Edward Norton has been called the next De Niro

Edward Norton has been called the next De Niro and the greatest actor of his generation; he takes such characterizations with a pound of salt. "Things like that feel like a compliment until you realize that they use the same adjectives to describe the latest pop star's first foray into acting that they just did about your 20th foray into film," Norton says modestly. "There's no discernment or distinction. And they call no less than eight or 10 actors the best actor of their generation—which is actually more accurate. There's so many good actors; I think good actors are a dime a dozen, and I don't feel particularly special in that regard. You'd have to have abandoned all humility and perspective to even buy into that kind of stuff." Which is not to say the actor doesn't appreciate the sentiment. "You can extract some tiny kernel of a more modest compliment from that, but then you have to let it go," he notes. "It's like that old joke that there's five phases in every actor's career: 'Who is Edward Norton? Maybe Edward Norton. Get me Edward Norton. Someone like Edward Norton. Who is Edward Norton?'"

It's difficult to imagine anyone asking who Edward Norton is. In the 10 years since his Oscar-nominated film debut as a murderous altar boy in 1996's Primal Fear, the actor has quickly established himself as, well, let's face it: one of the best actors of this or any generation. After Primal Fear, he went to work with Milos Forman as the put-upon attorney in The People vs. Larry Flynt, then sang and danced his way through the Woody Allen musical Everyone Says I Love You. Norton continued to seek out work with established directors such as Spike Lee (25th Hour) and David Fincher (Fight Club) while also taking chances on new filmmakers such as Tony Kaye (American History X). Though the actor famously battled with the eccentric director over the cut of the film, Norton's fierce performance as a former neo-Nazi skinhead earned the actor his second Oscar nomination. He has also returned to the stage, where he began his career before Primal Fear thrust him into the national spotlight. In 2003 he won an Obie Award for his performance in Lanford Wilson's Burn This at Signature Theatre Company, where he is a board member.

This year, Norton can be seen in three chameleonic screen performances. In David Jacobson's third feature, Down in the Valley, which the actor also co-produced, Norton plays a delusional cowboy with a tricky mix of melancholy and danger. He followed that with The Illusionist, an entertaining thriller in which he embodied poetic pining as a turn-of-the-century magician. He is also a producer on his new film, The Painted Veil, an adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel, in which Norton and Naomi Watts play a dissatisfied married couple caught in the midst of a cholera epidemic in 1920s China. Norton aptly describes the film, a sort of love story in reverse, as a "complicated, adult romance about people getting beyond the worst of what's in them and transcending themselves." His reserved, nuanced performance marks an apex in a career that seemed to come out of nowhere and has continued to surprise.

Back Stage: You have sort of a legendary discovery story. How were you able to land the role in Primal Fear despite never having done a film before?

Edward Norton: It wasn't that complicated. A friend of mine was out in L.A. auditioning for things, and she had auditioned for the role Maura Tierney played. She rang me up in New York and said, "I just read for this thing, and there's a part in it they're having a hard time filling, and you've got to get in on it. I just have this feeling, this is made for you." I'd never met [casting director] Deborah Aquila, but I had read for her partner once or twice in New York, and they'd almost put me in a film or two. I had sort of a Broadway Danny Rose theatre agent at the time, and he was a great guy, but he hadn't heard about it yet because it hadn't come over the wire. I said, "You've got to get me in on this." He said he didn't know anything about it, so I faxed a letter to Deb and her partner asking if they remembered me and saying I'd like to come in, and they called me back from that. It was a long process. I read for Deb, and she had me read for [director] Greg Hoblit, and they brought me out to L.A. to test, and then I tested again.

Back Stage: Is it true you did your initial audition in character and actually frightened Deborah?

Norton: I've heard people say that. I guess I sort of did. I've always thought that auditions are so weird. I think that casting directors and directors sometimes don't recognize something about auditions, which is if you went to see a play on Broadway and you met the actor in the lobby beforehand and chatted with them about how they were and where they're from and then they went on the stage, it would be a totally different experience. You wouldn't get lost in it in the same way. Yet a lot of times in an audition, you walk in and people start asking you questions and you chat, and then you have to drop into some accent, and of course it's going to feel phony. So when I would audition, as a matter of policy, I would come into the room in character. I can't really remember how I did it, but somehow I used to find ways to basically say, "Can I read and we talk after?"

I think with Deb, she didn't know me, so there wasn't really anything to talk about, and I managed to just start, and we slid in and did it. Deb is amazing; she's one of the best casting directors. I remember there was no reader at our audition; she read the scenes with me. Not everybody can do that, but she did what really great actors do, which is she does the scene, but she really watches and listens to you and feels it coming off you by doing it with you. It was intense; it was really neat. I remember thinking it was really cool.

