Edward Norton: “If you take your work seriously, it’s all-consuming”

After the quietest decade of his career, screen legend Edward Norton is back in a big way. We caught up with the 'Fight Club' star to discuss The Beatles, working with Thom Yorke, his New York-set noir thriller 'Motherless Brooklyn' – and why he's not calling this a comeback

Reel Talk is NME’s new weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV.

Edward Norton is a talker. When he walks into the room at Soho Hotel, London, putting on a padded jacket and zipping it up, the first thing he does is walk to the window. We’re on the third floor. Most people would look down, where the action is, but Norton looks up. He points out odd brick patterns and an old pulley attached to a roof, left over from when this was a hub of industry, not a huddle of chi-chi hotels. He notices weird stuff. The second thing he does is announce how tired he is. He apologises for his lack of energy. He then proceeds to talk. And talk and talk and talk. He gabs past our allotted interview time and then some. It’s been a while since he’s done this. He has a lot to say.

Norton has been a bit of a stranger to the screen for the past decade. From the late ‘90s to the end of the ‘00s he was everywhere – American History X, Fight Club, Red Dragon, The Incredible Hulk, 25th Hour, to name a few. He was as hot as actors get. The century Leonardo DiCaprio has had so far is the one Norton should have had. But he just sort of stopped. Since the start of this decade he’s played one lead role (in the barely seen Stone), a handful of supporting roles and a few voice parts for animations. Just when he should have been hitting his peak acting years, he stepped away. Now, finally, Edward Norton is back.

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Edward Norton
Credit: Warner Bros.

He’s not just a bit back. With Motherless Brooklyn he’s very back. As if to really hammer home the significance of his return, Norton is not only the film’s star, but its director, writer and producer. Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a New York private detective with Tourette’s Syndrome. Lionel’s underestimated because of his condition, nicknamed “Freak Show” even by his friends, but he’s a brilliant detective. When his mentor, played by Bruce Willis, is killed, Lionel digs into the corruption of New York City and finds a tangle of lies, murder and very crooked politicians.

The whole film is a reminder of just how multi-talented Norton is. It’s packed with ideas about power, race, class and society, and full of clearly carefully considered visual tricks. It is a very well crafted film. You can feel the care and time taken on it. A lot of time has been taken on it. Norton started on it in 1999. That’s when the novel It’s based on, by Jonathan Lethem, was released. Norton bought the rights immediately, grabbed by a character who is repeatedly underestimated.

“I think there’s a genre of films that’s not recognised as a genre,” he says. “It’s the afflicted underdog, you know. Like Forrest Gump or Rain Man. I’d even include Good Will Hunting… They have characters where you root for them because of the affliction… and the plot becomes almost secondary to the triumph of the underdog.” Over the years that he’s dipped in and out of the project, Norton made a major change from the novel, moving the setting from contemporary New York to 1957 New York, to better fit the gumshoe storyline. It gives the film a more stately vibe. It’s clearly the work of an older man – Norton is now 50 – looking at the world with some life experience and the occasional weary sigh, not scrabbling madly in the middle of it. It makes sense as a comeback because it feels like Norton joining the veterans, comfortably proven, not proving himself.

Norton doesn’t see it as a comeback, because to his mind he didn’t go anywhere, he just lived his life. “I had kids,” he says, frankly. “I had kids in 2013 and 2016.” He did, though, make the choice to ease up. “When you’re young, your aspiration is to work. Only to work. You’re looking to flex your muscles and there aren’t the happy encumbrances of a full life. Your life is your work. If you take it seriously at all, it’s all-consuming. So it’s a trade-off with other things.”

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Edward Norton
Credit: Warner Bros.

Through the ‘00s his work was all-consuming. He appeared in 15 films, one of which he directed (Keeping The Faith). The fun of being movie star Edward Norton had also lost its shine. “Look at the break up of The Beatles,” he says (stay with him). “Through the lens of youth, you look at that and go, ‘Why [would they break up]?’ They were 30 years old and the greatest band in the world. Who would quit? As you get older you understand.” He recently watched Above Us Only Sky, a documentary about the making of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and his life at the time with Yoko Ono. “You realise he had become miserable as a Beatle and leaving the band and becoming a human being was making him really happy.” We think in this analogy, Norton is Lennon and Hollywood is The Beatles. 

Norton has worked sometimes and when he has it’s usually been good – like his Wes Anderson films Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel, or his Oscar-nominated performance in Birdman – but he’s not planning to throw himself back in to working constantly. “Nobody’s work is made better by being higher volume. Not bands, not actors, not anyone.”

