Being brainy isn't just a role for Norton


January 05, 2003|By Rachel Abramowitz | Rachel Abramowitz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HOLLYWOOD - Edward Norton is eating a burrito. It seems a pastime that would have better suited Ed Norton, as the actor was known before he became famous. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Edward does not use a faux-familiar nickname like Tom, Brad, Matt or Ben; he's made it clear that he's not a guy who would ever end up in a Tiger Beat poster or deemed by People magazine the sexiest man alive.

You can even hear the Hollywood cognoscenti struggle with the impulse to chuck the formality of his moniker and just call him Ed. But one fears, sitting across from Norton, clothed in a casual black shirt and jeans hanging off his frame, that such familiarity might be taken as an unwanted winnowing down of his persona.

Since he burst on the scene eight years ago with twin Oscar nominations for his film debut Primal Fear and then for American History X, Norton, from Columbia, Md., has been called the Gen-Y actor's actor, the inheritor of the great acting mantle worn by Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. In person, Norton, 33, looks like an elongated choirboy, with an actor's face perfect in its indistinct opaqueness and malleable as putty.

Hair dramatically changes his visage - it can rise upward from his scalp to give him fury, or flop around over his forehead to make him seem weak or sniveling. With the addition of a goatee (like in his current film, 25th Hour), he can appear menacing, and without, he easily dissolves into sweet harmlessness.

At the moment, a tiny mustache lies across his upper lip, an unfortunate reminder of a part (the villain) he didn't want in a movie (The Italian Job) he didn't want to make but was forced into making (at the point of a lawsuit).

Norton doesn't relish interviews, but he's not cold. Caught without a costume, he simply uses words to veil himself.

It's only in flashes that a more vital Norton pops out. One is the secretly amused, adoring light that emanates when he talks about his longtime girlfriend, actress Salma Hayek (only in context, of course, discussing their film Frida).

The other is a kind of contentiousness that flickers to life in the discussion of such issues as artistic integrity. One senses that Norton enjoys debate. He also appears to have a taste for control. This is why acting, even for a movie star who can command $9 million a picture, can be frustrating.

"I guess there's part of me that's always resented it. If you're a painter or a writer or a photographer, even if no one's buying it, you can sit in your room and do it. But to be an actor, you have to have someone else say `yes' to you," he says. "You're beholden. Someone else is allowing you the opportunity, and that annoys me."

Still, when working, he's a man of a thousand questions, approaching each role with his Yale-educated brain, ready for a little deconstruction.

He's also known to have wielded the pen himself on everything from American History X to last year's The Score. He also wrote the shooting draft of Frida, Hayek's labor of love, although he was denied credit in a Writers Guild arbitration. And, of course, there's the tale of how he spent two months in the editing room of American History X, which apparently improved the film but distressed director Tony Kaye.

None of it is the expected role of an actor, particularly a relatively young one. "It doesn't mean anything," he says. "Some people do certain things, and some of them do others."

Still, the idea of an actor assuming alternate roles (such as screenwriter) gives many in Hollywood pause. The industry tends to be wary of articulate, opinionated actors, but it does make allowances, chiefly for box office clout - and also for talent.

Even his friends and admirers say Norton can be challenging.

"I think any actor who is reasonably smart is going to want to make sure the person who they're following into battle has done their homework. Under normal circumstances, that probing ends three to four weeks into the making of the production. That's not true with Edward. It continues through 4 in the morning on the last day of shooting," says David Fincher, who guided Norton in Fight Club.

Norton chortles when asked if he's arrogant. "Arrogance is the assumption that you know best exclusively. It's like Broadcast News when the guy says to Holly Hunter, `It must be great to always be the smartest person,' and she says, `No, it's awful.' It's hilarious. I've never felt like that, though," he says. "You're lucky enough to get in the room with people like Fincher or Milos [Forman]; you know you're not the smartest person in the room. It's great."

Norton doesn't want to talk about his personal life, claiming that any public knowledge about him as a person will impinge on his effectiveness as an actor. The facts on the surface are relatively straightforward: He's the oldest son of an environmental lawyer and an English teacher, and the grandson of developer James Rouse.

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