Back Stage: Right out of the gate, you were working with some of the greatest directors in the world, like Allen and Forman. You've also directed yourself, in the comedy Keeping the Faith. What do you think makes a good director?

Norton: The most challenging thing, I think, about directing is to communicate to all these disparate people—actors, cinematographers, costume designers—this thing that's inside your head. It's like having 20 radios around you, and you have to tune them all in to the same frequency. Apart from that, in terms of working with actors, I would say that most of the good directors I worked with—even the ones who are stylistically different—are genuinely seeking surprise. They want to discover things, as opposed to execute some animated film they've already got in their head.

I've worked with some very meticulous directors, like David Fincher on Fight Club, where it's such a technical film and he had a lot of very specific ideas. Sometimes you're executing his shot, as opposed to creating your moment. You're trying to figure out how to put yourself into what he's doing, as opposed to the opposite. But even he has that quality of being really delighted by the unexpected. People like Milos Forman, Spike Lee, these are people who sit and watch and wait for actors to surprise them, to create these unrepeatable moments. That takes a lot of confidence because obviously there's a lot of pressure in a day for a director to move. So for a director to let actors work freely, they have to be willing to push all that pressure to the side and let you play. I really appreciate that.

Back Stage: How do you deal with directors who aren't so open to discovery?

Norton: I only really find myself bridling when I find someone trying to overmanage me. I worked on a film once with another really good actor, and we'd often be in the trailer talking about the director, going, "This guy has no interest in what we're doing. He's staring at his script and listening for us to parrot lines the way he's heard them in his head." That's more difficult. I really like directors who celebrate the unexpected. Discovery—that's the best way to say it. They're looking to discover things they didn't know about it already.

I'm very sympathetic to the fact [that] directors have an enormous amount on their shoulders. You hear stories about actors who lost the plot totally and started thinking it's about them entirely and forget it's a collaborative thing. If you're just acting in a movie—you're not the producer, you didn't write it—you shouldn't enter into it unless you're willing to service that director's vision of things. You have to be willing to be brave, to trust that director and try almost anything they want you to try. But I think that as you get more mature, you recognize your own process and personality types and how to spot problems further ahead and communicate in advance about the way you like to work and what your needs are. You don't want to show up on set and start bickering about things that would have been easy to clarify in advance.

Back Stage: What sort of questions would you ask a director up front?

Norton: There's no way for a director to read an actor's mind. How do they know how an actor works? There are guys like [Anthony] Hopkins who pretty much bring the great stuff on the first or second take. Then other great actors aren't even warm until five or six takes in. I think directors and actors should ask each other questions in advance, to say, "I love the result, so what do you do to get to the result, and what do you need from me?" I often say to directors now, "A lot of it's rhythmic with me, and a lot of times I'll treat the first two or three takes as a way of ironing out the business of what I'm doing physically." I'll tell a director, "If you've got the time, let me go for a while, and when I'm getting close to something I think is the best idea I've got, I'll let you know." If people come in with a note before you start and a note after the first one and a note after the second one, I'm mush at that point. Actors don't want to be up in their heads thinking about things, and I just want to get that first idea clarified for myself and then hear how someone responds to it.

That's what I mean about directors with discovery. They want to see what you have in mind. I was working with a director who really liked to talk about things a lot. A lot of times he would talk about the result that he wanted in the film. I would say, "When you tell me you want the audience to be scared in this moment, I can't do anything about that. That's not something I can play." He would talk and talk, and finally I said, "Look, when you come and give me a note, you're only allowed one verb and one adjective. You can say 'quietly' or 'louder,' or say, 'Persuade her, don't criticize her.' But you can't say, 'I really think that people need to understand this is all about his mother.' I can't play that; give me an action I can play." And he was really appreciative of that; actually, we laughed about it a lot.

Back Stage: You had notorious battles with Kaye on American History X yet managed to produce a great movie. Do you think a certain amount of disagreement is necessary to filmmaking?

Norton: Well, Tony is kind of engaged in an ongoing performance-art piece of his own life. It just presents challenges when you actually get to that phase where you have to complete something. At a certain point, you have to actually finish. He's a great shooter; he photographed that film stunningly. I don't know if fundamentally Tony is interested in actors or narrative. I think he's more interested in image.

You just can't escape the collaborative aspect of filmmaking; you have to embrace even the friction. When you read about an actor being, quote unquote, difficult, if what that means is the person has an entourage of 70 people and is late all the time, I agree. But the notion that friction about the work is a bad thing—only someone who knows nothing about moviemaking would say that. It's just not true. People who are good at this job know that there are wrestling matches sometimes. It's vital. It pushes the work higher, and when you're done, you turn and give each other a big hug and say, "That was great." Even when there's more wrestling than you might want, some really great work comes out of it. It's great to all be friends, but you're there to try and make something.

