Primed for Stardom The twist: Young actor has a primal fear of being pigeonholed as the guy from Yale. His bright film debut should make him much more than that.

April 02, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Shhhh. Don't tell anyone he went to Yale.

Don't tell anyone he's not a "Baltimorean," like the ads for the benefit premiere at the Senator tonight say, but a real, true-blue Columbian, a 1987 graduate of Wilde Lake High who studied theater at the Columbia School of the Arts.

You can't even tell people about his extraordinary film debut in "Primal Fear," because if you do, other than to say it is extraordinary and that the whole movie depends on it, you somehow give too much away.

So for a 26-year-old-local-boy-makes-really-good, Edward Norton has certainly gotten himself enmeshed in a web of secrecy as he pursues a very public career.

From almost nowhere, he is apt to become the most talked-about actor in America come tomorrow when "Primal Fear" opens nationally. Industry word of mouth of his performance has skyrocketed his career with feature roles in new films by Woody Allen and Milos Forman. The buzz is everywhere, except around him, because he wants to keep everything toned down.

"I don't like to play up the Yale thing," Norton says over the phone from Memphis, where he's working with Forman and Woody Harrelson on a film about Larry Flynt. He seems almost embarrassed that a Yale reference slipped into his otherwise minimalist studio biography in the press notes, "because if they find out you went to Yale and came from a certain kind of family, then you're stuck. I have found it's an industry to pigeonhole you. They feel safer with easy labeling -- they fit you into a niche."

Ah, the disadvantages of a Yale education!

And how is a journalist supposed to deal with his performance in "Primal Fear," with its phenomenal last-minute twist?

"Ah, allude to it," he instructs, "without spilling the beans. I think at some level, if it works, the good word of mouth will compensate for the lack of specific information in the reviews."

In fact, when the film was being cast, the role was so famous as a career-maker in young-actor culture that dozens of the hottest young guys in the business tried to grab it. The part was that of a young drifter who is arrested in the brutal murder of a revered archbishop, widely thought guilty, but defended by maverick defense lawyer Richard Gere.

"A part like this," says Norton, "happens every 10 years. All the young actors in New York and Hollywood knew about it. And if they'd been able to get certain people to do it, they would have."

But director Greg Hoblit took "the position that anybody who wanted it would have to audition for it, famous or not," because the part was so important. And the casting director decided that if they were going to have auditions, they were going to open the process up and let everyone -- famous or not -- take a crack at it.

"It probably added potency to the trick that nobody'd seen my face or heard my voice. That means the audience goes hook, line and sinker for me without giving it a second thought. But I had to go through an excruciatingly long period of time waiting to hear if I'd gotten the part or if they'd decided to give it to one of the big names."

Norton has been interested in theater since childhood, but didn't study acting at Yale's famous dramatic school.

"I'm not a Yale-trained actor," he says.

After college, and after working for a number of years for the Enterprise Foundation -- a philanthropic organization founded by his grandparents Jim and Patty Rouse that works on urban housing the world over -- he spent time in Japan and in Baltimore, and believes the work being done is "amazing."

"That's why I'm doing the benefit," the normally retiring young man says. "That, and to put the Senator before the public eye. I saw a lot of movies there and I'd hate to see it go."

But eventually, he decided to head to New York and pursue the theater, though not without some misgivings.

"It's a tough thing. Anyone pursuing an artistic career is gambling, particularly if they know there are other things they can be doing. On the other hand, every year you're doing something you're not in love with is an equally damaging waste of time.

LTC "It's a fickle and elusive business -- but if you're taking in good feedback, then you keep going."

He worked on and off in the theater, ultimately finding a professional home with the Signature Theater, a repertory house that devotes each season to the works of a single playwright, which he found challenging and rewarding.

But then there he was on the set the first day in Chicago with big movie star Richard Gere, and was he scared?

Maybe, but he also felt prepared.

"You pick up certain things. I'm a huge cinophile. If you watch at a certain point, you watch as [if it's an acting] class. You begin to break down what people are doing. And some of it is just instinct."

Still, the film experience was intimidating.

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