MUCH ADO ABOUT NORTON : SIFF Pays Tribute to Edward Norton

Early last month, multi-Oscar-nominated actor, Edward Norton was invited to the Northwest as part of the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival.  Beginning on June 3rd, with American History X, and ending on the 5th, with Spike Lee‘s 25th Hour, SIFF helped to celebrate the actor’s illustrious career by screening some of his most successful work.  Norton was on hand to provide short personal introductions to each of the films, but the most substantial portion of the tribute took place on June 4th at the Egyptian Theatre and included the festival honoring him with their trademark Golden Space Needle award.  The festivities at the Egyptian also featured a live interview with the actor and a screening of his latest project, Leaves of Grass.  I was there for the events and, for an artist who’s managed to build a career off of his ability to shift characters effortlessly, often within the same role, I can safely say that Norton only exposed one of his faces that night.

The Egyptian Theatre

Seattle, Wa

June 4, 2010

The evening started with a slide-show of sorts, showcasing dramatic scenes from each one of Norton‘s movies.  The biggest applause was delivered for the 1996 film Primal Fear, that provided him with his breakout role as an altar boy on trial for murdering a priest.  Through various twists, his character was able to avoid incarceration by fooling his own lawyer, played by the “master thespian” Richard Gere.  Apart from an educational ESL film, this was only his first professional movie role, but it allowed the young actor to truly display his range early.  The other greatest crowd noise greeted Fight Club, the 1999 generation defining film of which Edward claimed “didnt do much at the box office but has since gone into the world and formed its own, deeper connection with an audience“.  This movie epitomizes the term cult film.

After coming out and accepting his award, Mr. Norton provided the introduction to the film screening that night.  Leaves of grass was directed by Tim Blake Nelson and features Edward Norton performing double duty, acting simultaneously as twin brothers.  One of the brothers is a clean-cut perfectionist with big city smarts, who has gained prominence as a philosophical thinker and professor.  Through a lot of effort, he has managed to lose his accent and is only visiting his twin after being swindled by a crossbow murder hoax.  The other brother is the owner of a seriously sophisticated pot growing operation located in the deep south of Oklahoma.  These two have interactions so seamless and natural that I quickly forgot that they were being played by the same guy.  Although those transitions were aided by one of the brothers having long hair, tattoos and whatnot, while the other was much closer to the very clean-cut Edward Norton we all know and love, his work was still impressive.  About halfway through, the film segues into what has become a somewhat typical Nortonian darkness, where carnage, duplicity, and duality show their strange and shadowy faces.  Overall, I found “Leaves” to contain plenty of splendid acting and to be a movie with genuine heart.

After the film, the man of the evening returned to the stage to be interviewed by local critic, Tom Tangney. Edward Norton was reluctant to reveal even one iota of information, as far as his personal history was concerned.  Slightly chagrined by this, Tangney inexplicably countered with, “Well you know, with celebrities, everyone wants to know everything about you.. ha ha ha”   To which Mr. Norton then replied, “That in no way compels me to answer these questions“.   He stated that, although he didn’t want to go quite as far as Bob Dylan‘s quote of ” just because you like what i do, doesn’t mean I owe you anything” he feels that knowing the personal information and/or history of an actor can in no way improve on a movie watchers experience.  He went on to further explain that such information can actually be counter-productive to the viewer, as they will start to see them through THAT prism, rendering a performance as less of a “blank” canvas.  This early exchange launched into what became an extensive interview with the Academy Award nominated actor.

Throughout the conversation, I was surprised to learn that Mr. Norton is ivy league educated (he went to yale), and has a degree in history.  The interview lasted for nearly two and a half hours, with the actor waxing at length about various preparations and anecdotes as an actor, regarding each of his movies.  He spoke very slowly,  kind of stammering through, sometimes rambling, but always answering questions and countering the interviewer’s points in the end.  By my estimation, the reason that he is one of the more successful and respected actors of his generation is due to his incredible attention to detail.  He also exhibits a very cerebral approach to the craft, often eschewing the notion of instincts as the most “legitimate” form of acting.  He approaches everything both clinically [from the outside in] and emotionall  [from the inside out].  These are just some of the concepts that he philosophized over during the night’s sit-down.  He actually came across as a little nervous or uncomfortable about being there at first, but seemed to eventually relax.   Whether it was an act or not, the “lost boy in the woods” thing clearly won people over in the end, myself included.

Edward Norton, the very rich, very well put together man who’s face is familiar to so many of us, came off as down to earth as anyone that I’ve ever come across.  This is probably part of his appeal.  Like Jimmy Stewart before him, Norton is an “every man” figure who just happens to be an incredibly gifted actor and is seemingly grounded in craft, as opposed to fame.  As he exited stage right, a few folks moved in for a couple of autographs.  He still looked nervous and, after about one and a half minutes of that noise, he was gone, disappearing into the shadows of the Egyptian Theatre.  I heard about him introducing Fight Club at a midnight showing later that night, but Ive seen that movie too many times and I had to get on home.  Fortunately, we were able to locate the following video footage of the introduction posted below.

The following audio was taken from Tagney‘s blog “Behind the Screens” featured on MyNorthwest.com and contains sound bites from a follow up conversation that the critic held with Norton the day after the event.

INTERVIEW MP3

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All photos above were generously provided by photographer Casey Broadwater.  Please check out more of his images at CaseyBroadwater.com.  View more from this specific photo set, by linking to his Flickr account through HERE.