Actor-activist Edward Norton

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Oscar-nominated actor discusses spiritual authenticity and the notion of judging and being judged as it plays out in his new film.

Edward Norton is a sought-after commodity in Hollywood. With two Oscar nods before age 30, his acting credits include Fight Club, Keeping the Faith, his directorial debut, and his new film, Stone. He also produced HBO's By the People documentary. Although interested in acting early, the Yale grad worked in Japan for his grandfather's company before beginning his show biz career. Norton is also known for his support of environmental causes—he's the U.N. goodwill ambassador for biodiversity—and programs that improve the quality of life in low-income communities.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Edward Norton back to this program. The two-time Oscar nominee is out today with a new film. It’s called Stone. The thriller also stars Robert De Niro. Here now a scene from Stone.
Tavis: I’m trying to figure out where to start. I think I want to start here, the corn rolls. What’s up with the corn rolls, man (laughter)?
Edward Norton: Well, you know, I went up into this prison north of Detroit up in Jackson, Michigan. They were everywhere, you know? I mean, Black guys, white guys, Latino guys. It’s like a lot of these guys, you know, you see ink on everybody. Everybody’s trying to look hard in one way or another and they were all over.
You know, the director, John Curran, he said to me, “I don’t know who this guy is, but I do want him to be from Detroit and I want him to feel like he’s from the tougher parts of Detroit.” When I got talking to one of the guys that I spoke to, he was a white guy, but he had helped start the Crips gang in Detroit. There’s this blending of kind of culture and stuff in there.
Tavis: Your story about having gone to the prison in Jackson, you invest yourself pretty heavily in researching for the roles that you play?
Norton: Yeah. You know, it depends on what it is and where you go for reference points can really just depend. In this case, I couldn’t think of anything better than asking guys who have gone through the process of being reviewed for parole themselves what it was like and understanding that process, better understanding what it did to them emotionally and psychologically to know they were coming up to this moment of being judged. It’s very intense and I really couldn’t think of anybody to ask other than people who were going through it.
Tavis: Was there a theme, a thread, put another way, that you found consistent amongst the guys you talked to about how they processed that moment?
Norton: It definitely caused people anxiety, which was the thing I honed in on because I feel that this story is so much about a person who seems very stable and a person who seems very unstable sort of slowly inverting to end and I think that that anxiety, the anxiety that this character feels as he approaches a decision by other people about whether he’s gonna be allowed to have a liberated life again is intense.
So I think it was very interesting to talk to people about the ways that they try to psyche themselves up for it, psyche themselves out for it, you know. It was interesting.
Tavis: I’m gonna bring our off-camera onto camera now. I leaned over to Edward while the clip was playing and I said, “This is a serious thriller you got here.” He says, “I’m not so sure it’s a thriller, Tavis, as much as it is a very heavy film.” So by that, you meant?
Norton: Well, there is a noirish element in it that this prisoner, in his desperation, sends his very beautiful wife around on the officer who’s reviewing him on the outside of the prison to –
Tavis: – De Niro.
Norton: Yeah. Robert De Niro plays the parole review officer, the psychological review guy, and Milla Jovovich plays my wife. She’s trying to manipulate him. But at the same time, it is much more than, I think, an attempt to – it’s not a trick. It’s not about a con.
It’s definitely – you know, I made The Painted Veil with John and, if you’ve seen any of John’s films, he’s very, very committed to this idea, I think, of really dissecting moral hypocrisy and the impact of denial. It’s a very deep critique, I think, of the idea of spiritual authenticity.
Tavis: I was about to ask something until you said those last two words, spiritual authenticity. You mean by that what?
Norton: Well, I think that, you know, it’s about a person who’s imprisoned and is looking to liberate his life and it’s about a person, while another person who’s judging him, in a way lives in a different kind of prison, which is that his own life is totally inauthentic. His marriage is a shambles and full of denial and disconnection. He’s having a total crisis of faith. He’s lost his faith in God.
So I think it’s very much about what – it asks questions, I think, about what are the different ways that people achieve spiritual peace, enlightenment? Does it happen, you know, always through the conventional structures or can it happen in unexpected ways? It’s full of questions in gray areas which I like.
Tavis: That clip is a fascinating scene in the movie we showed a moment ago where you and the parole officer, you and De Niro, are going back and forth about this notion of judging and being judged. Tell me more about how you process not so much that scene, but that notion? Because it is a notion that the film addresses.
Norton: Yeah. I definitely think – he questions intensively why it is that he – how long he’s gonna be assessed for this one act in his life and what gives the system or this one person the right, the fitness, to judge him and kind of questioning whether those mistakes are a part of who we all are. I think De Niro’s character has secrets in his past that make that an interesting probe on him.
But I think one of the things that definitely drew me into it was the idea there is a certain tendency if you live in the United States that you’ve got to face up to the fact that we as a culture, I think, you know, we as a nation, we judge other nations. We kind of assess, you know, the authenticity of peoples’ democratic values, of their stuff.
But the idea that perhaps there’s a self-critique that’s worth always making sure you’re doing as well, that notion that the one who’s doing the judging often may be in denial about the ways in which you’ve fallen away from a certain set of values or commitments of your own. That idea, the idea of decay, of collapse of inner, you know, commitment is really interesting to me.
