Edward Norton is talking about Bob Dylan. This is significant for a few reasons. For starters, when you spend the day with Edward Norton, he will talk about a lot of things. He will casually quote C.S. Lewis and Cyril Connolly; he will hold forth on solar energy and the environment; he will go into elaborate detail about a prehistoric tribe of miniature people that may or may not have been a separate species from homo sapiens. (Asked if he is researching this tribe for any particular reason, he will look at you curiously and say, "No, I'm just interested.")
He will speak to the Japanese clothing stylist-in Japanese, mind you-trying to find out where he can find the best scallion pancakes in Manhattan, where he now lives. He will talk about the evil Yankees. ("I'd sooner vote for Bush than root for the Yankees," he'll say, playing off his well-documented lefty politics.)
And yes, he will talk about film-directors Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick and Spike Lee, who are among his heroes. And Steven Spielberg, whom he considers to be a "paint-by-numbers" director.
So if you spend the day with Edward Norton it is advisable that you bring your A-game, intellectually speaking. It's also advisable that you bring a pen to jot down some of his passionately recommended books and lecture series and films.
Which brings us to Dylan.
"You haven't seen Scorsese's Dylan documentary?" Norton exclaims at one point during the discussion. "Oh, you can not miss that. That is one of the most riveting things I've seen in a long time." It has just been a few days since he's seen the documentary, No Direction Home, so he admits that it is still rattling around in his head quite a bit. But his fascination with the iconic folk singer is not insignificant.
What Norton admires about Dylan is his unshakable integrity; the singer's fidelity to his own vision and his refusal to, in the idiom of his time, "sell out to The Man."
"At 21 years of age, he clearly became this point onto which an entire generation was projecting its hopes and needs for an expression of who it was," says Norton. "And he just went, 'No [freaking] way! You got the wrong guy. I'm an artist, I'm not a politician.' And when he did things that he didn't think his audience wanted him to do, like plug in an electric guitar, he did it with the supreme confidence of, 'Yeah, you're booing, but you11 catch up. And I don't really care anyway.'"
A smile plays at Norton's lips. He clearly loves the defiance of that thought. "Anybody pursuing a creative life should watch that film," he says. "It's one of the best portraits I've ever seen of a person who is totally committed to his own muse."
The notion of following one's own muse is a very basic concept for Norton. He comes across as someone who is not at all susceptible to outside influence, almost preternaturally self possessed. When asked if he has ever gotten swept away by the Hollywood machine, he matter-of-factly replies, "I've never really been swept away by anything."
As a result, he has no professional advice-givers-none of the typical coterie of agents, managers, reporters, hangers-on whispering in his ear, telling him what to do. He goes his own way. However, if he did listen to outside influences, they would probably tell him that it wouldn't be the best idea to take a three-year hiatus in the middle of a red-hot career.
Which, of course, is exactly what Edward Norton did.
Can it be just 10 years ago that we first laid eyes on him? It seems like our native son, our point of collective pride, has been around forever. But it was just 1996 when the Columbia-raised actor with the squinty eyes and the insinuating voice imprinted himself indelibly onto the cinematic landscape. His role in Primal Fear called for a virtuoso performance-one where Norton's sweet stuttering Aaron Stampler turned out to be a skeevily malevolent criminal—and Norton delivered. His first film out of the gate and he was nominated for an Academy Award. Pretty heady stuff.
"It was an extraordinary performance," says Washington Post (and former Sun) film critic Stephen Hunter. "I had been told, 'There's this kid from Columbia and he will blow you away.' Sometimes, when you have those kinds of expectations, quite the opposite happens. But I immediately realized that this young man has a fierce and powerful talent."
The funny thing was, Norton's friends from Wilde Lake High School in Columbia didn't even know he was that into acting. He performed at Toby's Dinner Theater and plied his craft there, but at school, he was an under-the-radar kind of guy.
"He hung out with the popular kids," says Maureen Grace Antill, a Realtor and mother of two, who was friends with Norton in high school. "But he wasn't technically popular. He was very laid back, kind of quiet. He didn't strike you as somebody showy or flashy."
