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Posted at 4:23 PM ET, 10/12/2010

Talking with Edward Norton, star of 'Stone'

By Jen Chaney

Edward Norton plays a prisoner tasting freedom in his latest, "Stone."

Edward Norton is a movie star. But stand in the guy's presence -- in, say, a small, windowless conference room at the WAMU building in Washington, where Norton recently was preparing for an interview on "The Diane Rehm Show" -- and it doesn't exactly feel that way.

In fact, when Norton first rises to say hello, dressed in a black button-down, black blazer and a pair of blue jeans, he looks less like an Academy Award-nominated actor and more like the CEO of an Internet start-up, or perhaps a more handsome version of the financial planner who helped you figure out when to refinance your mortgage. With his brown hair combed smartly in place, he certainly bears no resemblance whatsoever to the cornrowed arsonist he plays in his new movie, "Stone," which opened Oct. 8 in limited release and expands to more theaters -- including in the Washington area -- on Friday.

Norton, 41, has a lot to say about "Stone." In fact, the Columbia, Md. native has a lot to say about a variety of subjects, including how he chooses his projects, Robert De Niro's personality, his discontinued role as the Hulk, his love of the Baltimore Orioles and his take on several movies (from "The Matrix" to "Do the Right Thing"). Find out his opinion on those subjects and more in these extracts from our interview.

On how he chooses his roles:

"Sometimes you just want to work with a particular person or something just seems fun or funny and entertaining. I have done things, literally, just because I looked at it and thought, 'I’ve never seen a movie made at that scale or with that kind of digital [effects], and I’m going to learn a lot.' So I think all kinds of different things have pulled me in. I think if there’s a more consistent thread to some of them, it’s that if I get a sensation that something’s rolling around in the moment that we’re living or that there’s something in it that’s got a zeitgeisty kind of feeling to it -- if it sparks in me a sensation that this is definitely going to resonate with experiences of the world that people are having right now, then that kind of has a special interest for me. I think those don’t come along all the time, but I try hard to make it work if I see something that has that in it."

On how director John Curran convinced him to do "Stone":

"It was a good script, but it was bland to me. ... There wasn’t specificity to it and it didn't -- I was worried that it felt like a film about a manipulation, and that just didn’t interest me that much. But over the course of like a year, John brought much more of an engagement with the zeitgeist in it, especially when the economy tanked. He called me literally as everything went to [expletive] and he sort of said: ‘Look, man. I really want to make this movie now.' He said, it’s not about the noir of the wife. And he said. ‘I want to make a film about decay and a guy who’s reaching a point in his life where all the constructs of his life – marriage, church and his job, which are supposed to define a good life – are being revealed to be hollowed out, kind of inauthentic.' And he said, ‘I want to get into the desperation of people feeling their life kind of crumble under them.’ And he started talking about the idea of imprisonment, literal imprisonment versus imprisonment in an inauthentic life. Those things started to be more interesting to me."

On what "Stone" co-star Robert De Niro -- with whom Norton also co-starred in "The Score" -- is really like:

"Because he’s not very verbal, he’s got this rep as kind of savant-ish or all intuitive and it’s so not true. He’s like the most clinical, right brain -- he’s like a librarian. I’ve never seen anybody who’s more about the voice recorder and the notepad. He’s like this wonkish, detail guy for weeks and weeks and weeks. Then he just pushed it out through this membrane [during shooting]. But it’s not at all with him about emotional exploration. He, even more than me I think, he was like very, very clinical about it.

"A lot of people will come in and say, ‘Is he intimidating? Were you intimidated?’ It’s just not that way. That’s people projecting a view they have of him based on his work, which is sort of bizarre if you think about it. You know what I mean? Obviously, he’s been an actor for 40 years. He’s not a mafia thug. ... He’s a deeply serious actor, and he’s really not an intimidating guy. He’s very sober and very serious."

On his parting of ways with Marvel Studios on playing the Hulk in the upcoming "Avengers" movie:

"I really really appreciate the degree to which people get invested in these things. People have been so so warm about it and everything. But it would be both out of character for me and it would be a real loss of perspective to make too much out of these things.

"Life’s too good and too interesting to get too hung up on the weird politics of things like that. It’s just not that important to me. I can't really dwell on it. It doesn’t have that much impact on me. I think it was super, super fun to do."

On whether he'll ever play a superhero again:

"I had been asked to do many before that one that hadn’t drawn me in just because I didn’t think there was anything that made me particularly right for it. That one -- I had a view of it, I think ["Hulk" director] Louis Leterrier and I were working toward something that was longer and darker and more serious than the film they ultimately let us make.

"They're very heightened stories. They're very mythic stories. I don’t low-rate comics at all because they deal in very archetypal and mythic ideas. Look, it’s a challenging dynamic. It’s challenging for everybody. I never take for granted -- those movies are big risks for companies. They cost a lot of money. As a result, the courage to be bold with them and allow them to be long and serious, if that’s what you want to make, there’s almost an endemic resistance to that.

"If I was to be pulled into it again, that’s definitely what would pull me in again.That’s what made 'The Matrix' so great. 'The Matrix' was a blast with all of its stuff but at the end of the day, 'The Matrix' is this great -- 'The Matrix' is built right out of a Joseph Campbell, Protean kind of myth. Or it’s rehashed Buddhim. Whatever you want to call it. It’s a Siddhartha story -- it’s a really, really great dystopian kind of reimagination of some very very old themes and I think that’s why it works."

On why he keeps a relatively low profile in his work as an environmental and affordable-housing advocate:

"I think I would rather have the things I’m engaged in be less publicized but more substantive and gesturable. I think things other [celebrity advocates] do are great, but I sometimes find myself peeking around the edge of certain things I see people doing. Or I know something about it and I know that it just is not really something that’s really addressing anything of scale, on a real systemic level. I think those things take a lot of time. Using the platform of a certain access to a public platform has its moments, I think. But that’s not the best way to engineer substantive engagement with things. ... I have a touchy relationship with that part of it anyway, so I think for me the things I work on are in many cases interests that actually predate my life making films or doing things like that.

"Like with my work on affordable housing and stuff – my grandfather started that foundation. I worked there in high school; it was my first job out of college. For a number of years we were working on syndicating long-term housing tax credit investment funds and I did that work for a long time before I started making a life in [Hollywood]. And so my engagement has never been about publicizing it. The housing stuff is too complex an issue to go out and say, 'Look we built a house in this devastated area.' It’s bigger than that and it’s more complex than that so I don’t even bother trying to like reduce that for Larry King."

On his hopes for his hometown baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles:

"I kind of have a fantasy that [owner Peter] Angelos will move on and let someone else kind of refurbish it. But I think Cal Ripken is going to come back one day and be a manager/GM. He told me once he would be a manager if he could be a GM. So, I kind of hold onto this torch of hope that Cal’s going to come back and bring this whole theory he’s got of how to build a team and reengineer the Orioles."

And, last, Edward Norton on a film that had an enormous impact on him: Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing":

"I went to public school and grew up near Baltimore, and that was just the first movie where I felt like someone talked in a very blunt and almost hilarious and bracing way about race. People forget, I think, what an impact that movie had when it came out. Not only how original it was stylistically and how liberated it was in the sense that you had this feeling of like ‘Oh my God, this guy.’ I was 19, and it blew apart my whole sense of what a film could even be because it was so stylistically free. But I also just remember with the Public Enemy song on the soundtrack and the whole vibe of the film, I just thought -- it was so amazing to me that somebody was daring to talk that much about something that was so present in people’s lives but undiscussed. And I thought it was really potent. And I think some of the films that I’ve done, I’ve done because even reading them I got something akin to that sensation.

"That movie for me really highlighted what it means to make movies for grown-up people because he posed all these questions: All these things got aired out but he completely refused to make that definitive statement at the end of it. There was no imposed meaning at the end. He slapped up the Martin Luther King quote and the Malcolm X quote that were diametrically opposed to each other as philosophies, and literally just went: What’s your take? What do you do with it?"

By Jen Chaney  | October 12, 2010; 4:23 PM ET
Categories:  Celebrities, Movies, Pop Culture  
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Do I have to say it...Cal's last name is Ripken, not Ripkin. And yes, we're all hoping Peter Angelos moves on someday, for the sake of the Orioles and baseball fans everywhere.

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