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Actor Edward Norton has starred in a wide range of movies, from cult hit “Fight Club” to commercial blockbuster “The Incredible Hulk.” But recently he’s been very selective about his projects. “Motherless Brooklyn,” which he both acts in and directs, made the cut. Jeffrey Brown spoke with Norton at the Toronto International Film Festival about the film’s “emotional intimacy” and current relevance.
Actor Edward Norton has starred in movies such as "Everyone Says I Love You," "Primal Fear," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and "Birdman."
But, as Jeffrey Brown discovered at the Toronto Film Festival, his newest film, in which he both stars and directs, is his most personal yet.
This report is part of our ongoing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.
In the film, "Motherless Brooklyn" Edward Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a small-time detective thrown into some very big doings.
The story is based on the 1999 novel by Jonathan Lethem.
I got hold of it and was immediately grabbed by this character. The core of Jonathan's book is much less the plot than it is this emotional intimacy he creates between you and this character and his incredible mind.
Lionel is familiar in some ways, extraordinary in another. He has a form of Tourette's syndrome, a kind of verbal tic which causes him to fixate on words and yell them out, often at the most inappropriate moments.
They haven't even submitted plans, just milked until it really is a slum.
Slamming for the slumlords, Bailey.
Despite this being a very debilitating thing in functioning in the world, inside his mind, it's this constant kind of beautiful game of almost jazz.
And what was that like taking it on as an actor?
That's a nourishing meal as an actor, to take on the empathy that you feel, the nuance, the beauty and the pain, all of it. It becomes a rich challenge.
Norton is best known for acclaimed performances in small, tightly wound film such as "American History X" and the cult hit "Fight Club," as well as the commercial blockbuster "The Incredible Hulk."
But he's recently chosen to be very selective in his projects.
Working less as an actor becomes a better and better thing, because, at a certain point, I get tired of seeing the same people too many times myself. And I think about how people I really respect and admire their work…
Who are you thinking of?
Well, Daniel Day-Lewis or Sean Penn.
Sometimes, people say like, oh, we wish we saw you in more. And I always say like, why? Why? Because is it — part of the reason you like what you like is when it's withheld from you for longer, I think.
In the new film, he's done it all, written the screenplay, starred and directed a cast of top actors.
And he's opened up Lethem's book to set the action against big social change in New York in the 1950s, as a character based on real life New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, played here by Alec Baldwin, plots and connives to carve up and shape the city.
Moses, known as the master builder, never held elected office, but wielded an autocratic clout.
Palaces of culture where hellish slums used to be you.
It all sounds pretty grand, I guess, unless you happen to be one of the people whose house is in the way right now.
I was fascinated by those things. I felt — I feel even still that many people really don't have a clear view of what the truth of how modern New York that we live in now came to be what it is, in many of its dysfunctions.
Right, gentrification, the loss of neighborhoods.
When we tell our stories about how America works to ourselves, we don't say, these things get decided by, like, autocratic, imperial forces who were racist and never held public office. We say, that's not how power works in America. Power is with the people. We make these decisions.
And that's not true in modern New York.
Norton thinks movies, especially the film noir style of "Motherless Brooklyn," can offer a challenge.
Good noir, good noir cinema is kind of a tradition of saying, hey, under our sunny narrative, there's stuff going on. If you peel back the corner, there's stuff going on in the shadows that ain't quite everything we're saying it is. And I like that.
This is clearly a passion project, one that took Norton years to pull off.
It's hard to get these kinds of movies made at the scale that I made this.
You mean hard in Hollywood?
Hard. Yes, it's hard. It's hard.
These kinds of movies aren't getting made so much anymore. That just means you have to sort of persevere and figure it out.
When I was coming of age, like, a movie like "Reds" had a huge impact on me. Warren Beatty wrote, produced, directed and starred in a three-hour-and-15-minute film about American socialists, with documentary interviews with the real people from the time.
And I remember Warren telling me that people told him, this is going to end your career. At a certain point, you kind of go, I have been doing this for a while. I have got the musculature. I have got — I know what I want to say, and go — what am I waiting — why wouldn't you do this?
Why wouldn't you try to do what people who have inspired you have done in the past, and go for something that has scope to it and says things that you care about?
The film "Motherless Brooklyn" is now playing around the country.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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