Edward Norton Interview Magazine
Ingrid Ssischy :: Was there a film or a play that you saw when you were a little boy that made you think, I want to do that?
Edward Norton :: I had different moments. When I was very small, I had that first-time-you-see-a-play experience, which immediately made me want to act, because it seemed like this incredible outlet for something I was already doing fairly compulsively anyway, which was putting on hats and costumes and doing funny voices. It was a very natural compulsion for me, and I felt like, Oh, here’s this thing that looks like real fun to me. But then in my teens I became self-conscious about it. My school was very sports-oriented, and I remember suddenly being mortified at the idea of girls in my school seeing me in a play or something like that, and I backed away from it. Then when I was about 16 or 17, I had a teacher who took a group of us to the National Theater in Washington, D.C., and I saw Ian McKellen do his one-man show—I think it was called Acting Shakespeare—and it completely bombed me; it put the zap on my brain in a big way. I remember walking out of there going, Okay I have to rethink this whole thing—this has turned into a much more serious undertaking, with much more serious potential. I remember watching him and thinking, This is something an adult person can do with their life. That was a very significant moment.
In terms of films having an enormous impact on me, I’d say there are almost too many to mention. My mother took me to see Woody Allen films early on, and on an adult level, I remember Spike Lee‘s Do the Right Thing  completely upending my whole perspective. It totally awakened me to a different relationship with movies, in the sense that for me and a lot of my peers, it was a real experience of film expressing the zeitgeist. That was the first time I watched a movie and thought, That is somebody talking about our experience right now. It got my whole skin buzzing. It was so exciting to me at 18 or 19, because it was one of the first films where I said to myself, This guy’s talking straight to me, like an adult. He’s saying "Do the work" and "What do you think?" Even the movie’s title, Do the Right Thing—how do you act on that?
Ten years ago in Interview Magazine, Edward Norton said "I don’t like doing a project if I don’t have a very clear understanding of why I want to do it." A decade in, anyone who has followed those choices knows he’s driven by a desire to always reach further – not the surest route to a big box office, perhaps, but a certain antidote to movie complacency. Norton is interviewed by Ingrid Sischy, editor in chief of Interview and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, in the May 2006 issue of Interview Magazine. Read the full article after the jump!
UPDATE :: High quality scans added to the gallery!
By : Ingrid Sischy
Interview Magazine May 2006
INGRID SISCHY :: How many years has it been since you first appeared in the magazine?
EDWARD NORTON :: Ten. Primal Fear came out in the spring of ’96.
IS :: So, after a decade, what has acting come to mean to you?
EN :: It’s changed a lot. Certain things that I would call selfish, but not in a derogatory sense, remain the same, like the pleasures for me as an individual in terms of my own experience. The kind of intrinsic learning that’s embedded in acting, if you approach it in a certain way, is like having a master key to every door, and you’re granted access to these worlds of experience that most people don’t get—with the possible exception of writers or journalists. And that’s eternally fascinating to me.
IS :: You came to all of this from a very privileged background, no?
EN :: Yes, in terms of my opportunities, but my mom was a public-school teacher and my dad was a nonprofit environmentalist. My parents weren’t wealthy. My grandfather was successful, but I grew up in a very modest, middle-class, suburban environment. I went to public school my entire life. This was in Columbia, Maryland, near Baltimore.
IS :: Do you have sisters and brothers?
EN :: Yeah, I’m the oldest of three—one brother and one sister. People think because I went to Yale that that implies privilege, and it is a privilege in the sense that it’s an incredible opportunity. When I think of my background, if I was privileged on any level, it was in terms of the kind of exposure to experience and bohe-mian cultural influence that my parents and my uncles and my grandfather gave me. On both sides I come from an extremely eccentric, artsy, intellectually intense, activist family. Which is a mouthful to say. But when I relate to my growing up in terms of privilege, it’s got nothing to do with money. What I did grow up with, though, was an extremely vibrant, large, extended family of people who were intense aficionados of the arts and intense social activists. I think all of that was an extremely rich environment to grow up in. My parents were the kind of people who keep the rest of us in business. They were passionate theatre-, opera-, concert-, moviegoers, and devourers of culture.
IS :: To this day your father is still following an activist course, right?
EN :: Well, my father has been a major figure in the environmental advocacy world for the last 25 years—he worked for the Wilderness Society and co-founded both the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the Grand Canyon Trust; in addition he co-founded the Nature Conservancy’s China program; and he’s now helping to direct the Nature Conservancy’s whole Asia-Pacific program. He’s been a major force in the maturing of the American environmental advocacy movement.
IS :: And that happened since you grew up?
EN :: No, he’s been doing that since I was 10 or 11. He was a federal prosecutor before that.
IS :: Are you the first actor in your family?
EN :: Yes, but my family didn’t consider it even remotely freakish to be an actor. I don’t think my parents or my uncles ever missed a performance I gave when I was growing up. One of my uncles is a painter, the other is a self-taught classical pianist and chamber oboist, so there’s never been any kind of prejudice against the arts or against being in the arts.
IS :: Was there a film or a play that you saw when you were a little boy that made you think, I want to do that?