People sometimes say to me, "How could a guy like you make a movie with a guy like Brett Ratner [Red Dragon]?"—because they make these assumptions about the way he works and that he's "Hollywood" and crazy and everything. I say with total seriousness that I would work with Brett again for two main reasons. One, he's very generous in his collaborative energies: He'll celebrate a great idea from a guy carrying the lights as much as one from himself or his actors. I love people who embrace everybody's contributions. Two, you could have a genuine fight with Brett—which at one point or another everyone from me, Ralph [Fiennes], Phil [Seymour Hoffman], Harvey [Keitel], Tony [Hopkins], Mary–Louise [Parker], Emily [Watson] all blew our tops at him. And Brett genuinely doesn't take it personally. He would get really frustrated at me sometimes, probably rightfully. But we had a great time on the shoot because at the end of every day, when he probably wanted to throttle me, he'd walk up and give me a big hug and say, "You bring so much great stuff to this, thank you so much." Those are good lessons for the work on any level, whether you're doing a play in some shit theatre in Hollywood or making a big movie. You have to decide what you're in this for and what are the joys of it, and keep that in mind.

Back Stage: You once compared getting into the flow of acting to how Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof describes drinking: "He drinks until he gets that click." How do you achieve that click?

Norton: Sometimes I'll get people coming at me, and they'll say, "You know, you're very cerebral." It always makes me laugh a little bit. You'll hear people project this romance onto the intuitive actor, and I know what they're talking about, but I think it's sort of bullshit because I've never worked with a really good actor who was not, in essence, analytical at some point in the process. I don't mean while sitting there doing it. But any actor who's worth their salt is analytical initially. You have to look at the thing itself and understand what it is, what kind of a piece it is, how does it function. You can go way down inside your own navel and say you're not going to concentrate on anything but the character, but how can you understand the character without understanding the piece? You can't get in a Coen brothers film and apply the same kind of thing you would to American History X; it's ludicrous. You can't work without analyzing what it is you're involved in first.

To me, being analytical is what allows you to access the intuitive. You can go in and be improvisational and intuitive all over the place, but if you haven't done the more basic dramaturgical work, you're just kind of floundering. You're just throwing a lot of crap against the wall and letting someone else sort it out later; you're not really giving a performance. If I've done that stuff well in advance, it frees me when I'm working to get into that place that's much more impulsive. Because I'm working from a place of basic understanding.

Everyone has different ways of getting into that headspace. I guess for me, I'm not thinking about it. I'm not looking at what I'm doing from the outside. It's like Zen, the effort of noneffort. A lot of it has to do with breathing. Whenever I'm kind of out of my head and working from a place I like, I'm generally extremely relaxed.

Back Stage: You've done well in a business that doesn't always treat its actors well. But was there ever a time you considered doing something else?

Norton: Many, many times I had those thoughts. I was having a pretty bad year right up until I got Primal Fear. I was at a low moment. I think actors always have to ask themselves whether they can see themselves being happy doing something else. And if they can, it might be better to do it. By definition it's a life where you have to decide for yourself that you enjoy doing it at every level. If you're setting a standard for yourself of only wanting to work on big movies, you're probably not in the right gig. And I think at a certain point I had confronted some of those questions for myself and answered them. I was working Off-Broadway as an actor and doing plays that were really rich, and I was content. I'm not saying I wasn't trying to break into film, but I was happy. And if you're not, if your only standard of success is making big movies, I think you've got steep odds going against you.

It's touchy. It's hard to advise actors. Everybody knows it's a shitty business. Ninety-eight percent of our entire union are unemployed at any given moment, and those are people who actually have their union card. There's 100,000 more beyond them. I think the best I can say is, I do feel like I stepped outside myself and cast a pretty objective eye at it all. I said, "Let's be totally honest. Do I feel like I'm developing and improving as an actor? Am I learning more?" That's something you want to be able to say yes to. And you have to ask objectively, "Am I getting anything back that says people are responding to me? Do I honestly feel like what I'm doing is making anybody else happy but me?" It's a harsh way to put it, but those are the kinds of questions you have to ask yourself now and then. And then you have to ask, "Am I doing all that I can be doing?" Actors don't have a lot of autonomy, but there are many things you can do. If you're finding that you're not driven enough to be attacking the task of finding the work, then you're probably spinning your wheels.

Everybody has those really low moments. And even really good people have someone who will rain on their parade and say, "I don't think you're really very good," and you have to have a hard talk with yourself in those moments and decide whether you think they're a moron or you should listen to them. It's why I fundamentally love actors. There's a lot of narcissism and a lot of schizophrenics among us. We're crazy, but I feel a great affinity for people who are laboring and hammering against that wall to find the opportunity to do what they want to do.