Bourne and the USA
YOU HAVE to feel for Edward Norton. His Bourne Legacy co-star Jeremy Renner gets to tear around Manila on a motorbike and scale remote mountains in the Canadian Rockies, while Norton spends most of the production on a New York soundstage. Not fair, surely.
“M’eh,” he shrugs. “Car chases aren’t as much fun as you think. You’re sitting in front of a green screen on a mechanical gimbo going like this . . .” He leans this way then that. At 42, especially when riding an imaginary motorbike, he retains much of the gangly boyishness that helped propel him toward stardom in the mid-1990s.
“Besides, I live in New York,” he adds cheerfully. “Shooting there is great for me. Take your tie off, home in 20 minutes. I had that one scene in South America with Jeremy. We shot that in Manila. But there’s a limit to the amount of time you want to spend in Manila. It’s not the Lawrence of Arabia experience you might have dreamed of at film school. And with the Scottish-Irish colouring . . . you know . . .” He tails off. Too much information. Edward Norton, though a perfectly cooperative interviewee when quizzed about movies – when he’s invariably thoughtful and never breaks eye contact – has always been rather reticent on the subject of Edward Norton. And just in case I didn’t remember as much from previous encounters, I received a polite, firm email from his people to remind me.
Suffice it to say, we won’t be asking about Courtney Love.
Norton has never seemed all that comfortable in the limelight. His latest films, Moonrise Kingdom and now The Bourne Legacy, arrive after a two-year absence from the silver screen.
“I did those two with Wes Anderson and Tony Gilroy back to back,” says Norton. “One was like being in summer stock theatre and having fun. The other was serious and silver hair. It was a pretty hilarious jump in terms of tone.”
Between jobs, we can only presume he lives quietly, working for various charities. He ran the New York City Marathon for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust in 2009. He sits on the board of his family’s affordable housing trust, Enterprise Community Partners. He founded Crowdrise, an online network for volunteers and charitable micro-donations in 2010. He has been the UN Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity for more than two years.
He doesn’t want to crow about the charity work; the polite, firm email said not to speak of it. Following high profile romances with Ms Love and Selma Hayek, Norton recently proposed to producer Shauna Robertson, his girlfriend of six years and the only significant female presence in Judd Apatow’s locker room. But, with or without the polite, firm email, we know not to ask about that.
“If I ever have to stop taking the subway,” Norton told Vogue magazine in 1997, “I’m gonna have a heart attack.” His career, accordingly, has rarely stopped off in any one place for too long.
He’s the song-and-dance man from Everybody Says I Love You and Death to Smoochy. He’s the divided protagonists of Fight Club, The Incredible Hulk and Leaves of Grass. He’s the co-star and writer-director of Ben Stiller’s comedy Keeping the Faith. He’s those nasty pieces of work from American History X, Rounders and Down in the Valley. He’s a working actor who pops up in Ricky Gervais’s The Invention of Lying, Sasha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator and TV’s Modern Family. He’s a regular player on the shortlist for Greatest Living Actor, a notion that seemed to receive an official endorsement when he played alongside Robert de Niro and the late Marlon Brando in Frank Oz’s The Score.
Mostly, however, he’s a director’s actor, a talent who works for auteurs such as Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Miloš Forman and Spike Lee.
“I’m drawn to people like Wes or Spike,” he confirms. “I love people who have almost an obsessive commitment to a set of themes. Wes keeps making movies about how family always disappoints us so we construct the family that we need. In almost every one of his films someone is seeking an identity. Miloš keeps making films about anarchic individual spirits pressing back against oppression, whether it’s Mozart or Larry Flint, they’re battling Nurse Ratched or something bigger. To me that’s the mark of an auteur, that kind of commitment.” He has, in turn, returned the favour by facilitating the productions of 25th Hour, Pride and Glory and By the People: The Election of Barack Obama.
He was a writing contributor on Incredible Hulk and Frida. He has propped up riskier ventures Fight Club and American History X, a film that required rescuing in the editing suite, although neither of these iconic pictures was a hit on release.
