legacy’, he’s interchanged Woody Allen with Spike Lee and Ridley Scott with Wes Anderson.
Now he's back with his own project, as he writes, directs, produces and stars in the 1950s-set crime drama ‘Motherless Brooklyn’. A private detective living with Tourette’s, his character is driven to solve the murder of his best friends in a mystery that transports him from the gin-soaked jazz clubs of Harlem to the gilded halls of New York's power brokers.
In typically bullish form, the 50-year-old met RSNG to chat about the hardboiled vision for his NY crime flick, why Marlon Brando cracked how to live and what his environmental activism means to him…
RSNG What can you tell us about your new film, Motherless Brooklyn?
EDWARD NORTON, ACTOR ‘Well, about 20 years ago I read a book by an author called Jonathan Lethem called Motherless Brooklyn and right away, I knew that this was something I felt could be adapted for the big screen.’
‘I knew who would play a few of the characters, but as time went by, over the last two decades, I thought I would change the era in which the story is set.’
‘You see, Jonathan’s book takes place in 1999, while I have altered the decade to the 1950s in order to face up to the reality of the world that we currently live in.’
‘In the 50s, there is a certain sense of mystique about New York, a history that you could see in somewhat shrouded where there is institutional racism, not to mention the dilapidation of the old parts of the city right up to Penn Station.’
‘That was caused by an autocratic, almost tyrannical power who seemed to be against almost the entire face and foundation of what a lot of us see as the principles of American democracy. You could say that this is the backlash caused by the administration that we see and feel in place today, and it is reminding us that things have been bad previously and how did we find our way out of those moments.’
RSNG You chose Bruce Willis to star alongside you – I believe that you have had him in mind for some time?
EN ‘Yeah, we were in Wes Anderson’s movie Moonrise Kingdom and I really enjoyed working with him on that and this is our first time on a film set together since then. But I’ve always known that Bruce could be the person to play Frank Minna when he wrote me a letter saying that he saw me in a play in New York.’
‘He told me that he would love to do a piece of work like this and if I had something in mind for him, he would be happy to do it. So, I gave him a call and thankfully, he said yes and here we are.
‘When I say that I knew Bruce was always going to be the guy to play Minna, you will see for yourself when you see him coming around the corner at the beginning of the movie and you will identify him with being the perceptive private eye.’
RSNG You also have Gugu Mbatha-Raw who it seems is playing the femme fatale which every film noir needs. How would you describe her character?
EN ‘We called her ‘The Woman in Blue’ and she is a temptress who my character Essrog knows has something to do with what’s going on, but he just can’t figure out why. But he uses her connection to everything and how deep in she has got to drag himself through it all.’
‘I don’t want anything to interfere or otherwise muddy the ability of people to react to my work – I would rather nobody knows anything about me.’
RSNG What did you learn from working with Wes Anderson?
EN ‘It's interesting to work with a director who has a very precise idea of what he wants to do and whose screenplays are extremely well-written, and don't need any fixing or last-minute rewrites.’
‘He also creates characters who are fervently serious in what they're doing and feeling. There's no irony to his characters and the humour comes from how audiences respond to their heightened sense of sincerity. It doesn't actually affect how you play a character in his films, but you have to maintain that level of earnest naivété.’
‘That's why we love his films – there's this heartfelt and romantic, and maybe nostalgic kind of earnestness to his characters and how they go about their lives. There's a simple beauty to that.’
RSNG What is it that sets apart a Wes Anderson film set from others you've worked on?
EN ‘It's a very familial environment. It's a much smaller crew than on most films. You generally do your own hair and makeup, you get into costume at your hotel, and then you show up and Wes plans the day for you together with the other actors.’
‘On Moonrise Kingdom, where I was playing a scout master, he was more like a camp counsellor himself.’
RSNG You're notoriously tight-lipped about your private life. Why is that?
EN ‘Every single thing that an audience knows about you personally creates an obstacle between your ability to reach them with your acting and their ability to dissociate that creation from your own identity.’
‘As an actor, I want to sustain that suspension of disbelief that comes when an audience watches you perform. I don’t want anything to interfere or otherwise muddy the ability of people to react to my work. I would rather nobody know anything about me.’
‘Marlon Brando had figured out how he wanted to live his life without any bullshit – that’s a tough act to pull off’
RSNG What got you into acting in the first place?
EN ‘It's mainly because I loved theatre and film. I've always enjoyed the aspect of storytelling and being part of the process of exploring characters and how they make their way in the world. Every time you do a film you're investigating some new world and new constellation of relationships between people. It's an endless source of fascination for me.’
RSNG You've worked with so many outstanding actors in the course of your career. Does anyone stand out in particular?
EN ‘Marlon Brando left a great impression on me...I don't know if I got to know him that well, but there was a beauty and aura to the man. He had accomplished so much in his life as an actor early on so that the whole game wasn't important to him anymore. Brando had figured out how he wanted to live his life, without any bullshit. That's a tough act to pull off.’
RSNG Some of the characters that you have played have been the most complex in film history. What attracts you to those roles that you choose, how do you get into the mindset to play them and what would you say is the hardest character that you have ever played?
EN ‘Well, just to say that in the beginning no actor is picking anything – you are just happy to be getting work and the idea that you would be constructing any kind of thematic thread would be hubris.’
‘But from the point at which you have the freedom to make your choices, I think personally I have always been drawn to the duality in characters. If you go back to the old theatrical mask of dual faces, has always been a very compelling theme to me. How people represent themselves and what else is going on underneath.’
‘Maybe not intentionally, but I can certainly see that through the number of films that I have done that people have gravitated towards, there is a component of that being expressed in a lot of them. Sometimes overtly, like in Primal Fear or Fight Club or something like that.’
‘Sometimes even a film like American History X is very much a film about someone who has been defined one way and now is changed and that was found in the yin and the yang.’
RSNG You're a passionate social activist and environmentalist. Why are you so committed?
EN ‘The environment is an issue I have some grounding in and I think it’s become generationally, not just in the United States, but globally one of the most urgent themes of the 21st century. There’s a pervasive awareness of environmental degradation and the threats that come with that, the potential catastrophes. It's not a geopolitical question, it’s a very binding, common challenge for everyone on this planet.’
WHAT NEXT? Did Edward Norton’s environmentalism lead him to save Leo DiCaprio’s life?