Edward Norton's defining moments Decisions: How this talented young man decided to forego the comfort and security of the family path and step out on the edge.

September 12, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Edward Norton was never much of a poker-playing man, but you'd never know it from watching him in "Rounders." In the film, an urban-drama-coming-of-age story set in Manhattan's penumbral world of high-stakes cards, Norton plays Worm, a card-shark and a cheat who doesn't exactly possess a poker face.

Indeed, Worm is a bundle of tells (that's poker-speak for little tics and hints that give a player's game away). Sending his best friend, portrayed by Matt Damon, all manner of signals through taps and sniffs and fingers-to-nose, Worm gives off the jangly vibe of a guy just screaming to get busted.

But for Norton, Worm personified the sort of self-knowledge that "Rounders," which opened yesterday, is about. "Though [he's] apparently reckless and self-destructive, he's almost the cowboy philosopher," Norton said recently, calling from the Los Angeles set of "Fight Club," in which he is co-starring with Brad Pitt. "He's very, very comfortable with his own life and the way he lives it."

In "Rounders," Damon stars as a law student who forsakes the life of high-stakes poker for a more conventional path. Worm draws him back into that world and indirectly forces him to choose between the buttoned-down environment of the legal profession or the gray world of card sharps.

"All of us were focused on the strange nature of their friendship and the theme of what it takes for people to be who they are," said Norton. "Fundamentally [this] was a story about self-definition and that moment in life when you have to decide how you're going to define yourself -- and how you're going to define yourself outside people's expectations for you and follow your passion or not."

It would be easy to draw a parallel with Norton's own life, as he decided to pursue acting rather than, say, real estate or law. Norton's grandfather was the developer and philanthropist James Rouse, and his father, Ed Norton, was a colleague of Kurt Schmoke in the U.S. attorney's office during the Carter administration. He is now vice president for law and public policy the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"Matt and I talked about that at different points," admitted Norton, who grew up in Columbia. "The decision to forego other, easier opportunities for structure, stability and financial success in favor of pursuing a creative life."

But self-definition isn't just about career choice. At the age of 29, Norton has had plenty of opportunities to live by his principles rather than expectations.

Last year, Norton turned down the opportunity to star in Terrence Malick's highly anticipated adaptation of "The Thin Red Line," novelist James Jones' sequel to "From Here to Eternity." Norton was asked to play the lead role in the film but chose to pull out of the project. The reason: Norton's mother, Robin, had died of a brain tumor two months earlier; he had also recently lost his grandmother, Betty Norton.

Tonight, Norton will be host of a screening of "Rounders" at the Senator Theatre to benefit the Howard Hospital Foundation and the Norton-Rouse Family Fund. The fund was established by his family to support the work of the physicians and staff of the Johns Hopkins hospitals who cared for their relatives in recent years.

"We've done this every time I've had a film," Norton said, referring to screenings of "Primal Fear" and "Everyone Says I Love You" that were held to benefit the Enterprise Foundation and the Johns Hopkins Neurosurgical Oncology Center, respectively.

"My father and I have just tried to seize on the opportunity of a film and the great venue that Baltimore has in the Senator to try to get people out to have a fun evening but support something worthwhile. I've found them to be very enjoyable evenings, much more fun than those sort of evenings in Hollywood."

Tonight's sold-out event, which has netted an estimated $75,000, will honor two physicians in particular: Dr. Harry Oken, the Nortons' family physician, and Dr. Henry Brem of the Johns Hopkins Neurosurgical Oncology Center, who helped develop a groundbreaking brain cancer treatment.

"Culturally, there's a disproportionate value placed on entertainment in our current culture, and that's fine on some level," Norton said. "On other levels, I think if you can take some of the disproportionate attention that gets given to movies and the people in the movies and use it to acknowledge other people's amazing work, that's a good thing to do."

After spending the weekend with his family and friends, Norton will return to L.A. to finish "Fight Club" ("The subject of it is sort of under wraps"). Then he plans to return to his home in New York and contemplate his next project. "I have no set plans, although at some point next year I will direct and be in 'Keeping the Faith,' a film that my producing partner wrote. It's a screwball comedy in the vein of 'The Philadelphia Story' about a young rabbi and a young priest who are best friends and fall for the same girl."

Norton will appear later this fall in "American History X," a drama in which he portrays a skinhead who tries to save his brother from repeating his own mistakes.

In the meantime, Norton doesn't plan to take up poker again, even though he and Damon made it to the poker World Series in Las Vegas earlier this summer.

"We did well," he said with just the slightest hint of surprise. "I think we comported ourselves very respectably. I lasted the first half a day; Matt lasted two more hours after that. Some big players were knocked out before we were, which isn't a testament to how good we were but to how volatile the tournament milieu is. Matt had two kings and was beat by two aces. I lost by a full house to four tens. Both were professional hands. We made no mistakes. We went out in style."

Pub Date: 9/12/98

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