He mentions bands. Throughout our conversation, there is a name that keeps coming up as an influence on his life decisions. It’s the name of a friend who’s been in his life for almost exactly the same amount of time as Motherless Brooklyn, and left just as much of a mark. 

Edward Norton
Edward Norton and Brad Pitt in ‘Fight Club’. Credit: 20th Century Fox

In 1997, Edward Norton received a call from his friend, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe.

“Michael said, ‘You should come to this thing at Irving Plaza tonight’. There was a vibe like something special was going to happen.” Michael Stipe was correct. The “thing” at this tiny New York venue was a now legendary Radiohead gig, the first time they played ‘OK Computer’ in America. The VIP guest list included Madonna, Blur, Oasis, Brad Pitt, Courtney Love, U2 and Kate Moss. It was so star-packed that Norton was a mere +1. “I am very rarely hip,” he says. “I never feel like I’m at one of those moments but I felt it there.”

Edward Norton
Credit: Getty

As well as a cultural touchstone, it was the beginning of a friendship with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. Stipe knew Yorke well, because Radiohead had been the support act on REM’s 1995 ‘Monster’ tour. He introduced Norton and Yorke and over the next few years, over many more gigs, they bonded over a love of each other’s work. “I remember it was around the time Fight Club came out [that we became close friends],” says Norton. “I caught wind of the fact that Thom and those guys would watch it on their bus. There was a sort of mutual admiration society thing.” They’ve been to Glastonbury together and sometimes surf with their kids in California. It is hard to imagine Thom Yorke surfing. 

It was Yorke, in part, who influenced Norton’s decision to take some time out for his family. “I remember talking to Thom and he said that when his first son was young, ‘I made the biggest ever mistake. I thought it would be alright to go on tour like four months after he was born. That was not enough time.’ He said to me, ‘We did not get into this to be suits. If you have our life and you don’t take the time [to live] what the fuck is wrong with you?’ And that really stuck with me.”

Edward Norton
Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe in ‘Motherless Brooklyn’. Credit: Warner Bros.

Yorke is a collaborator on Motherless Brooklyn. He wrote a ballad, ‘Daily Battles’, for the film. Despite two decades of friendship, Norton was terrified to ask his pal to work with him. “I figured he’d say no,” Norton shrugs. He did not. At 6am one day, without warning, Yorke sent Norton the track. After listening to it, Norton sat on his bed and cried. He liked the song so much that the lyrics shaped parts of the film. The line “the other side has no face” became a way to introduce Alec Baldwin’s antagonist, a town planner who controls the city from the shadows. In his first few scenes, his character’s face is hidden from view, until he storms into frame and glares menacingly through the camera. It’s incredibly effective. “That song wove its way all through the film.” 

When Norton describes working with Yorke he says, “Sometimes people think Thom’s being prickly, but he’s just disciplined.” It might be another reason they bonded, because Norton could be describing himself. He’s long been followed by a reputation for being ‘difficult’ to work with. A lot of this reputation comes down to his brief time as The Incredible Hulk. The 2008 film was pulled between a studio that wanted a blockbuster and a lead actor and director (Louis Leterrier) who wanted to aim for something like Christopher Nolan’s darker-themed Batman trilogy. Norton has talked about it often, candidly. He is still asked about it, but what he says seems no longer to be important. It is decided that Norton hated his time as Hulk. If you google stories about it you’ll find lots of stories about his negative relationship with the film, but if you read his actual quotes, they don’t seem to tell the same story. He talks of it, if not fondly, at least respectfully.

Edward Norton
Credit: Warner Bros,

“I don’t want to keep bringing everything back to Thom’s song, but there’s a line about an argument i cannot stop,” he says. “This is that. This is the experience of modern clickbait journalism. You see others caught up in it too. Like Martin Scorsese.” You almost certainly do not need telling that since Scorsese mentioned he personally does not view the Marvel films as, “cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” the Internet has been in uproar. Everyone has got involved, from Robert Downey Jr. to Ken Loach. “He makes a comment that, taken within the context of the full conversation, is completely thoughtful,“ says Norton. “He’s a man in his 70s who’s made films for 50 years… His answer is distilled into the most antagonistic headline possible. It’s always, ‘X insults X’. The fabrication and the intensification of the fight – where there was none – creates a self-metastesising reality that exists forever.” If it is not entirely clear, this rankles Norton. He is completely open about having arguments on set, but unapologetic. “Not a single great thing, no great film in history, has ever been made without fervent conversations taking place between committed collaborators.”

Edward Norton is not very good at being a movie star but he’s really good at being a filmmaker. He does not currently have any more films on his schedule. It would be a massive shame if we lose him for another 10 years. It seems like he has an awful lot more to say.

‘Motherless Brooklyn’ is in cinemas now

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