"What are those things people say about Boy Scouts? Honesty, truthfulness, duty-Edward is all those things," Edward Albee has said of Edward Norton, having directed him on the New York stage, and paradoxically, it is these qualities that explain how this "boy scout" has given some of the most convincing depictions of evil in recent film history.
As if the blue-eyed, Yale history graduate's depiction of a stuttering Kentucky choir boy wasn't surprise enough, midway through his first film, Primal Fear, we saw what Norton was capable of: Aaron Stampler is sitting in a prison cell, displaying Norton's perfected awkward slump, partial smile, and nervous, shifting eyes. His lawyer confronts him. Within seconds Stampler snaps from cowering boy into something vicious, a nightmarish python. He's taller, fierce, swaggering, voice roaring out of his gut.
Within an instant of screen time, Norton can layer his characters in contradictions that challenge the audience to reconcile hatred with sympathy, and succeed. In his best moments, he navigates psychological extremes with a naturalness that has been compared to Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, and Marlon Brando. They are such nuanced performances in their honesty than they become more confrontations than portrayals, giving the eerie illusion Norton doesn't act on-screen, he channels.
Yet as with the supposedly schizoid Aaron Stampler, we find that in the end, nothing could be further from the truth. Norton's preparedness is what has given him the mental muscularity that allows him to move so deftly, so provocatively, between sweetness and brutality, from stuttering Kentucky choirboy to psychotic killer, from a Neo-Nazi to a reformed, compassionate big brother.
"He researches everything," American History X director Tony Kaye has observed. "He interviews people, he reads endlessly, he'll even visit a prison to get a part just right." His preparation for the role of pumped up Neo-Nazi Derek Vinyard had him meeting with white power convicts and hanging out with Southern California skinheads, scouring record stores for speed-metal white suprem-acist anthems, pouring over Ingo Hasselbach's Fuhrer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi.
"It's anger coupled with brilliance," Norton has said of Vinyard. "This guy is not monolithically evil. He's got very specific, well-thought-out reasons behind his extremely hateful politics." As does Norton, behind every move.
Even landing a role in his first film required an impressive amount of creative calculation. At the time he was four years out of school, acting in off-Off-Broadway plays. Auditioning along with 2,100 others, he knew he had to do something to stand out. So he did his homework. After watching A Coal Miner's Daughter repeatedly to perfect the accent, he went into the audition and he told the director that he, like Aaron, came from Eastern Kentucky. And he nailed the part.
Norton's real roots, however, are in Columbia, Maryland, where he grew up as grandson of South Street Seaport and Faneuil Hall developer James Rouse, perhaps inbuing him with the inate gentility that makes him a natural choice for such roles as the bright-eyed singing suitor he portrayed in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You, or as Larry Flynt's idealistic lawyer in Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt. But as his roles in Primal Fear, American History X, or even as gambling pro Worm in John Dahl's Rounders, have proven, Norton commits himself to covering distant and often daring terrain.
"I used to envy people who were driven by the textures of their history," Norton has said. "I believed that unique art was produced by intense needs to break out of some kind of confinement. I didn't think defining and iconic art could come out of a sheltered life." Yet with a body of work that has garnered him two Academy Award nominations before the age of 30, Norton's work has taught him, and us, otherwise.