Without many people realising it, Edward Norton is one of the most influential men in Hollywood. On and off screen, in multiplex and the art house, for nearly three decades, he has been quietly shaping contemporary cinema. Matthew Specktor speaks to the writer, director and actor about his latest film, Motherless Brooklyn
“You’ve got a head like mine,” Edward Norton says, quoting himself – riffing, actually – on the screenplay he wrote for his recent adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning novel Motherless Brooklyn, which the actor also directed and in which he, also, stars – “always boiling over and turning things around”.
We’re on the phone and these words – which Norton is offering to me as evidence, some sort of indication of what drew him to play the character of Lionel Essrog, the Tourette’s-afflicted detective at the centre of Lethem’s novel, and which moved him to spend nearly 20 years piecing together his film (the book was published in 1999, and Norton optioned it shortly thereafter) – ring out in a way that feels revealing. “Some people call it a gift, but it’s a brain affliction all the same,” Norton adds, completing the line which in the film is spoken by Michael K Williams (as compelling here as he was in The Wire), but which Norton suggests is a kind of key, a way that he, as an actor, could understand a character with Tourette’s Syndrome. (“I think actors tend to be pretty mimetic, with an instinct towards mimicry and the sound of people’s voices,” he adds. “I’m thankful I don’t have what I would call the paralysing aspects some people with Tourette’s seem to experience, but acting has always been a place for me to channel that kind of love affair with words.”) All this seems true to me – I’ve never known an artist whose gift didn’t feel like an affliction to them at least some of the time – but as I’m on the phone with Norton, who’s calling from the Telluride Film Festival, where Motherless Brooklyn just had its premiere, I feel a little shock of recognition at the line, just as I had when I saw a screening of the film a few weeks ago. Maybe it’s because everybody’s head seems to be boiling over a little bit these days, and the hectic slaw of meaning-and-interpretation that would live inside a Lionel Essrog’s head could be familiar to anyone who’s ever felt trapped inside their Twitter feed; maybe it’s because the words, like Norton’s performance, and indeed like the movie itself, simply feel achingly and gratifyingly personal.
Norton has made at least a portion of his career playing characters with a certain volcanic undercurrent – for example, the unnamed protagonist of 1999’s Fight Club – but on the phone, of course, he doesn’t seem to be “boiling over” at all. He’s affable, attentive and – this is the pleasure of it, for me – searchingly intelligent. I find myself leaning into his occasional silences and pauses, the way one does in any good conversation – leaning into that distinctive voice that is familiar to most moviegoers, melding as it does a certain warm vulnerability with a faint, adenoidal trace of sarcasm – with a kind of suspense, anticipating whatever flash of insight he’ll be able to offer next. Motherless Brooklyn is an excellent film (and, perhaps astonishingly considering its complete assurance, only Norton’s second as a director, after 2000’s Keeping the Faith), but it is also a vibrant reinvention of a classic noir detective story, replete with so many of the traditional hardboiled tropes – wary narrative voiceover; a creamy jazz score; a byzantine plot involving corrupt city officials – that feels not just ‘new’ but in fact pointedly contemporary in its relevance. The film’s villain (even if, like so many of the truly great noirs that preceded it, like Chinatown or A Touch of Evil, Motherless serves up a ‘villain’ of such relish it feels a bit reductive to call him one) is based on Robert Moses, the legendary ‘master builder’ of 20th-century Manhattan, and played by Alec Baldwin. The character also has certain resemblances, in his venality and unchecked aggression, in his naked racism and New York-real-estate chicanery, to another former developer who looms large on the American stage in 2019.
