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Originally Published on October 14th 2010.

Edward Norton has made a career of playing complex characters. From Primal Fear to Leaves of Grass, his roles have been more interesting than those of the average leading man. Norton’s latest is Stone, an engaging drama from Angus MacLachlan, the guy who brought you the underrated Junebug. Norton plays the titular character, a convicted arsonist who undergoes an unusual spiritual awakening. Robert De Niro stars as Stone’s parole officer, and Milla Jovovich takes a dramatic turn as Stone’s promiscuous wife. Stone marks two reunions for Norton – he previously worked with De Niro in The Score, and director John Curran in The Painted Veil.  In a panel interview, I had a chance to talk with Norton about his latest role.


BYT: What is the inspiration for your character’s bizarre way of speaking?

EN: It’s a fusion of a couple people we met at a prison in Jackson, Michigan, which is north of Detroit. A lot of the guys up there are from Detroit, and the people we were interested in came out of the gangs/drug culture. John [Curran] and I spent a lot of time listening to their lingo and transferring it into the script. As for how my character sounded, it came from one guy who had a broken, gravelly voice. John and I both found him very hypnotic. John wanted Stone to feel the like the sort of person who, when you first meet him, is as far away from a deep spiritual experience as possible. That way you’re really challenged by what happens.

You say Stone is challenging for audiences. Since he only speaks to two people, what kind of challenges did he present for you?

Well, I like that aspect of the character. There are no chase scenes or shoot-outs – the tension only comes from on-screen conversations. As an actor, such a role makes me think, “At last, I matter!” If you look at John’s earlier films, he keeps revisiting similar themes. A lot of them revolve around pairs of people talking and working out their problems. There’s almost no scene that isn’t two people. In fact, it’s jarring when where Milla comes into [De Niro’s] office because it’s near the end of the film and that’s the first time you see all three characters together.

The film industry has changed a lot since you first entered it. What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters?

The next new wave in film will do something far more revolutionary than what’s happening now. I don’t mean in terms of narrative, but as a business. When my crowd came in, there was a new model being explored where a company like Miramax could come along and do well with eclectic, smaller films. Then there was this proliferation of many small distribution companies, and even major studios were setting up their “independent” arms. We had the benefit of working in such a model, and now I think it’s over. Up and coming filmmakers need to push against the model in their own ways. I would tell filmmakers to take inspiration from Radiohead, for example, who self-release their records. You can get a decent digital camera and Final Cut Pro for a couple of grand. I’m excited to see young filmmakers leave the industry behind and get creative with how they share their work. You’ve seen the Double Rainbow video, right? It’s so good, and it got 14 million hits on Youtube [ed. note: the video is now at 17 million hits].

You were recently appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. How did that come about? What kind of message do you plan to send, particularly in terms of art’s educational/economic value?

There’s a guy who came out of New York theater production, Rocco Landesman, who is now the head of the NEA, and I think he’s a great pick because he argues that art transforms people in an educational sense. We go through economic compressions and recessions like this and one of the first cut is always the arts because people view them as a luxury. It’s amazing when you look at the statistics to see how the arts functions during an economic downturn. During bad times, they’re actually a steadier contributor to the economy than other industries. Right now there’s even a city-funded construction of a theater center in Times Square, and those construction jobs represent another way arts contribute to the economy.

So is your role on the committee to talk about these ideas and projects to the press?

The committee operates a number of programs. One of them funds after school theater programs for at-risk kids. There’s also a film exchange program we run with AFI and embassies around the world. There are a lot of sub-committees, and I happen to be on the economic one. Communications are a component part what I do, but I’m also there to advise the NEA and the President on policy decisions related to the arts.

Can you talk about how the film’s soundtrack came about?

From the beginning, John talked about creating a fractured soundscape. Stone talks about making himself a spiritual tuning fork, so when I was in England with the guys in Radiohead, I talked about this concept  with Jonny Greenwood. He likes taking instruments and breaking them down to a wave-form level, so it sounds almost like frequency or a tuning fork.  Jonny started talking about using church organs. He and Thom Yorke sent us some sound design stuff that didn’t quite work for their music. Later Jon Brion sent some stuff in, but John Curran really orchestrated it all [ed note: no pun intended]. I like how he used sound to illustrate how a cacophonous world eliminates the opportunity to get your bearings straight.

In addition to the fractured soundscape, there’s regular chatter from an evangelical radio host.

I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t recognize that voice in American culture. I can’t remember his name, but those are clips from his show, and he broadcasts out of the Detroit area. When we wrapped up, I thought he was going to hate this film, but he didn’t at all. He’s even promoting the movie on his radio show. Later he wrote us a very nice letter saying how Stone is an adult discussion of crisis and faith. It made me think, “Good, maybe we didn’t just alienate half the country.”

Do you share any of Stone’s spiritual ideas?

No, I don’t really approach roles and think about how they interact with me. I’m just not that interested in splattering myself out there. In a movie like this, I don’t think I’m even that relevant because I’ve got nothing to say about that character’s experiences. My job, then, is more about empathy. The specifics of what Stone gets into are beside the point, and what I like is how John opens up the idea of multiple paths to illumination. To be honest, I think John wanted Stone’s path to be out of the mainstream and sound really wacky. It’s a challenge to the traditional forms of spirituality that [De Niro’s  character] uses to judge people. But if you really listen to what Stone is saying, his message is just Cuisinarted Buddhism.

Thanks for talking the time to talk!

No problem.

Stone opens in DC-area theaters on October 15th.