Byline: Merle Ginsberg
LOS ANGELES — He may be Hollywood’s reigning Prince of Darkness, but now Edward Norton seems to be turning into something else — the King of Comedy.
In the last few years, Norton has proven himself to be a master of the twisted and tortured: He’s played a sociopathic prison inmate (“Primal Fear”), a violent neo-Nazi (“American History X”) and a nihilistic cult-leader (“Fight Club”). At 30, he is considered by many to be the best actor of his generation, a real heavy in the tradition of Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson.
But in his latest movie, “Keeping the Faith,” Norton seems a lot more like Jimmy Stewart. The film, his directorial debut, is a light romantic comedy, and Norton stars as a sweet-tempered, earnest, idealistic young priest. He’s even blond, of all things.
Sitting over a plate of chicken tacos and a bowl of squash soup at Muse, the chic Hollywood restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, Norton is almost unrecognizable with his bleached hair (a holdover from the role), soft voice and shy, quiet manner. But after just a few minutes of conversation, it’s clear that the actor-director has brought as much thought and angst to his new comedy as he has to his most harrowing performances.
Norton, it turns out, does not take lightness lightly.
“To me,” he says, “the most punk rock thing you could possibly do now, in 2000, is to make a comedy that is our generation’s, that is hip, that is cool — but that’s completely square in its total straightforwardness. The most cliched thing you could do now is ironic detachment, that cynical cool, which has become utterly boring. I’ve never related to that attitude.”
There’s not a trace of cynicism in “Keeping the Faith,” even though it’s set in contemporary Manhattan. Norton’s character, an Irish Catholic priest, falls for the same girl (Jenna Elfman) as his best friend, a hip Upper West Side rabbi (Ben Stiller). The trio is a far cry from the alienated misfits that populated Norton’s last few films. In fact, one of the models screenwriter Stuart Blumberg and Norton used for the film was “The Philadelphia Story,” in which society girl Katharine Hepburn has some lessons to learn before she can chose between rich playboy Cary Grant and nice-guy journalist Jimmy Stewart.
“Ben Stiller’s character is the Katharine Hepburn character,” says Norton with a quiet laugh. “He’s a young turk to whom everything’s come easily. He has to learn humility and to have empathy for people. My character is the Jimmy Stewart of the piece — he needs to learn from these other characters that despite what he does for a living, he does have some stuff to figure out. And Jenna’s the Cary Grant — she’s there to look good in suits! She’s the shiksa goddess who becomes warmer and more real as the movie goes on.”
Screenwriter Blumberg, a buddy of Norton’s from Yale, began the script shortly after the two men moved to Manhattan from New Haven. Over time, Blumberg began sculpting the priest role around Norton, and the movie finally began to take shape as a viable project when Norton, in the midst of shooting “Fight Club,” was looking for something lighter to leap into. But he wasn’t ready to direct — not yet.
“Yeah, people had been pushing me to direct,” admits Norton. “But I didn’t want to do it arbitrarily. Still, this was an opportunity to make a movie with an old friend, a movie I already had a sense of connection to. Stuart said to me, ‘You’re ready to direct this, I know you are. Why don’t you just do it?”‘
As for the priest character, Blumberg says Norton was a natural fit, despite the actor’s longtime penchant for dark material. “Anyone who really knows Edward sees him as a lovable, nerdy goofball,” he says. “To me, the surprise is that he can be scary! In life, he’s all about humor.”
Norton says the choice was definitely not part of some grand scheme to shift his career in another direction. “There are some actors who are by nature iconic: Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks,” he says. “People come back to them for the same thing time and again, a similar set of qualities the audience feels comfortable with. That’s not what I think I have to offer most. There’s never going to be a consistency with me.”
Like his earlier role in Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You,” his part in “Keeping the Faith” gives audiences a rare glimpse of Norton as a romantic lead, a guy who’d give up his whole career for the woman he perceives as his one true love.
“We’ll see,” he says, a little glumly, when told that the film might boost his heartthrob status. He blushes a little when asked about the connection between intelligence and sexiness.
“A woman said to me that my character in ‘American History X’ was really charismatic,” he recounts. “I said, ‘Were you drawn to him?’ She said, ‘Well, it’s that whole tortured sensitive Nazi boy with the good abs. You want to take him home and straighten him out.’ Now that’s funny.”
Norton is famously private about his own love life: He has never confirmed any of the past reports about his relationships with Courtney Love or Drew Barrymore — or the current rumors about Salma Hayek — but he says that’s not so much for the sake of privacy as it is for “normalcy.” One of the reasons he’s hung on to his character’s blond hair is “to keep something around to hide behind when I have to do a stupid photo shoot. Anything to throw people off the real scent!
“It’s so supremely ungrounded,” he continues, “to do the miserable prince-of-darkness pose, where you agree to do an interview and then sit down and mumble. Have the courage of your convictions! If it pains you that much, have the courage to say no! To strike a pose about how agonizing it is and to be rude and uncivil and inarticulate and then allow yourself to be naked on the cover of Vanity Fair with your arms spread wide and your hair thrown back — it’s like, if you’re so dark, and this is so agonizing for you, then why let that picture be taken?”
Once Norton gets going, he has no qualms about speaking his mind — and it’s not all sweetness and light, especially when the subject is the movie business. Rare is the actor who will jeopardize his chances for future award nominations by publicly trashing the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — the organization that hands out the Golden Globes — but Norton doesn’t seem to care.
Nor is Norton a big fan of film critics, whom he deems “so full of themselves, their own agenda — and full of s—, in a lot of cases.” He’s particularly miffed at the critical reaction to “Fight Club,” the film he considers to be the best of his career.
“It’s like what ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Dr. Strangelove’ were in their day,” says Norton, “movies that are so raw a critique of current dysfunction that they make people too uncomfortable in the moment.”
Norton believes that “Fight Club” was his generation’s equivalent of the well-reviewed “American Beauty,” but that baby-boomer critics were just too clueless to understand it. “‘American Beauty’ was the middle-aged suburban version, and ‘Fight Club’ was the more urban, young man’s version,” he says. But if Norton thinks that film critics have more power than they deserve, he feels the same way about Hollywood stars — himself included. He realizes, though, that audiences need to keep movie actors on their pedestals.
“Entertainment has been raised in our culture to a level of mythology,” he says. “It’s like Joseph Campbell said: Contemporary culture is so fragmented that we don’t have a collective myth anymore. We don’t connect to any of the Old World religions. The only common myth in America is in our movies. We look there for a sense of self, of meaning, of connection to the world. So the people in entertainment are elevated — but we’re just starting to realize we’ve elevated the clowns! The clowns of the realm have been elevated to minor deities.”
And unlike most of the minor deities who do interviews over dinner, Norton grabs the check himself and pays it swiftly. Then he actually starts to grin — a little.
“We’re all clowns,” he says, “after all.”