EN :: I had different moments. When I was very small, I had that first-time-you-see-a-play experience, which immediately made me want to act, because it seemed like this incredible outlet for something I was already doing fairly compulsively anyway, which was putting on hats and costumes and doing funny voices. It was a very natural compulsion for me, and I felt like, Oh, here’s this thing that looks like real fun to me. But then in my teens I became self-conscious about it. My school was very sports-oriented, and I remember suddenly being mortified at the idea of girls in my school seeing me in a play or something like that, and I backed away from it. Then when I was about 16 or 17, I had a teacher who took a group of us to the National Theater in Washington, D.C., and I saw Ian McKellen do his one-man show—I think it was called Acting Shakespeare—and it completely bombed me; it put the zap on my brain in a big way. I remember walking out of there going, Okay I have to rethink this whole thing—this has turned into a much more serious undertaking, with much more serious potential. I remember watching him and thinking, This is something an adult person can do with their life. That was a very significant moment.
In terms of films having an enormous impact on me, I’d say there are almost too many to mention. My mother took me to see Woody Allen films early on, and on an adult level, I remember Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  completely upending my whole perspective. It totally awakened me to a different relationship with movies, in the sense that for me and a lot of my peers, it was a real experience of film expressing the zeitgeist. That was the first time I watched a movie and thought, That is somebody talking about our experience right now. It got my whole skin buzzing. It was so exciting to me at 18 or 19, because it was one of the first films where I said to myself, This guy’s talking straight to me, like an adult. He’s saying "Do the work" and "What do you think?" Even the movie’s title, Do the Right Thing—how do you act on that?
IS :: Which naturally leads to the next question: How do you decide what projects to take on? Sometimes I imagine it’s about doing things that have the potential to become meaningful, and other times I assume it’s for other reasons.
EN :: Sure, I’ve done things here and there for the opportunity to work with certain people. Maybe it’s a heist movie, but if I can work with Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, as I did on The Score , there’s no way I’m going to deny myself that experience, even if the film is a disposable piece of entertainment. For all my own reasons, it was totally worth it. There are things you do for the fun of doing them or to work or to hang with certain people. But the projects that I’ve invested myself in and cared about most deeply have absolutely been activated by a desire to chase something that I relate to, or that I see as having the potential to speak to someone else directly. The People vs. Larry Flynt , that was a choice over other opportunities, as was American History X  and Fight Club .
IS :: And Frida ?
EN :: And Frida, certainly, though my role in it was not so much as an actor but more as a writer. Frida was about people who were trying to challenge perceived assumptions about how relationships should be and how politics should be and trying to live their lives in an extremely radical way, both as individuals and as artists. Those are examples of films I felt most strongly about work-
ing on, Down in the Valley being the most recent.
IS :: Let’s talk about Down in the Valley. You’re clearly committed to it. And your commitment seems to go beyond just wanting to make sure it’s not a commercial flop.
EN :: Well, most of the things that I have felt passionately about have been commercial flops, though I would argue, immodestly, that a large number have stuck around in a significant sense, certainly more than many that do much better financially. You know, I have to bring up the recent Scorsese Dylan documentary [No Direction Home: Bob Dylan], which has been very much on my mind. You watch that and you get this portrait of a person who never hesitated to pursue whatever idiom he was working in, whatever message he was after, whatever set of themes, whatever form, be it acoustic or electric. He did what it was he was feeling, with total disregard for whether or not the audience was already there with him. And, in fact, they usually weren’t. With the kind of initial success that he had—in which he wasn’t just successful but was the focal point of an entire generation’s need—he, at age 23, had the courage to go, "Well, don’t look to me to keep doing that. I’m going over here, and if you don’t like it now, I don’t really care. You’ll come and find it eventually." Just seeing that portrait of an artist absolutely firm in the conviction that he’s going to do his work and that the audience will come and find it in their own good time is so invigorating to me. It’s such a challenge, such a slap in the face to the idea of second-guessing other people’s opinions when they want to work on something. When you’re doing a piece like Down in the Valley, the thing that’s both most exciting and most fearful about it is this feeling in the middle of it of "I don’t know what we’re doing. I know what I feel about this. I know intuitively where we should be going, but I don’t know if what we’re doing is working. I don’t know if we’re going too far. I don’t know if the way that we’re playing with form or narrative, or the idioms that we’re mixing, the references that we’re embedding, will mean anything to the viewer." It’s the most exciting place to be.
IS :: Talk about some of the references.
EN :: John Ford movies, more postmodern movies like Taxi Driver  or Lonely are the Brave  or the western mixed with the great American Hollywood movies, such as The Misfits , mixed in with something that’s completely about the suburbs today, like Magnolia .
Down in the Valley is a deeply personal piece of work. But it’s about how the past is living inside us, and how the idea of romanticizing the past may be, in fact, useless, even destructive. More and more I feel that there are many other things besides making movies I could do, but the kind of work we were doing on this film will pull me back to the medium again and again. If I can connect with that kind of sensation while doing it, of feeling uncertain about what it is we’re manifesting, but also knowing that, at the gut of it, we’re dealing somehow with the present moment, then I’ll do it.
