Capone compares notes on prison life--and chats about De Niro and Springsteen--with STONE star Edward Norton!!!
Published at: Oct. 4, 2010, 9:33 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
A little less than a year ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to Edward Norton on the phone about an HBO documentary he produced called BY THE PEOPLE: THE ELECTION OF BARACK OBAMA, and while that discussion was largely about the state of the nation, politics, and the current president, but we did dabble a bit into what appeared to be a couple projects that would be in his future: THE AVENGERS and a sequel to THE INCREDIBLE HULK. Fans wanted it, and we learned in the subsequent months, he wanted very much to be a part of the Marvel supergroup of heroes. His unceremonious dismissal from playing the Hulk made fans so angry that one even managed to confront Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige on stage at Comic-Con. I believe the fan's question was something along the lines of "Edward Norton, what the hell happened?" Feige looked like he'd been sucker punched as he stumbled for a response with the promise of a big announcement yet to come--Mark Ruffalo as the replacement Hulk.
Fans took to Norton as Bruce Banner for the same reason they take to him in everything--because he's a serious actor who is protective of his work, but still knows how to poke fun at himself and laugh. Since his stunning film debut in the Chicago-set PRIMAL FEAR, Norton has continued to impress me with his talent and his commitment to making the best movies possible, even if that occasionally means rewriting a screenplay or completely losing himself in a character to the point where he scares me on screen a little. From THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, AMERICAN HISTORY X, FIGHT CLUB, and ROUNDERS to THE SCORE, RED DRAGON, THE 25TH HOUR, THE ITALIAN JOB, and DOWN IN THE VALLEY, the man is a consummate and intelligent force on screen.
The day I interviewed him in Austin recently happened to be the same day his long-delayed film LEAVES OF GRASS finally opened in a few cities, including Austin, a fact that had him very happy. But that wasn't the film we were together to talk about. One of the big-ticket items at Fantastic Fest this year (and the opening-night film this Thursday at the Chicago International Film Festival) was STONE, in which Norton plays opposite a remarkably strong Milla Jovovich and, for the second time, Robert De Niro, his co-star in 2001's THE SCORE, which also starred Marlon Brando. STONE is as good a morality play as I've seen on screen in years, and De Niro hasn't been this good in decades, no lie. But all of the action revolves around the words and actions of Stone (Norton), a convict who has a series of meetings with a prison employee who helps inmates prepared for their parole hearings. Their conversations are the heart and soul of STONE, and Norton's look (cornrows, anyone?) and prison lingo are startling to say the least. This is a film featuring characters in transition--some from worse to better, some from better to worse. STONE opens nationwide this Friday, and it's very good.
While waiting in a hotel lobby to talk to Norton, I picked up a copy of The Onion and started reading it. The back page featured a shot of a cornrowed tough guy that, at first glance, I thought was Norton. But then I realized it was an ad for the HBO series "Eastbound and Down," and the image was of Danny McBride as Kenny Powers. And with that, I had my first question for Mr. Norton. Enjoy…
Ed Norton: Oh, hi. We've met before, right?
Capone: I think I accosted you in the hallways of a different hotel at SXSW. I didn’t interview you, I just happened to run into you.
EN: It was at the Four Seasons.
Capone: That’s right and I did interview you on the phone about the Obama documentary late last year.
EN: Yeah, I remember that too.
Capone: So I’ve got to just show you this first, this is The Onion. I saw this image and for a fleeting moment…
EN: [Head back laughing] I’ve been looking at it all week, because I know Danny[McBride]. It’s so funny, it's killing me. It’s so hilarious.
Capone: I don’t want to start off with the most intellectual question on my list here, but what is it about the cornrows that screams “bad ass?”
EN: For me it, as many things do with these kinds of projects, it was informed by poking into the world of these prisons and stuff, and every third guy had them. White, black, Latin, so many dudes had them, and the thing that was interesting was one particular guy that I talked to who did have them who was from southwest Detroit, which is exactly where [director] John [Curran] wanted this located.