“It’s hard in the beginning,” he says, “It’s hard when films like American History X or Fight Club don’t hit those numbers. You can’t prepare yourself for how people around you will act. People will not acknowledge those films’ artistic merits. They just dismiss them. They flopped. They are flops. I’m not sure I understood the difference then. But when you’re doing this long enough you come to realise that the films that had the most impact on you were not necessarily acknowledged or commercially successful at the time.
“It’s a process of maturation when, as an artist, you can turn around and say, ‘this is not a flop; its worth can’t be measured by box office over those first four weekends’. You can’t always marry those two things. It’s rare that something has artistic worth and has the bean-counters shouting ‘Yes!’ But there’s a satisfaction in knowing something has worth that can’t be measured in numbers.”
Norton feigned a Kentucky accent to land the role of Appalachian choirboy Aaron Stapler in 1996’s Primal Fear. It was only later that the casting director learned that the Maryland-born, Yale-educated actor was the son of Edward Mower Norton, an environmental lawyer and federal prosecutor for the Carter Administration and the grandson of philanthropist and civic planner William Rouse. It was his first film, but the Oscar nomination that followed marked him out as the Next Big Thing.
He’s had his pick of projects since, yet it’s always a surprise to find him in bigger franchise pictures such as Red Dragon, The Italian Job or, indeed, The Bourne Legacy. No one feigned surprise when he turned down the opportunity to reprise The Hulk for Marvel’s The Avengers.
“Studios, as entities, can do very cynical stuff,” says Norton. “Without getting into specifics, they can literally recast a picture and sell you the same thing they sold you before. We’re just going to cast the next young guy and here it is again. It’s the same stick of gum re-chewed and you’ll buy it.” He agreed to The Bourne Legacy for Tony Gilroy, the film’s director, who previously authored Michael Clayton and Duplicity.
“Tony is an auteur,” says Norton. “Think about that phone-call to Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton. That’s probably one of my favourite monologues in modern cinema. The slow realisation that he’s doing evil. It’s such a great piece of writing. And as a writer and director he’s been pulling this thread of paranoia through everything he does, a resistance to the idea that, if we don’t push back a bit, we’re only a couple of steps away from this corporate, oligarchical order.
“The same character pops up in all of his films. It’s the Man. He’s set up this theme of people reaching their limit and resisting, which is very timely I think. What is Occupy Wall Street if not this sometimes chaotic response to the idea that human interest is less important than corporate, political interests?”
The Bourne Legacy has enjoyed an eccentric history. When director Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon bowed out of a fourth Bourne picture in 2010, Bourne trilogy screenwriter Gilroy signed on to steer the franchise in a new direction. Norton read “a cinderblock of paperwork” on the NRAG (National Research Assay Group), the director’s inspiration for DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), the shadowy antagonists of the new instalment.
“What I liked about the project was Tony’s enthusiasm for expanding this Bourne world,” says Norton. “He said he wanted to go wider, much wider. It’s the same way that The Wire starts with drugs and then expands out to the schools and the papers and the politicians. It’s a Russian doll. It’s a warning: be afraid, be very afraid of this matrix and the control it’s starting to exert on us. The biggest irony of the Right’s fear of socialism is that nobody’s really afraid of universal, western European style healthcare for everybody; they’re afraid of Soviet-style totalitarianism. Obamacare is not threatening to enslave us. But the ruling plutocracy is.”
Next year, Norton hopes to direct Motherless Brooklyn, an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning novel about an NY detective with Tourette’s Syndrome. He has been working on the screenplay, off and on, since 2007. It’ll be his first time behind the camera in 12 years.
“I put it away for a bit but I’ve been working on it all spring so the writing is finished and I’m looking at it again more aggressively. It’s a process. Even if I think I’ve written the greatest thing in the world, I’m still not entitled to anybody else’s money. You have to be responsible and figure out what you need. How can I make it work for the investors? It’s a big leap for anyone to put millions of dollars into a small, personal project.”
He stops and smiles: “Even Da Vinci had benefactors and patrons. And it still took him years to finish the Mona Lisa.”
* The Bourne Legacy opens on Monday and is reviewed on page 12