Antill says that he was primarily known for being part of Columbia's First Family-Norton's grandfather was famed visionary developer James Rouse-and because of that, he kept his nose to the grindstone. "He was very focused," she says. "He took a lot of AP classes. He was more involved in community affairs than the average high schooler."
"To me, he's far and away the best actor of his era."
Norton says that he felt no special pressure being the grandson of James Rouse: "It certainly wasn't negative. [My grandfather] was beloved. He wasn't like Peter Angelos, a divisive figure. He was seen as this person who had success on a national level but who had stayed at home and committed to his hometown."
Plus, Norton says that James Rouse was a fantastic grandfather-a "ballpark and fishing trips kind of granddad." He adored him. (Norton is also quick to point out that he didn't live the life of privilege that many assume he did. His father was a federal prosecutor and his mother, who passed away in 1997, was a school teacher. They were solidly upper middle class.)
After Wilde Lake, Norton went to Yale, where he majored in history. He did some development work with the family's Enterprise Foundation in Osaka, Japan. Then he moved to New York, got seriously into acting and auditioned for the role in Primal Fear that would change his life.
He invited his high school friends to the film's benefit premiere at The Senator. "He was funny about it," says Antill. "He was like, 'Can you believe I'm here?"'
One thing that Antill-and others-were shocked by was the ferocity of Edward's performance. In his career, he has gravitated to dark roles; he has played a neo-Nazi, a killer, and at least two career criminals.
"Given his very pleasant upbringing in Columbia and his [time] at Toby's, his four years in New Haven, his work for the Rouse company in Japan, he can play down and dirty," chuckles Hunter. "He can play tough and mean."
In person, Norton is slighter than you might think. On the day of the interview, he is dressed in jeans, a gray thermal shirt with a corduroy shirt-jacket over it, and motorcycle boots. His hair is cut short-nearly buzzed-and he has a closely trimmed goatee that gives him a vaguely Teutonic appearance. He has been pumped up for roles in Fight Club and American History X, but this more wiry, slender build is his true physique. He smiles infrequently, but when he does, he projects an irresistibly boyish sweetness. He is a keen listener-there is an alertness about him. One thing he doesn't look like, though, is a bad ass. Guess that's why they call it acting.
"I haven't seen a lot of his movies," admits Antill. "They're too violent."
After Primal Fear, Norton could've done a lot of things. He could've pursued a profitable franchise, like Spiderman or The Bourne Identity. He could have sought out the kinds of safe, middlebrow, status-quo-confirming parts that win Academy Awards. He could've done a genre pie—maybe action or horror or a buddy comedy. Instead, he followed his own path—working with directors he admired like Spike Lee and Woody Allen and David Fincher; choosing scripts that inspired him; going his own way.
"I really honestly don't think about how I want my career to go," explains Norton, now 36. "I don't even really know what that means. That sounds very confining, the idea of 'Oh, this is my career.' I don't look at doing things that are creative that way. It's too conscious, too cerebral. My agent, the reason I work with this guy, he never says things to me like, 'It would be really good if you mixed in one of these.' 'Cause I'd fire him. I just don't want that kind of thinking around me. I don't think that way myself.''
So Norton insists that the fact that he has not technically appeared on screen in almost three years (last year he did play the role of the leper king in Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, but his face was obscured by a mask), is not part of some master plan. He was just doing other things: an off-Broadway play—Lanford Wilson's incendiary AIDS allegory, Burn This—for one; his continued charity work, which includes a board membership at Baltimore's Enterprise Foundation and founding the BP Solar Neighbors program, for another. He wasn't looking to work for the sake of work, or to advance his career, or to please anyone other than himself.
"In 2002, I made a big popcorn movie [The Italian Job], and then I made The 25th Hour and then I made a play, that was probably one of the most intense performance things I've ever done," he says. "I was just content. I was satiated. You do a play like Burn This and what are you going to do? Walk off and walk onto another movie set? It's like, no way.''
Then, one day, he got a script from his agent for a little film called Down in the Valley. The movie focuses on a lonesome cowboy named Harlan who is living in the present-day San Fernando Valley. With his laconic charm and old-fashioned chivalry, the cowboy is able to ingratiate himself to a directionless teenage girl (Evan Rachel Wood) and her sad-sack kid brother (Rory Culkin). As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the cowboy is not all he claims to be, and that the film is actually a kind of deconstruction of the romantic myth of the West.
