Not one for stereotypes

Edward Norton continues to lend his maverick touch to oddball roles - the actor dissects his unusual character and his onscreen chemistry with Robert De Niro in this week’s release Stone

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Published: Thu 21 Oct 2010, 8:16 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:12 PM

“I REMEMBER JOHN held his left hand up and his right hand down and he said, ‘Jack’s up here and Stone’s down here, and by the end they flip like this,”’ Edward Norton says, moving his hands in opposite directions.

Norton is talking about his latest film, Stone, opening in cinemas today. ‘John’ is John Curran, the director with whom Norton also collaborated on the period drama The Painted Veil (2006). Stone is the character Norton plays in the film, a hardened criminal long incarcerated in a Detroit prison for arson and the murder of his grandparents.

Stone is eligible for early release, but only if he – or his sultry wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) – can convince parole officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro) to give his consent.

Mabry, who is on the verge of retirement, has his own issues. The audience is given an early insight into Mabry’s darker impulses when, in flashback, he is seen as a young father threatening to hurt his own child if his wife were ever to leave him. The older Mabry is still fighting the demons of his past, but now begins to question the comfort he once found in religion.

By contrast, only days before his final hearing with Mabry, Stone stumbles across a religious booklet in the prison library and finds renewed purpose in life.

“John was very interested in this idea of imprisonment,” Norton says, “and the idea that this guy who is in prison is actually the one who liberates his spirit in some way and that the guy who is ostensibly out of the prison is in fact imprisoned in a life that is built around constructs of marriage and church that are inauthentic on every level.”

IDOLISING DE NIRO

Norton’s claustrophobic scenes with De Niro, in which the two actors sit and verbally spar with each other across a table in a locked room, took eight or nine days to shoot, he says.

“We rehearsed in a ‘discussive’ sense,” Norton recalls. “But Bob and I know each other pretty well at this point, and we talked about it.”

Because Stone and Mabry don’t really know each other, Curran encouraged his actors to discover their characters separately, and purposely kept Norton’s physical makeover from his co-star.

“Bob never saw me with a beard or in cornrows until John had him in the chair and we were set up to do his side first,” Norton says. “They literally rolled the cameras and I sat down, so he could deal with it for the very first time. I loved it.”

Norton had previously acted opposite De Niro in the heist flick The Score (2005), which co-starred Marlon Brando. That was a much different experience, he says.

“It was very much a genre film and very much plot-driven,” the 41-year-old Norton recalls. “Growing up, you imagine what it would be like to work with (De Niro) when he is really digging in, (exploring) themes and the pathologies that are dark and oblivious of American social norms. He is so good at what lurks beneath. This was much, much more that kind of experience for me than the one that we had done before.”

DEFYING THE NORM

Norton grew up in the suburbs of Columbia, Md., where he attended public school. His grandfather was a noted urban planner and his father an environmental lawyer, and it wasn’t immediately obvious that he was destined to act.

“When I was 23 and 24, I found myself having to admit to myself that I was letting other opportunities pass by because I didn’t want to eliminate the chance to be in a play if it came up,” Norton recalls. “I realised that I was making that choice, the one around which I made all others bend.

His time off “for personal reasons” - a year-long break before his controversial work in American History X - was, he says, beneficial both personally and professionally.

“I sometimes think that, if I hadn’t taken that time, I might have felt the pressure to do certain kinds of work that weren’t really where my creative impulses were taking me,” Norton says. “By taking the downtime I was able to reflect and take in the feedback. There were big filmmakers asking me to do things. I made a few choices in that period that I think, to this day, liberated me from being just the next young lawyer in a John Grisham movie.”

Instead Norton chose to play a violent skinhead in American History X, and since then he’s continued to catch critics and audiences alike by surprise on a regular basis. In the past decade he has acted in 15 films and produced six, including Keeping the Faith (2000), which he also co-wrote, directed and starred in with Ben Stiller. He’s definitely interested in directing again, he says.

“I don’t have something immediately lined up,” says Norton, who is currently producing Undaunted Courage, an HBO miniseries about Lewis and Clark, “but I would love to do it. I am looking forward to clearing my desk and finding a phase for myself where I can focus on one thing at a time and go at something in totality, write it and direct it.”

Trivia

· Filming of Stone was interrupted on June 5, 2009, when an intoxicated woman, who said she was a fan of De Niro, got past security and accosted him. She was arrested and admitted to a local hospital soon after.

The prison scenes were filmed at the State Prison of Southern Michigan; at one time the world’s largest walled prison. But since closing it has become a popular filming venue. This year, besides Stone Hillary Swank’s yet-to-be-released 2010 dramatic thriller Conviction was also shot there.



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