In Focus

The Engaging Edward Norton

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2006

One word keeps coming up over and over during a phone conversation with Edward Norton, a conversation that a publicist warns will be only 15 minutes long but somehow stretches to 40, and that is ostensibly on the subject of his new movie but includes politics, art, spirituality and urban planning.

It is the word "engagement." Whenever the 36-year-old actor uses it -- whether he's talking about touring the South Bronx recently to discuss housing policy with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer ("a real crusader of the sort we need and who I think is going to be the next governor of New York"); whether it's about setting up a scholarship fund in his grandmother's name at Yale, where he studied Middle Eastern history for the study of peace in that region; or whether it's about his promotion of solar energy through a program called BP Solar Neighbors -- you get the feeling that he means something deeper than casual involvement. Something more along the lines of passionate commitment.

It's the kind of commitment that shows in his latest performance. In "Down in the Valley" (see review on Page 32), Norton plays a man who fancies himself an old-fashioned cowboy, adrift and troubled in the contemporary San Fernando Valley. Produced by Norton, who also collaborated on the script and the editing with writer-director David Jacobson, the film called for Norton to know his way around a six-shooter. So the actor trained with not just any old Hollywood firearms consultant, but with Thell Reed ("the maestro of all things to do with pistols"), a man known among quick-draw aficionados as perhaps the greatest practitioner of the sport of all time.

That "ongoing education" -- that "skeleton key" that he's temporarily granted access to -- is, for Norton, the best part of his job. It's a job that affords him the opportunity, every time a new movie rolls around, "to nose for a while into certain corners of experience, and the opportunity to work with the best of the best," he says.

It may be the best part, but it's not the only part.

"If you're going to do it with any kind of conviction," Norton says, "I think on some level you've got to connect with what it is you're doing for other people. What is the point in doing it, beyond your own self-interest? Without sounding overly high-minded or academic about it, you've got to have a certain faith that there's something that people get out of it that's worthwhile in viewing it, and you have to have a certain faith in the act of storytelling being one that is of value."

By the same token, Norton understands just how silly what he does for a living can seem.

"Sometimes I laugh," he says, recalling one day last fall during the shooting of the forthcoming "The Painted Veil" in China with Naomi Watts. "She and the director and I were standing around in these 1920s clothes. We were out there trying to wrangle 100 Chinese extras, and we said to ourselves, 'What are we doing? We put on clothes and pretend to be other people. Why do we do this?' At times, it seems absurd."

It's at times like those and others, Norton says, "that other things I've gotten engaged in feel more directly relevant to what's going on in the world than the larger art of storytelling, of filmmaking."

He's referring mainly to his long-standing affiliation with the Enterprise Community Partners, a development nonprofit group started by his grandfather, developer James W. Rouse. Commitments to that organization, and to the cause of affordable housing (along with his solar power advocacy and his work endowing the Libby Rouse Fund for Peace at his alma mater), kept him away from acting for most of the year before making "Valley." In the end, though, it was his belief that the film had something to say about the modern condition that "reinvigorated" his excitement about movies.

"Our national identity in some ways is still bound up in an idea of ourselves as connected to this pristine frontier myth of the rugged individual carving his path in that landscape," Norton says about his off-kilter Western. "Our country even identifies itself, through our president, through the cowboy myth. And there's so many interesting things embedded in that, like questions as to did that ever really exist. [And] even if it did before, is there anything even remotely resembling that in the world around us today, and if not, what has it become, and what have we lost?"

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