Interview: Edward Norton

Edward Norton and Wes Anderson on set.  Photo: PA Photo/UPI Media
Edward Norton and Wes Anderson on set. Photo: PA Photo/UPI Media
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Two-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton once said the key to capturing his characters’ core is their shoes.

In his latest movie, Moonrise Kingdom, it seems he’s made an exception. As Scoutmaster Ward it’s the knee-length shorts which are crucial.

“You have to start with what Ward thinks and he loves the uniform. To him, it’s all a part of something he believes in, almost like a religion,” says the rather serious 42-year-old American actor. Moonrise Kingdom is the latest offering from Wes Anderson, the filmmaker behind The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr Fox.

Set on an island off the coast of New England in the summer of 1965, it tells the story of two 12-year-olds (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) who fall in love, make a secret pact, and run away together into the wilderness. As various authorities try to hunt them down, a violent storm brews and the peaceful island community is turned upside down. As you’d expect from an Anderson film, it’s oddball and includes an impressive roll-call of actors including Bruce Willis, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. Norton, however, spends most of his screen time with a vast entourage of children in tow.

“I’ve worked with very well-known actors who were much more difficult than those kids were,” he says. “The trick to Wes’s characters is that they’re incredibly serious and sincere about what they’re doing and there’s humour in that. If someone said, ‘We’re going to do an improvisational comedy’, that’s a different sort of pressure, but the way Wes makes movies is more like making a drama. You have to play it straight.”

Melancholic and wistful, Anderson has suggested the film depicts a summer that many people wish they’d experienced while growing up, and the actor agrees.

“I don’t think most of us were brave enough to actually run away with the girl we had a crush on and I don’t think any of the ones I knew would have come away with me,” says Norton, who grew up in Maryland with an attorney father and English teacher mother. After watching his babysitter appear in a musical version of Cinderella, he enrolled in his first acting class at the age of five.

He continued to act in local productions throughout school but went on to study history and Japanese at Yale University before moving to Japan “for a long summer”.

On his return, he moved to New York and acted in off-Broadway productions while studying under the tutelage of theatre director Terry Schreiber.

“He always wanted you to have a full tool box so when faced with a certain kind of material you were equipped,” says Norton whose big break came as an altar boy accused of murdering a priest in 1996’s Primal Fear.

The role earned him a Golden Globe and his first Oscar nomination, while the audition tape of the screen test he’d done created a buzz among many influential casting agents. As a result he was cast in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You and The People Vs Larry Flynt opposite Woody Harrelson.

Professionally it was an amazing period but he endured heartbreak when his mother died from cancer in 1997. Shortly after her death, Norton turned down a big budget Hollywood movie and “an enormous amount of money” to appear instead as a neo-Nazi skinhead in American History X.

“I remember thinking I may never see a part like this again. It could come off really badly and I’d be up there with a swastika on my chest or it could come off well and it’d really kick people in the gut,” he says.

The gamble paid off and he was awarded with his second Oscar nomination in 1999. The same year he starred as an insomniac in David Fincher’s Fight Club opposite Brad Pitt, which was vilified on its release but is now considered generation-defining.

“It’s such a stunningly brilliant piece of cinema,” says Norton. “We thought it was going to be a big needle right in the eye of a lot of other people. But we made it anyway and that was exciting.”

In 2000 he made his directorial debut with Keeping The Faith, dedicating the film to his mum. He worked consistently throughout the Noughties appearing in such films as Frida, Red Dragon, The Italian Job, The Illusionist and The Incredible Hulk and then appeared to take a break.

The truth is he’s been busy overseeing the construction of a new theatre in New York with fellow members of his theatre company and writing a new mini-series for HBO based on Stephen Ambrose’s acclaimed book Undaunted Courage about American explorers Lewis and Clarke.

This summer, he’s starring in Tony Gilroy’s hugely anticipated The Bourne Legacy, alongside Jeremy Renner. But he won’t confirm he’s playing the villain.

“To me, doing a variety of things is the only thing that keeps it interesting,” he says. “If I felt like I was just exercising the same muscles over and over again, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”

Moonrise Kingdom is on general release from today.

Edward Norton A life on screen

Edward Norton was born on August 18, 1969 in Maryland, USA.

While he may have become a critically acclaimed actor, he failed his audition to study drama at Yale University.

Norton founded and runs Class 5 Films, in partnership with Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Stuart Blumberg and producer Bill Migliore.

He used Bugs Bunny as the inspiration behind the street smart Lester ‘Worm’ Murphy in 1998’s Rounders.

Although he wrote the script the 2002 film Frida was based on, he says he wasn’t credited on the final movie as he wasn’t a member of the Screen Writers Guild.