And I think De Niro gives a – it’s an amazing portrait that he creates of this guy who quietly his life has been hollowed out from the inside and he’s collapsing.
Tavis: It occurs to me that you chose or perhaps you were chosen for a life, a calling, a vocation, that it’s hard to think of something where people are judged more than being a thespian. I mean, everything you do, you are subject to the judgment of us, people like me. What do you make of that?
Norton: We got a lot of free passes, you know. I don’t have to wear a tie. Everyone says, oh, he’s an artist (laughter). You know, they expect us to behave badly.
No, it’s good. You know, I think getting comfortable with the idea that not everybody’s gonna like everything that you do and that’s okay is an important perspective to develop if you’re gonna be an artist and certainly if you’re ever gonna try to actually say anything.
I mean, I started realizing at one point, you know, David Fincher who directed Fight Club, you know, his movie is coming out this weekend too. He said to me one time, “If we haven’t pissed anybody off, then we haven’t done anything, have we?” If you haven’t left someone behind, if someone doesn’t think you went too far, then you probably didn’t take a stab at anything that was a nerve center for someone, you know.
Tavis: And you’ve gotten comfortable with that, obviously.
Norton: Yeah, yeah, I think so. Also because I’ve realized that people relate to different kinds of art and expression. You know, they relate in the ten second interval and the ten minute interval and the ten month interval and then over like the decade. You know, your sense of what had an impact on you shifts over time.
You know, things stay with you that you might not – in the moment, they might have left you unsettled or puzzled and, because we’re trained to be entertained, you know, we are trained in this culture, I think, to be entertained, to have answers given to us, to have things neatly wrapped up. When things don’t, if they ask you questions and leave some of the work in your lap, that initial experience might be unsettling or you might mistake that for being unsatisfied.
But over time, I’ve found, you know, that the movies that really left a dent in me were the ones that didn’t do all the work for me. So I think, as an artist, on some level, you’ve got to get comfortable with the idea that, you know, if you’re needing people to enjoy it right away, that might mean you’re not gonna like probe very deep.
Tavis: That is deep, but I’ll take it (laughter). You’re continuing to do your humanitarian work, your environmental work? I saw the ceremony with you and the head of the U.N.
Norton: Yeah.
Tavis: You’re steady focused on that, obviously.
Norton: Yeah.
Tavis: Speaking of angering certain people (laughter).
Norton: Well, you know, I looked at – the U.N. has this convention on biodiversity which is a specific multi-national commitment that countries are signatories to it, acknowledges the problem of the loss of biodiversity and also commits to certain actions. I thought that in itself is something that’s worth advocating for. They asked me to be the ambassador for the convention on biodiversity for the U.N.
But then, you know, too there’s things that I thought very specifically I might be able to wave the flag a little on. Amazingly, there are only three countries that are not signatories to the convention on biodiversity and one is a small European principality. The other is the Vatican and the third is the United States.
Tavis: Figured that was coming (laughter).
Norton: Yeah. In the last year, Somalia and Iraq both got their acts together enough to be signatories to the convention on biodiversity, but not the United States. You know, there are complicated reasons for that. The United States helped initiate the convention on biodiversity. President Clinton signed it, but the Senate hasn’t ratified it. You know, that seems to me to be a shame.
I mean, the United States is in many ways a global leader in science and in conservation in some forms, but to not have the United States as a formal participant really puts the brakes on the momentum behind any global effort because, you know, we’re six percent of the world’s population, but we create 25 percent of the greenhouse gases.
So our relative impact is very outsized and we – you know, I think that getting on a soapbox about that is a good thing. We’re making a presentation to a Congressional committee to push for the ratification of the convention.
Tavis: And knowing the way the Senate works, there’s probably one senator holding the whole thing up (laughter). One guy with the power –
Norton: – or a few of the Tea something, Tea what (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) I’m gonna leave that alone. I hear your point, though. So from the last time you were here until now, you ran a marathon and, obviously, you survived.
Norton: I did.
Tavis: So what are you gonna do between now and the next time I see you?
Norton: Um, let’s see. You know, I’ll tell you, I hope the next time that I see you that I’m doing less. I would like to be doing less.
Tavis: Does that mean a half marathon (laughter)?
Norton: No, no. I just mean not so many things at the same time. Next time we talk, I would love for you to say, “What’s up?” and I’ll say, “You know, I’m working on one single thing.”
Tavis: Okay.
Norton: I have great focus, I’m very relaxed.
Tavis: I’ve got this on tape.
Norton: I’m feeling a little like I’m being pulled in four directions at once.
Tavis: I’ve got this on tape. If you need me to send it to you to remind you to slow down a little bit, I’ll be happy to.
Norton: You know, it’s like I can juggle three balls. I’d rather not juggle six balls.
Tavis: (Laughter) Whatever he juggles, he seems to juggle it well. This film is gonna be a good one with a wonderful cast and we’re glad to have you on to talk about it.
Norton: Thanks a lot.
Tavis: Stone is the movie starring Edward Norton.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm