Edward Norton: The Movieline Interview
If it feels like it's been a little while since Edward Norton last starred in a film, at least you get double the actor in Leaves of Grass. Norton plays twins Bill and Brady Kincaid In Tim Blake Nelson's indie dramedy -- one an Ivy League professor, the other a tattooed pot dealer. Acting opposite oneself isn't an easy thing to do, but at least Norton has always been a consummate multi-tasker on his sets, often screenwriting (as he did on Louis Letterier's The Incredible Hulk, which Nelson also starred in), directing (Keeping the Faith), or producing.
Shortly after Leaves of Grass had its Austin premiere at South by Southwest, Norton rang up Movieline to discuss the perils of split-screen, his long-promised adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn, and his bemusement at becoming a fanboy headline.
We'll get to Leaves of Grass in a second, but I had something else I wanted to ask first. You produced the HBO documentary By the People: The Election of Barack Obama -- when you were privy to everything that was happening behind the scenes for so long, do you look at the signing of the health care bill and think, "Damn, I wish I still had people there so I could get the inside story?"
[Laughs] You know, after he got the nomination, I think we began to realize we were making a campaign film. You know what I mean? We were making a film about the movement that elected him, and that election was the appropriate ending for it. Also, a guy becomes president of the United States, it's not going to be the same deal as far as access. "Oh, here we are with our cameras again today!" I don't think so.
All right, so let's talk about the practical realities of acting opposite yourself in Leaves of Grass. Are you the sort of actor who likes to do something different in each take, and did you have to rein that in somewhat so that you'd know what it was you were acting against?
That's a good question, and I think you're on to it, because I do find it takes me a while. You're always exploring rhythms so that you can find this tipping point with a character, and then it gets easier, I think. I struggle around with it sometimes, and that's fine if it's a scene with only one of the twins, and even if it's a scene with both of them but a shot that's only on one of them. But if it's two of them together, you do have to get one of them to a place you're happy with and then decide on a take. You pick something that you're going to work against, and you have to make some decisions right on the spot.
That was the challenge of it with me and Tim. We'd work together before the scene and figure out [which twin] to shoot first, and prepare both sides of it so I could give myself something. It's very complicated and hard to explain, but you had to have both sides of it in your head so you could do the first one, and then you had to pick something out of your head to react to when you did the second one.
You're known to be very involved in post-production. On a film like this, where you play two roles and so much of it is in your head, were you even more of a presence in the editing room?
Tim and my partner and I all produced the movie together, and you leave the director alone initially -- they always have to take the time to get their ideas out. We just kind of waited for Tim to go in first, but no, I didn't go in and say, "This take versus that one." In some ways, we did more of that collaborating on the day of shooting, but again, only on the twin shots, because we had to choose a take. We all worked on the shape of the film at large, of course, to see what was working and what wasn't, but not in terms of my performance.
Which performance was the more difficult one?
I don't know. It's sort of like saying, "Is it harder to be Abbott or Costello?" There are things that are harder about playing straight men, and there are things that are hard about being the crazy one. I'd say they were both a lot of fun, you know what I mean?
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