Spinning Platters Interview: Edward Norton on “Stone”

by Jason LeRoy on October 15, 2010

Edward Norton in STONE from Overture Films

Edward Norton does not seem like much of a movie star in person. When he first walked into a small Ritz Carlton conference room to discuss his new movie, Stone, with a handful of sweaty, panting, near-hysterical online journalists (okay, that was mostly me), he didn’t exactly blow the roof off with “star power” magnetism. He was soft-voiced, studious, and modestly dressed.

As he sat down and began answering our questions, he gave lengthy and eloquent answers while leaning far forward onto the table, glinting through those famously heavy-lidded eyes as he fussed with his rings. You’d be more likely to mistake him for an author than an actor. But perhaps that’s appropriate, given the thoughtful and well-considered roles he’s taken since his Oscar-nominated debut performance in Primal Fear skyrocketed him to international fame fourteen years ago.

After his 1996 debut, Norton spent the next four years enjoying some of the greatest acclaim of any young actor in recent memory, working with legendary directors like Woody Allen and Milos Forman and on such enduring films as Fight Club and American History X. This first rush of fame culminated in his directorial debut, the romantic comedy Keeping the Faith, in which Norton costarred with Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman.

In the last decade, Norton has starred in a handful of big-budget films (Red Dragon, The Italian Job, The Incredible Hulk), but increasingly produces and co-stars in smaller productions like Down in the Valley and Leaves of Grass. He recently emerged gracefully from a bout of tabloid rumors about his lack of involvement with Marvel’s upcoming film of The Avengers, in which he will not be reprising his role as the Hulk (the part went to Mark Ruffalo). And now he’s earning raves for his impassioned performance as a prison inmate in Stone, which reunites him with director John Curran (The Painted Veil) and costar Robert DeNiro (The Score). Below, Norton talks about working with Curran and DeNiro, collaborating with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood on the film’s score, what inspires him to make films, good directors vs. bad directors, and the best way for actors to control their work.

This is your second film with John Curran. Could you talk a little about your working relationship with him?

It’s great. I really, really enjoyed doing The Painted Veil with him. With any director, there are two levels to consider: how it is working with them to make the film, and how the film actually comes out. And with John, I think it’s great on both counts. He’s terrific with actors, and I really love what he did with this film. He knew that Stone was a challenging film with some very elusive themes, and he wanted to go there with actors he had a lot of faith in. And with a role like this, I need to work with someone I really feel good about. Because when you’re swinging pretty wide, you’ve gotta trust someone’s taste on what to pick. It’s a good fit. Also, DeNiro and I had been looking for something else to do, something that would let us dig in a little deeper together. So he rang me up as soon as he read this and said we should do it. I’d like to work with more people again. [laughs] There’s great advantages to it.

What is it about the spiritual theme of the film that appealed to you?

John was very passionate in saying, “I want to make this now.” The financial crisis had hit, and there was so much talk in the air about the whole notion of things about life that people had taken for granted…people going through the experience of approaching retirement and thinking they were set in all these ways, and finding out everything crumbled that they’d anchored their sense of themselves in. John was urgent in saying, “I wanna roll around in that sense of decay and abandonment.”

It’s about how we build up our lives in these constructs of work and church and marriage and stock portfolios, but we don’t really do the hard work to see if those things are really as authentic as we think they are. And when the rug gets pulled out, it’s bad. It’s bleak, but it’s bracing. When I read it, I thought, “This is relevant.” And John was articulate about the idea that imprisonment can take many different forms. You can be imprisoned in an inauthentic life as much as you can be imprisoned in a jail.

As you said, this is your second time working with DeNiro. Do you have a favorite DeNiro performance?

Many, many. But the way I’d put it is this: what I really admire about him is that across a long period of time, he’s really investigated – in a committed way – some very deep themes in American life. The thing I like about that, as an actor, is that an actor is not the writer, per se. You don’t necessarily think of an actor as having control over the conversation, if that makes any sense. Yet when you look at his career, you see someone exerting a very specific artistic sensibility and a real impulse to explore certain themes about dysfunction and particular pathologies. I always looked at him with a particular kind of admiration, because he’s an example of the way an actor can specifically contribute to the conversation.

I don’t look at him as iconic.  The reason he’s become what he’s become isn’t just his skills as an actor, but his commitment to the kind of things he works on. It’s a very high standard, and it isn’t always commercial. I mean, look at his work across the ’70s. Now he’s part of the canon, but those films weren’t commercial at all. Burt Reynolds was the biggest movie star in the world while DeNiro was doing Taxi Driver. [DeNiro] wasn’t the biggest movie star, but his films are still around and those other films are not. I take a lot of inspiration from someone like that.

What kind of preparation did you do for this role?

