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"Enter From the Outside": Norton Lifts Veil at the Y

Edward Norton in The Painted Veil, which concluded the Reel Pieces series Thursday night (Photo: Warner Independent Pictures)

By John Lichman

While many are decrying 2006 as a year of lackluster cinema, we can always retort that it was the year of Edward Norton instead. At Thursday night’s Reel Pieces event at the 92nd Street Y, moderator Annette Insdorf assured the crowd that she contacted 25 acclaimed actors and directors to end their 20th series—one of whom, oddly, was Nick Nolte.

“But always on that list was a particular actor, director, [and] producer that I consider to be the best actor of his generation," she said. "Namely, Edward Norton.”

Insdorf's decision to invite Norton to discuss his film The Painted Veil, which screened prior to their chat, comes from her observation about how influential 2006 and the year's three "radically different" Norton films -- Down in the Valley, The Illusionist and finally Veil -- were for her former student (“I still resent the minus on my A,” he joked). The theme for the night was, of course, duality: Not as demonstrated by clips from Death To Smoochy! “nor him gamely singing in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You” (her words, not ours), but rather through the violence of Primal Fear and American History X, teaching Rory Culkin to shoot from Down in the Valley and finally, Norton using magic to grow an orange tree in The Illusionist.

As the conversation began, Norton reflected on how he remained involved with The Painted Veil for over six years of development, “It was one of those stories that if you described it to somebody, it was easy to sort of write off as a twee-English period thing,” he said. Claiming he found something “very surprisingly modern and much more visceral” than normal, Norton developed the original adaptation with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner to not only produce a faithful adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's source novel, but to expand upon otherwise blank characters battling ethnic tension, cholera and a dissolving relationship in 19th century China.

“I always say that I think in film an actor has much more external assistance than in the theater, sometimes,” he said. “The clothes help a lot and those places help a lot. I think people like to romanticize the deep internal work that an actor does, but it’s amazing how much putting on a waistcoat and a starched collar -- you stand like an adult. You stand the way that I’ve never stood in my life. And you begin to enter in from the outside.”

Finally addressing his three films released last year, Norton seemed more annoyed that those roles would be so close to one another. “I actually did that work across two and a half years, and by circumstance they ended up coming out together," he told Insedorf. "There was a moment I thought, 'Aw, man -- this is exactly why I didn’t want to happen.' I do believe in the phenomenon of people getting too familiar (with) an actor. You can get tired of watching somebody ... You can lose, as an actor, the capacity to carry people into something or have them go along with the conceit of a character if they’ve seen you too many times. Part of me was a little bit disappointed that they came out. But there’s this other side of you that goes, 'I wonder if I’m going to pull it off --if each can be distinct enough to be a separate experience. So that was interesting.”

More from Norton follows the jump, including his takes on producing, American History X and the slave driver who is David Fincher.

NORTON ON SCREEN ROMANCE: “Yeah, I think passion is easy and forgiveness is hard. I think that’s what in a lot of ways it's about. I’m not knocking other films, but I don’t tend to respond to romance as defined in films by people who meet through their wedding planner or whose dogs’ leashes get entangled. Maybe I just haven’t experienced it yet, and I’ll see how true it really is one day.”

ON PRODUCING: “I think as a producer, producing is a shitty job. It’s a lot of work to (a) low reward ratio. It’s worth doing when someone else isn’t already doing it and you care about the thing enough to try and shepherd it along.”

ON DAVID FINCHER: “The only time I’ve had an experience of a director wearing me out was on Fight Club. David Fincher’s a really good friend of mine, and he’s a genius, but he will shoot thirty takes of something without blinking. He’ll shoot fifty before he starts to question. Now he’s shooting digital and our friend Mark Ruffalo is working with him and calling us from China going, ‘He’s on 100!’”

“A story that has a cautionary, prescriptive effect by depicting the fall of somebody that could’ve been anything -- that’s the classical definition of a tragedy. When we set off to do that, one of the conversations we had was that we didn’t (think) people took dead aim on real tragedy anymore. And that there was plenty of it all around us in our experiences of the world. (Screenwriter) David McKenna and I, when we were working on it, that’s what we were taking aim at: the tragedy of the misdirected anger we felt in our peers, in our generation around us. You can only go at it with the best of intentions, and I was confident in our intentions. And then you just work hard to make sure you don’t go too far into making it seductive without showing the lie in that seduction.”


Veil director John Curran (from the audience): "That’s my line!"

Norton: “Was it really?”

Curran: "I dunno -- it’s a good answer."

Posted at January 26, 2007 3:11 PM

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