The film's writer/director David Jacobson, who had one film under his belt, the cult biopic Dahmer (yes, about that Dahmer) was skeptical that he'd get his dream star Norton for the role of Harlan, but figured it was worth a shot.
"To me, he's far and away the best actor of his era," says Jacobson. "I admire his creativity and his choices he makes as an actor. He has the charisma and chops to be a leading man yet he can sink into these character roles. And I love that.''
Much to Jacobson's delight, Norton agreed to meet with him. Jacobson admits to being nervous, but the two men were almost immediately simpatico.
"I'm not friends with tons of celebrities, but he doesn't seem very much like an actor to me," Jacobson says. "There is a definite actor type. He's not 'me, me, me, look at me!' If you sit down with him, he'll talk about everything. We'd often talk about the environment or politics, and finally get to the film."
They became collaborators. Norton was a producer and editor and even helped with the rewrites. And the developer's grandson saw how this film fit in neatly with his family's life work:
"I said to David, 'Why don't we make a Western about our West? The West that people our age actually experience and what has that actually become? You can't ride a horse across it anymore. It is this wilderness of sprawl. It's a very community-less, sprawling environment of concrete and highways and tiny little pockets of former communities that are now all fragmented. It's totally bankrupt."'
The film, like so much of Norton's work, is challenging. By the end, you don't know if Harlan was the destroyer or the savior of the two kids. Which is just fine by Norton. He hates films that spoon-feed the audience. "If you really think about the films that sort of hang around in your head and sort of tickle at you over time, they are usually the ones that don't answer the questions for you," he says. "They are usually the ones that aren't ersatz 'disturbing' films. They're films that are in fact disturbing because they don't resolve themselves neatly for you. They leave you with as many questions as they do answers."
Down in the Valley isn't the only film that Norton has coming out in '06—his The Illusionist played at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews—but it is the one he is ushering into theaters most carefully. Because the film is complex, and because it has no major stars (maybe Norton would've qualified as a major movie star three years ago, but film fans notoriously have the memory of gnats), Norton knows that there's a chance that Down in the Valley will have just a brief stint in Baltimore before it ultimately finds a second audience on DVD.
"Most of the films that I've done that I considered artistically successful have been massive failures financially," he says with a weary grin. "And yet, in the long run have not been at all. Because video gave them a second life."
Still, he hopes that Down in the Valley will buck that trend to become one of those magical indie films that strikes a chord across the country, particularly in his hometown.
"I really do hope that Baltimore will go see this film. Because if they do ... ." he tries to draw an analogy: "It's like your vote. You don't think your vote matters, but it does. If people go and see it, it sends messages. It does go up the pipe. And then Baltimore would get more of those kinds of movies."
At press time, it wasn't clear yet whether or not the film would have a gala benefit screening at The Senator (as seven of Norton's films have, raising $750,000 for Baltimore-area causes). But Norton does have a longstanding relationship with that grand old movie house, and its everintrepid owner, Tom Kiefaber.
Those who caught The Senator's recent run of Heart of Gold, the Neil Young concert film, might've heard Kiefaber cryptically thank Norton before each showing. So what did Norton have to do with Heart of Gold? Nothing, directly. You see, Kiefaber felt passionately that the film should play at The Senator and asked Norton if he could pull any strings to make it happen. Norton did more than pull a few strings; he called director Jonathan Demme personally and lobbied on The Senator's behalf.
"I will always be grateful to him for that selfless act of kindness and concern on our behalf," says Kiefaber. ''When we find ourselves really up against it, Edward has always responded to our 'SOS.'"
You can probably count on one hand (heck, maybe on one finger of one hand) the number of movie stars who would make that phone call to Demme. But that's the beauty of Norton. There's this massive machinery of Hollywood that manages to consume everyone who encounters it. And yet, somehow Norton stays above the fray-making the films he wants to make, advocating the causes he wants to advocate, and caring enough about his hometown theater to drop everything and make that emergency phone call. He seems almost constitutionally incapable of selling out. Bob Dylan—and, more importantly, James Rouse—would be proud.