I had a lot of uncertainty about this part going into it. There was really nothing in the script [by Angus MacLachlan of Junebug] to draw upon. It was set in the south, and the character was extremely different from the way we took it. It was John’s idea to move it to Michigan, and to have Stone be from Detroit. But still, I just couldn’t get a beat, I wasn’t super-confident about it. I didn’t have an image of him in my head. I felt a little more at sea with this than I have with many other things.

Ultimately, it was just meeting these prisoners. I was getting great insights but not a specific idea, and then in just the last five days before filming, I met this one guy who just blew it all open for me. I really thought he was the perfect construction of what I was looking for. I was like, “I’m just going to channel that.” [laughs] It got easier once I found it. It’s like a car, and once you find the right key you’re like, “Okay, now I can drive it for a while.” If you can figure out what model car you’re in, then you can cruise around.

Imprisonment in different forms seems to be a recurring theme in your performances.

I think that’s true. I guess I find myself more pulled toward things that are rolling around in what’s difficult about contemporary life, if that makes any sense. When [screenwriter] David McKenna and I first started talking about American History X, after he’d had the idea and we started working on it together, he talked a lot about rage as a trap or a cage, and the way marginalization makes people punch back. Fight Club, Down in the Valley, The 25th Hour – they’re all films that are very much about people sucked into one form of trap or another.

I think the reason I get pulled in is because, like everyone else, when you read a certain piece of work and it names something that you recognize but was maybe unconscious of before, you go, “Ah, that’s great, that puts a name on it.” I think that speaks to what zeitgeist films do. The films that put a big dent in me were the ones that made me feel that way, that I was watching something that was speaking to the experiences I’d had. When you have that sensation, it’s very cathartic, very thrilling. You feel more connected. And once I saw that films could do that, I wanted to start making those kinds of films. I mean, I loved The Terminator, but The Terminator isn’t what made me want to make movies. Do the Right Thing, Taxi Driver, those are the kinds of films that made me think, I could be a part of making that kind of movie. I’m probably just always going to be in the audience for those other kinds.

What kinds of things do you look for in directors so that you feel comfortable on set, and which directors do you think you’ve worked best with?

I think one of the great qualities of many of my favorites is that they look to be surprised. I think a director’s impulse to control what happens is in almost direct inverse proportion to how exciting the work ends up being. Milos Forman, David Fincher, Spike Lee, John [Curran], David Jacobson… The people who I’ve worked with who I think are really inspiring are the ones who are the most confident. They know what their part is, so they sit and watch and watch and watch and don’t say anything. They listen and they watch and they hope to be surprised. The directors I’ve worked with who’ve been the least original are the ones who just want to see the videotape they’re running in their head be replayed out in front of them. The magic just evaporates.

Do you personally feel you’d like to get behind the camera again?

Yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh. I mean, at some point. I probably shouldn’t have waited so long. [Norton hasn’t directed since Keeping the Faith]

Could you talk more about Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood’s contribution to the film’s score?

John [Curran] and I got to talking really early on about the whole theme of how Stone talks about becoming a “tuning fork of God,” and how when that sound comes, it’s terrifying. It wasn’t in the script, but we thought it would be interesting to have a trope in the film of this “tuning fork of God.” So I happened to be in England with Jonny [Greenwood], who is obsessed with sound and wave forms and all kind of wonderful stuff. And I was like, “If you were gonna deconstruct a sound, what would sound like a huge tuning fork?” And he was like, [incoherent British mumbling] “Maybe an organ, maybe an organ…”

They didn’t actually score the film because they didn’t have time, but they play with this kind of stuff all the time, so they had files and files and files of literally taking instruments and breaking them down into wave forms and sounds. So they just shipped a bunch of stuff off to us to play with, and we worked with their engineer a bit to fine-tune it. The film’s titles are actually a track of Thom’s that didn’t make it into a song, so he gave it to us. But then we needed actual themes for the score, so John [Curran] went to Jon Brion, who’s someone we both loved. His work seemed in sync in many ways with the Radiohead guys’ stuff. So Johnny recorded some organs, Jon recorded some organs, two of the sound engineers teamed up with some textural stuff, and then John Curran basically conducted it all. He threw it all into a Cuisinart to create this very experimental and unusual soundscape.

Has there been any one question you’ve really hated while doing this press tour?

No… One thing I’m interested in about this film is people asking questions where they’ve clearly had a lot of their own thoughts about what something meant, but they’re different from what other people have thought. You go through a series of conversations and people are observing very different threads of it. I like it because that means you’re getting into that sweet spot where you’re provoking a lot of thought, but you haven’t imposed meaning. When you’ve told people what a film is about, you get much less interesting questions. When the film has enough gray or open-endedness or ambiguity that people are interpreting it through the lens of their own experience, it starts to be pretty neat.

Stone opens in Bay Area theaters today.

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