New direction for a rising star

CATCHING UP WITH ... EDWARD NORTON

Maryland's Oscar-nominated actor goes behind the camera in a romantic comedy with Ben Stiller and Jenna Elfman.

April 16, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

By now Edward Norton should be immune to goose-bump experiences.

But when the twice Oscar-nominated actor, currently on every important short list in Hollywood, talks about the premiere of "Keeping the Faith," he leaves the distinct impression that he's fresh from a pinch-me moment.

For one thing, the premiere -- his directorial debut -- occurred at New York's fabled Ziegfeld Theatre, the kind of old-fashioned movie palace where klieg lights always seem to be shining, even for a plain old matinee. For another, "Keeping the Faith" was written by Stuart Blumberg, Norton's post-college New York roommate, longest-term creative collaborator and chief dream-sharer.

"For the first time ever, my lease had lapsed in New York and I was staying in a hotel, on a high floor," Norton recalled the day after the premiere, over a cup of tea at Baltimore's Pier 5 Hotel. "Stu and I had lived in an apartment on West 78th Street, and I wrote him a note saying that I could see our street from my room. And a few hours later, we were walking into the Ziegfeld saying, 'Can you believe this?' We'd seen so many movies there together."

In fact "Keeping the Faith," a romantic comedy about a priest (played by Norton), a rabbi (Ben Stiller) and the goyish girl they both love (Jenna Elfman), might be seen as a valentine to the New York that Blumberg and Norton explored during their salad days after graduating with bachelor's degrees in history from Yale University in 1991. Most of the movie, which opened in theaters Friday, was filmed on their old Upper West Side stomping grounds, and the film opens with Tom Waits rapturously singing "Please Call Me, Baby."

" 'Heart of Saturday Night' was my walking-around-New-York music," Norton says of the 1974 Waits album the song is from, "just like Gershwin might be Woody's." Norton only learned a few weeks ago that the song would be available. "Tom doesn't like that record," says Norton, whose blond hair falls in soft waves over his forehead, and who is dressed casually in a white shirt and sweater. "If you can believe it, he thinks he sounds too young on it. But he saw the movie and the sequence and he liked it, so the deal was clinched literally two weeks ago."

The anxiety of waiting on a recalcitrant musician was just one of the things Norton learned during his first directing project. "You can observe the process as an actor on the set and if you really watch what it's all about, you can certainly come to an intellectual understanding" of directing, Norton says. "But it's different from having those things falling on your shoulders, and just those things you can never know other than first-hand, like the lack of sleep. But I was well-coached. I've gotten to go to school with the best teachers."

The finest tutors

Those teachers include Woody Allen, who directed Norton in the musical comedy "Everyone Says I Love You" (1996); Milos Forman, in whose "The People vs. Larry Flynt" (1996) Norton played First Amendment lawyer Alan Isaacman; John Dahl, who directed Norton in "Rounders" (1998); and David Fincher, whose film "Fight Club" (1999) Norton counts as the artistic high point of his career.

"If I could pick a film that came closest to my aspirations, it would be that one," he says. "I think Fincher is the most technically gifted stylist, with a true storyteller's understanding of how to apply style to theme and emotion."

And even though Norton, 30, has considered himself "a good soldier" for every director he's worked with, his stint behind the camera has led him to make a few solemn promises. "Next time I'll start working with the composer much earlier," he says, explaining that he and veteran composer Elmer Bernstein had "a ridiculously condensed schedule together." He also vows, only half-jokingly, "never to be late again, or have a cell phone or appear unfocused."

'You have to pull back'

Norton approaches conversation with the same intense seriousness that he has tackled his most celebrated roles, from the psychotic killer in "Primal Fear" (1996) -- a role that garnered Norton his first Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor -- to his searing performance as a skinhead leader in "American History X" (1998), for which he was nominated for best actor. He says that directing was "part of my continuing effort to let go and not crush the life out of things by micro-managing them.

"You always have to strike that delicate balance between sticking with your vision and knowing that's what's going to bring you home in terms of tone and intent, and stepping back and letting people do their work," he says. "Or at least have the shot."

Stepping back was especially challenging when it came to working with his cast. "As an actor, it's hard not to give them a line reading," he explains. "You have to give them at least five or six takes. It's like kids crying. You want to go, 'No, do it this way.' But you have to pull back, otherwise you end up closing the door to great, unexpected moments."

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