I talked to some guys who were very hardass and a little toward the like… They weren’t Arian, but they were a little toward the hard white side of the spectrum, and they were really scathing about a white guy who would put his hair in rows. They were really mocking it, saying they call those guy “Malibu,” like from MALIBU’S MOST WANTED, that was the prison code. And they were really scoffing it, and that almost made me want to do it more, because I didn’t think that Stone is like the ultimate hardass. I feel like he’s come from a place like urban Detroit. He is like one of those guys who comes out of that culture. There was a guy I talked to, he was a white guy, but he had been in the Crips gang in Detroit, and I felt like he’s marginalized and he’s not ganged up with a lot of people. He’s very isolated and alone and he wants to be out. So to me, it’s fierce, but it’s fierce and it’s him. In a weird way, even that is something that puts him a little apart from people too. But I started seeing Danny on bus stop ads, and I was like “Oh we’ve got to do a 'Saturday Night Live' sketch or something.”
Capone: That’d be terrific. Okay, I know I immediately went off down this weird path.
EN: No, it’s fine.
Capone: It seems like each character in this film is at a crisis point in their life, or at least a crossroads. Maybe that’s the better word. “Crisis” sounds negative, but there’s a crossroads for each of these people, whether it’s a personal crossroads, or in the case of Stone, a spiritual one. Even though Stone might be playing a little bit with Jack a little…
EN: Yeah, manipulating the system ,for sure.
Capone: I think he does genuinely get something helpful out of their relationship. How did you define the nature of their relationship?
EN: I couldn’t agree more. I think the film is very carefully designed to fill you with questions about the paradox that this guy might be, both doing anything he can do to get out and yet also sincerely making a real case for his change and a sense of dislocation about where he is in that process and what’s real as a part of the experience of the film I think. But I agree and I actually don’t think "crisis" is the wrong word. John, when he talked about the film to me and Bob at the beginning said “Stone is Stone, but Jack is a Stone as well. If Stone is in prison, Jack is equally in prison.” Stone is in a crisis of anxiety about his need to feel liberated, but Jack is in an enormous spiritual crisis. His brother dies, he’s approaching mortality. He’s approaching retirement and he’s about to leave that chair where he gets to constantly rate other people’s spiritual life and have to go face a distanced marriage and drinking. I think he’s very intentionally set up to be a person who's facing his own kind of crisis of faith. His own spiritual life is very empty.
Capone: It’s really hard to shake that first scene--and I know you're not in that scene--but there’s that idea that Stone is always asking Jack “You’ve never done anything wrong?” Of course he has, and it’s so terrible what he threatens to do in that opening scene.
EN: I think it’s funny you say that, because of course I read the script, I worked on the script with John, but I wasn’t there when they filmed that, and so when I saw the scene in the film, for me I got this opportunity to see it fresh. It’s so interesting because with Jack--even with Stone and with his wife to some degree--you see in this older man the remnants of the bully that you see in that first scene. You see the guy who bluffs, and of course by the end that horrible bluff that you see him make as a young man, that bullying sort of a threat to crush his wife's moment of truthfulness. Like in the alley at the end, it’s that same sort of a bluff that Stone calls in a way, finally, and leaves him kind of desolate.
But I think that the thing that’s so neat about De Niro doing this is that I almost felt watching him that he was like even investigating the way that he’s looked at as a tough guy when in fact… Like you see in those scenes, it’s like he snaps out this thing where you go “Oh, that’s that guy,” but the truth is he’s corroded, and he as himself is like very empty behind that, and I felt like he was really investigating age and the danger of living behind veneers in a way that I felt was incredibly nuanced. I think he’s really remarkable in it.
Capone: I actually think it’s the best thing he’s done in I’m not even sure how long, to be honest.
