Edward Norton was anointed one of the best actors of his generation when he made six films in the three years between 1996 and 1999, including Fight Club and American History X. A Yale graduate with a tabloid history of fighting with his directors, Norton has been nominated for three Academy Awards and recently wrapped Motherless Brooklyn, his first directorial effort since 2000, which he adapted from the Jonathan Lethem novel and shepherded through development for 20 years. Lean and intense at 50 years old, Norton is a father and a husband who has some ideas about strength. He sat down with us at the Toronto International Film Festival.
I like the theme of your movie: a boy who starts our motherless and, like we all do, has to become a man. When did you learn you could stand on your own?
You learn to be a man when you realize it’s empathy that’s important. In the film, Bruce Willis, obviously a man’s man, he’s worried that we lost the ability to take care of each other. We grow up when we stop worrying about our own shit and become an actor in the world.
So finish my sentence: a man is someone who…
Takes care of other people.
Who’s a man we should all listen to?
Thom Yorke, who I worked with on the film and I never made for a Dylan fan, says Scorses’s new documentary [Rolling Thunder Revue] rocked his world. Thom said it’s the most punk rock thing he’d ever seen. Here’s Dylan, who in his early 20s is anointed the voice of a generation and ten years later, the Vietnam War is ending and it’s a fucking disaster and Watergate is uncorking and he’s going: “None of that shit worked, man.” We better get hard and edgy — we better get tougher.
So Dylan’s your man? Because he shelved what was working and got into the fight?
That’s strength. He’s playing A Hard Rain’s-a-Gonna Fall, but he’s doing it in Kabuki warrior makeup and going: wake the fuck up. He’s trying to figure out how to not rest on his laurels and I love that because at the time he’s one of the most famous songwriters in history.
“People are capable of doing more than the tired voice in your head says we are. Everybody’s in the push–pull of selfishness versus heroism — care for something beyond you and your immediate family.”
It sounds like you’re talking about your own choices, like you’re talking about not becoming the Hollywood “It Boy” you were in line to become.
It’s easy to slip into the comfort of whatever people have already enjoyed about what you’re doing or your work, but I loved in Rolling Thunder when they talk to Dylan now and he’s like, “That whole time was a disaster. What came from it? Ashes.”
Can you fight to make your movie for 20 years and still be a compassionate person, a good dad?
The world doesn’t get less scary because of what’s going on with you. You have a kid and you realize your own children in kindergarten are required to do lockdown drills — inconceivable in our youth, the idea that as a child you have to understand that violent assault by a shooter is a factor of daily life. This is what we’ve accepted? The idea that anybody could feel complacent is ridiculous.
I think the vast majority of people probably are.
No way, man. We’re in a moment where true nihilists are saying, ‘I’m going to be dead before any of this shit comes home on us.’ People have managed to stoke the fears of a moderate number of people. In the States, we have a thuggish minority in government. But it’s bad self exposure. I don’t think American or Canadian society has a tolerance for that. I don’t think it’s going to be tolerated.
So you’re an optimist?
They will be dealt with.
I like how you have like a tough version of the left. Usually we get that from the right. But the left is more dovish.
We have these geopolitical conversations, but it’s going to end up looking like people arguing at the dinner table while the house burned down. We can’t afford conversations.
So how does a man balance his obligations with his duty to fight?
People are capable of doing more than the tired voice in your head says you are. Everybody’s in the push-pull of selfishness versus heroism — care for something beyond you and your immediate family. People can do a lot without being given permission.
You ever think you’d make it from hothead to here?
When you’re young, you’re like: “I want to say what I want to say, do whatever I want to do,” and it can be consuming. It’s like The Beatles. I always think about this: when The Beatles quit, John and Paul were 30. George was 27. They grew up and got lives. They fell in love and got healthy. If you get to the point where it’s like: “I have to make two movies a year.” What is that? You get older and say, “Maybe if I focus on community, my family, surfing; maybe that pocket where the work’s going on will stay vital or true. Or more interesting.”
I keep staring at you and seeing those characters. Do you ever feel that swastika still on your chest?
Playing yourself all the time, that’s some narcissistic shit. I get sick of those actors quickly. You think that same little thing you do is eternally compelling? It feels really glib. I find myself attracted to things very far afield because to me that’s exotic. Take Daniel Day-Lewis. He has a deep amazing gift, but also a commitment to going away like a warrior monk and reemerging with something potent. I’ve lost sight of who the fuck that guy is and I love that. That, to me, is very cool.
You don’t sometimes wish you made more films?
McDonald’s makes a lot of hamburgers. But that doesn’t make them great.