“The funny thing is, I finished writing the screenplay in 2012,” Norton says, when I ask him about just how pointed these resemblances are intended to be. “We were heading into Obama’s second term, and I wondered – in a good way – whether some of these things I had written about might be moving into the rearview mirror.” He laughs, ruefully, before asserting that the character, who doesn’t exist in Lethem’s novel, is, of course, nevertheless fiction. “There’s great freedom to doing it . There’s a reason Chinatown made William Mulholland into ‘Hollis Mulwray’ or Citizen Kane was about ‘Charles Foster Kane’ rather than William Randolph Hearst. You get to distil things that way. Baldwin’s character is informed by Robert Moses, but also by Strom Thurmond and all kinds of other people.”
Sure, I say, but when I press him a bit on the point – that the decision to transplant the setting of Lethem’s novel from the 1990s to the 1950s, and to invent a very different narrative for Lionel Essrog to move through, seems an unusual one, albeit effective – he responds as someone with a keen sense of American history (indeed Norton was a history major during his undergraduate studies at Yale University). “I think noir is a unique tradition that’s allowed us to look under the veneer of the Pax Americana, to peel back the surface of the national narrative a bit and view the shadow life that’s always been there. You look at a film like Chinatown – which is set in the 1930s but made in the 1970s, as we’re losing the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal is coming to light. The film isn’t directly about either of those, but really it’s saying the whole edifice of mid-century America – those things, and others – is built on a crime of massive proportions.”
True. And while the success of Motherless Brooklyn rides on precisely this ambiguity – a period movie that feels acutely about our present moment, while at the same time seeming like its emotional and dramatic resonances would hold true in any other – Norton’s greater body of work as an actor suggests a similar consciousness of the long view, a mind that is always working to find a wider and more plausible context in which to exist. (“America has right now what a Latin American friend of mine who works for Univision calls ‘the Big Man Problem’,” he tells me. “A strange affinity for the guy who has the bravura to say ‘Me and no one else. I am all that is needed.’”) As he and I discuss certain benchmarks from his long and variegated career –1999’s Fight Club comes up, of course, as do the previous year’s American History X, 2006’s Inside Man, 2014’s wonderfully resurgent Birdman – one thing that recurs is the notion of the long-tailed success, alongside the feelings of risk, of possible failure that are always present inside the creative process. “When we were making Fight Club,” he tells me, “we were having so much fun. All of us who were inside the bubble, making it – Brad and Helena and Fincher were laughing so hard. We thought everyone was going to get it.” History, of course, has validated this view, as the film now holds an enduring, and deserved, popularity, but at the time Fight Club’s reception was mixed. (“I think some people may have felt indicted by it,” Norton says. “They might not have been able to see it as funny (at the time).”)
Still. As he and I press deeper into questions of long-range success – Norton offers a funny story about the great Czech filmmaker Miloš Forman (who directed Norton in 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt) being advised to change the ending of his 1975 masterpiece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after screening it for his peers Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, each of whom offered their own characteristic solution for how to do it. It becomes evident that Norton doesn’t care so much about the quick fix, the short term pleasures afforded by Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, and that he cares more about work that might startle a viewer out of complacency. He mentions Spike Lee as “one of the great American filmmakers of the modern era” – we share a moment discussing what it was like to see Do the Right Thing in a theatre in 1989, what a robust awakening that offered for members of Generation X like ourselves – and notes, “There’s no question in my mind that I’d rather do less work and have it be possessed of that quality, that energy that can engage some of the moral and political conundrums of the age that we’re living in, than do stuff that is just the cinematic equivalent of soy lecithin, that is… non-nutritive.” He laughs. “When I look at things I really love,” he adds, “like Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, which I think are the masterpieces of my generation, some people get them, and some people don’t, but in the long tail these are the movies that count. There’s this conversation that takes place within the immediate that is full of all kinds of distorting factors, and then that fades away and you’re left with what’s actually there.”
To continue reading the full interview, order issue 25, out now
Norton wears Berluti AW19 throughout
Photography Tom Craig
Styling Dan May
Hair and makeup Tyler Johnston at One Represents using Hair by Sam McKnight and Tom Ford Beauty
This article is taken from issue 25. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here