EN: This is me as a fan of him, not acting in it with him. He has great moments in the film, but there are two little things that just killed me. One is when he’s giving the eulogy for his brother and he’s reading so inauthentically off the notes and he stops and tries to speak from the heart and has no words that fit where he struggles to speak, like he just did that! That and the scene where he’s trying to basically tell his pastor that he doesn’t feel an authentic belief in God. The way that he is able to represent the inability to speak authentically is unreal. I think if you gave those scenes to a hundred of the best actors in the world, there’s nobody who would do those scenes the way he did them. I stopped breathing in those scenes, because it’s so real and so uncomfortable to me. I just find it to be really remarkable.
Capone: I don’t remember a time when I’ve seen him be that authentically vulnerable before. Was it different this time working with him than the last time, with the… Well, I’ll just stop there. Was it any different?
EN: Only in good ways. We knew each other even better. He knows there are things I do in the way I work that are different from him and I know his style. It’s almost like you know how to help each other out better, you know how to get a rhythm going. And since it was a film where you didn’t want to break the vibe and talk a lot, it was nice to just have a nice quiet shorthand in terms of “How do we find our way through this?” He’s great. People think of him as this very intuitive guy, but it’s a projection, because he’s such a right-brained person in a way. He is so clinical. He dissects things in such a clinical way before he kind of pushes it through the membrane and does his thing with it.
Capone: What I was going to say was “…without the Brando factor.” [Both Laugh] I had a chance to talk to [THE SCORE director] Frank Oz a few years ago, and he was very open about the mistakes he made in communicating with Brando right off the bat. I guess that’s not a secret.
EN: Frank is a really good guy.
Capone: It sounded like he took bad advice from somebody about how to deal with Brando.
EN: I think that’s true, but Frank was a good guy, a well-meaning guy, and it wasn’t like one of those things that anybody was being a jerk. He’s a good guy.
Capone: I’ve been tracking as much information as I could get about what you did with Bruce Springsteen at the Toronto Film Festival, because I’m a die hard admirer and part of that "I-95 corridor" crowd. I grew up outside of D.C. It sounds like the discussion that you two had was phenomenal. What has his music meant in your life?
EN: It was a big deal to me in that time of my life when I really wanted to go beyond where I was. You know, you're going to your little public school, and this sense of how you are going to punch beyond your horizons is very challenged. I know this is a very literary reference, but Bruce is actually very literary, so I think it’s appropriate. There’s this C.S. Lewis thing where someone asked him, “What’s literature?" And he said, “You read to know you're not alone.” To me, the whole core of what Springsteen meant to everybody is that he made these songs out of what everybody feels in the sense that he took everybody’s longing to get beyond themselves and made them into these big poems, these big epic narratives of hope to get beyond the limitations of what’s holding you back. So that’s why it communicated to me. I think that’s why I said to him on the stage, “There’s a point at which I think these things you make, they go way beyond you. They are way more owned by people who have seen their own lives in the song than even the person who made them.” I think he’s supreme.
The truth is he and De Niro in that period of my life, they were like beacons of hope, and I talked to Bruce about this that day, too, because “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” in particular, though “Born to Run” was obviously his first big thing, “Darkness” to me was when I started tuning in more to him. He and De Niro were, I think for me, two of the real eye-opening experiences of feeling that art that looked into dark corners, that looked at places of dysfunction and frustration and feeling thwarted was really valuable. They, to me, somehow validated the idea that you don’t necessarily want to be an action star. They were like the first time I went “That’s more potent,” the idea of darkness, of things that are tough. Now, I feel like they have lasted as these artists beyond a lot of what might have been more commercial or popular at the time, and I love that. I still look to people like that for kind of inspiration.
Capone: Cool, well thanks man.
EN: I think there’s going to be online from TIFF.
Capone: Is there?
EN: They’ve got about seven minutes of it.
Capone: Of the talk?
EN: Yeah, the video.
Capone: Okay, I'll look that up.
And here's a piece of that conversation:
The next question out of my mouth was going to be about the AVENGERS/HULK fiasco, but a stealthy publicist shut us down just as Edward finished his last answer. Ah well, still a good talk. Hope you enjoyed it.
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