IS :: As a viewer, what happens when you’re watching Down in the Valley is that you’re in this very familiar world of classic, glamorous Hollywood iconography—Elizabeth Taylor and Monty Clift—but then you’re also in the most surprising way in the world of westerns and cowboy films. It twists and turns and surprises. I think the thing about it that becomes really interesting, though, are the moments when it morphs from one thing to another. For me, there was a point when suddenly it became a kind of love letter to Los Angeles—the way it was, or maybe the way it is— and I was not expecting that. I first saw the film as all the pre-Oscar hoopla was heating up with Brokeback Mountain, and the differences between the two films were fascinating. While Brokeback Mountain focuses on the love that dares not speak its name, Down in the Valley comes off as a kind of an un-cowboy cowboy movie.
EN :: It’s also a love story, because it’s about people trying to connect and not being able to on the deepest levels.
IS :: But there are multiple loves here.
EN :: Many. There’s the love of a father for his daughter and his inability to insulate and protect her as he would like—he has to confront the reality that his daughter is going to experience love and pain, and he can’t stop any of it.
IS :: Then there’s the love between a sister and a brother, between a people and their country, the love of the western, of cowboy movies, and on it goes. Your involvement with the film goes beyond simply being one of its stars. Where did you come in on it?
EN :: I spent six months working on the script with David Jacobson, the director, and another six months helping to prep it and shoot it, and then he and I spent a year after that editing it. We raised the money for it independently. I produced it, he directed it, and we cut it together.
IS :: And this was all with the knowledge that it might—
EN :: Not find a distributor. This was actually my first experience making a film that I would call independent with a capital "I" in the sense that we made it with no guarantee it would ever be put out. We made the film without a built-in plan to distribute it or anything like that. We went out and made it for the sake of making it. We cut it on our computers and did it sort of soup-to-nuts from a »/ery personal place. A big part of the initial pull for me was working with David Jacobson. This is his second film—he directed the movie Dahmer , which was very intense—
IS :: About Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer?
EN :: Yes. This film comes from David’s own feelings about where he grew up and how he related to the psychic and spiritual bankruptcy that he felt there, meaning the [San Fernando] Valley. And when he first presented the script to me, it wasn’t like a finished record. It wasn’t produced, it wasn’t done, it was this fantasia. It was very different in many ways from the movie we made, but at the core of it was this voice—in the character of Harlan [played by Norton], yes, but also in the roles of the children [played by Evan Rachel Wood and Rory Culkin]. They are guid-anceless children wandering around with absolutely no idea about how to figure out who they are, in a landscape of people anesthetized and lost and overwhelmed by this concrete, subdivided, cultureless, spiritless reality. One that is full of longing.
It’s strange to compare Fight Club with Down in the Valley, but they’re very similar in certain ways. And I would throw out that anyone who liked Fight Club will like this film, because they’ll recognize in it that idea of how this world that we’ve inherited has cut us off from feelings of authenticity and identity. Does Marian’s fantasy of the West even come from the West, or does it come from the movie version? You don’t really know if the West that he’s rhapsodizing or fantasizing about or idealizing even really existed, but it sure doesn’t exist now. The thing I loved about what David does with this film is he’s saying, "I want to make a western, but I want to make one about the West that I know, about the West as it is now. I want to ask the question: Is the West gone? Has it been lost forever? Is there any piece of it left? Can a person still carve the kind of life for himself that it once represented?"
IS :: Your belief in this film is visceral.
EN :: I would probably rate it as one of the most intimate and most collaborative experiences I’ve ever had. David and I were a good yin and yang because I’m much more type A than David, but he’s an incredibly deep thinker, and a very sensitive, daring person—a lot of what is reflected in the film, in terms of what I would call the courage to follow a line that many people may not understand or embrace, and to end in a place that asks the audience to sort out what they’ve seen, comes down to David’s, not just willingness, but commitment to challenge in that way.
IS :: As I told you when I first saw the film, my issues with it aren’t where it isn’t clear. My issues are where it is too clear.
EN :: [laughs] Yeah. I know. But you’re rare that way. I think that most people are going to feel that it asked too much of them, that it’s left familiar narrative beats.
IS :: The really interesting thing about this film is how it stays with you. I was very honest with you after I saw it. There were parts I loved, parts I didn’t. I was impressed by the performances, but not by everything. But that’s not really the point. What matters is that audiences get a chance to see a film like this and make up their own minds. That’s part of why Interview exists—to tell people about interesting, worthwhile things. That’s our freedom with a magazine like this. We’re lucky.
EN :: I feel lucky, too, to be able to do this kind of work. And that’s the thing right now about film as well as music. There are all kinds of things happening. In music, the fact that there’s a Britney Spears doesn’t in any way diminish that there’s an All Farka Toure, an Iron and Wine, or a Radiohead.
IS :: I think the mix makes it better.
EN :: It does. And that’s why I am obsessed with the Dylan documentary I was talking about earlier. You know how you need a new kick in the ass every now and then? Doing Down in the Valley was like a kick in the ass, as was watching that piece on Dylan, because you sit there and think, Whatever I’m doing, I’m still not going far enough.