Edward Norton doesn’t fidget. The 37-year-old actor/director/producer has a preternatural stillness about him, a concentrated containment that leaves no room for finger-tapping, napkin-ripping or foot-jiggling. On a recent gray and rainy afternoon, he was tucked into a leather booth in the Blue Bar of the Algonquin Hotel, sipping green tea. The lobby was bustling with activity as tourists laden with umbrellas and bulging holiday shopping bags gaped at the klieg lights shining from a screened-off Vanity Fair photo shoot. The magazine was there to shoot its annual Hollywood issue, and rumors of Helen Mirren and Robert De Niro sightings flew freely among guests and staff. Earlier, the actor Paul Bettany amicably posed for a picture with a Texan-twanged fan and explained that he wasn’t participating in the shoot, but rather waiting for his wife—Jennifer Connelly—who was.
However, not a head turned when Mr. Norton, taller and lankier than one might have guessed, entered the room. In fact, moments after settling into his seat, a harried waiter snapped at the Oscar-nominated actor for requesting honey. Mr. Norton calmly turned his attention back to a reporter and shrugged. “I guess he’s busy with something else,” he said, and grinned.
Mr. Norton’s latest film is The Painted Veil, opening Dec. 20, which he stars in and produced. Adapted by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) from the Somerset Maugham novel, the film centers on Walter and Kitty Fane (Mr. Norton and a luminous Naomi Watts), a middle-class English couple unhappily married in 1920’s Shanghai. When Kitty is unfaithful, Walter seeks vengeance by accepting a job in a remote village plagued by a cholera epidemic, dragging Kitty along with him. It’s not exactly the same kind of holiday fare as animated penguins or Beyoncé singing in a mermaid gown. The Painted Veil is a grown-up film: quiet, complicated, devastating and beautifully shot on location in China. The National Board of Review recently named it as one of the top 10 films of the year.
“My feeling about what Maugham meant by ‘the painted veil’ is that it’s the illusions we project onto life that prevent us from seeing the truth of our selves and other people,” said Mr. Norton. “He really understood love and hate as co-existing forces. As an actor, that’s compelling, because that is the truth of human nature, in a way—about how often things co-exist in us that are contradictory, and those contradictions in people are so interesting. Men love and get wounded and then punish or take it out in anger instead of vulnerability. Those dynamics are kind of eternal.
“When you make a period piece, you have to question: Why are we doing this? Does it resonate? It has to resonate, and if it doesn’t, there is no real reason to do it—it’s just an indulgence,” he continued. “If you can look at something and say, ‘This is absolutely about things that any couple will recognize; it’s about the challenge of forgiveness,’ then you can indulge in the escapism of it.”
Mr. Norton has spent the last seven years struggling to bring The Painted Veil to theaters. When he signs onto a project, he tends to hurl his energy at it, dealing with all levels of logistics, from script tinkering to financing.
“It has to be about something,” said The Painted Veil’s director, John Curran. “He’s done a whole spectrum of films; some of them have been the kind of movie where it’s a new life experience for him. Unless he’s really passionate and allowed to be involved in it, it becomes work for him, and that’s not what he got into it for.
“If you really want to turn Edward off,” he added, “treat him like a meat puppet. Like, ‘Hey, go over there and say the lines the way I wrote them.’ If you treat him like that, he’ll fight you to a point, and then after that, it will get even worse. He’ll just tune out and go on rote. And that’s the worst …. He’ll always do the job, he’ll always be professional, but he’s not going to give you all his passions and best ideas if you’re not looking for them.”
Naomi Watts, who had been in touch with Mr. Norton about the project for the past four years—and who is a co-producer of the movie—credited Mr. Norton for pulling all the loose ends together. “I had to break a promise to myself of not working for a year,” said Ms. Watts, who had recently completed King Kong and The Ring Two. “But then it just felt like all the elements were in the right place for the first time, and Edward said, ‘Come on, we have got to do it.’ His passion is quite extraordinary. He really has the strengths of his convictions.”
Mr. Norton considers his words carefully, with long pauses—you can almost hear the whirling machinations of his brain.
“The beautiful thing about Edward is that you have to just accept the fact that he’s smarter than you, because he is,” said Mr. Curran. “He’s like the Internet that happens to be walking next to you. I could say to him, ‘Look: bamboo. Is that a grass or a plant?’ And he’ll go and tell you the whole fucking history of bamboo and what it’s used for. It’s kind of hysterical.”
“He knows everything,” agreed Ms. Watts. “A lot of people know a lot about a few things; he seems to know a lot about everything. We would have these endless discussions before we’d start to shoot. No one can talk like Edward can. He’s so fascinating and so well versed, it’s worth absorbing and listening too. But at times you go, ‘Shit, we’re losing light, shut up, Edward,’” she laughed.
Mr. Norton was raised in Columbia, Md. His father was a lawyer and U.S. attorney for the State of Maryland; his mother was a teacher. His grandfather, the architect and land developer James Rouse, is generally credited with inventing the shopping mall. He attended Yale and studied history as an undergraduate, spent some time living in Japan, and then moved to New York after graduation. His first acting break was onstage in 1994 in Edward Albee’s Fragments. His second break came a couple of years later when he co-starred with Richard Gere in Primal Fear, which would earn him an Academy Award Best Supporting Actor nomination. Before the film had even been released, advance buzz helped him land roles in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You and Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. He established himself as a thinking man’s actor, choosing projects like American History X (which earned him another Oscar nomination), Rounders, Fight Club and 25th Hour. He also tried his hand at directing, with the good-natured romantic comedy Keeping the Faith. In 2002, he went back to the stage in an Off Broadway production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, for which he earned an Obie Award. This year, along with The Painted Veil, he’s appeared in The Illusionist and Down in the Valley, which he also produced.
“Sometimes you read things and the piece of material hits at the heart of something you understand or relate to,” Mr. Norton said. “Fight Club was like that for me. Other times, it’s the element of who’s involved—people you want to work with. I’ve had a lot of different experiences. The guys who wrote Rounders dropped the script in front of me. I read it and said, ‘Don’t change a comma—where do I show up?’ Less than four weeks later, we were shooting—and it was incredible. Other times, you see something that I would call a diamond in the rough, like Down in the Valley. David [Jacobson] had spewed out this wonderful, feverish vision of a character. I told him what I related to—the modern hell of people struggling with no sense of who they are—and we cut away two-thirds of it and went to work on it. Sometimes you find someone who is really talented like that. They’re in a process, and you can bring your experience to it and help them and collaborate, and that can be wonderful, too.”
He will co-star along with Colin Farrell in Pride and Glory, due out next year, but hopes to hop back into the director’s chair—either Motherless Brooklyn or another screenplay by Ron Nyswner, Buffalo for the Broken Heart. “You never know which one will land first,” he said. “I’d love to direct a film that I’m not in. It would be wonderfully focused.”
Mr. Norton is no stranger to politics, though his involvement goes deeper than just another actor out for a photo op with a Senator or President. He stumped for incoming Governor Eliot Spitzer and is a member of the transition team, on a housing-policy committee. He’d gotten to know Mr. Spitzer through the Enterprise Foundation, an affordable-housing organization his grandfather founded. “Spitzer was arguably the state’s most dynamic attorney general in the last couple of generations,” said Mr. Norton. “I admired the way he used that office to champion social justice on a broad spectrum. I don’t even look at him as being particularly political, which is one of the things I like about him. I think he’s very, very smart, and I think it’s rare these days to have the best and the brightest actually seeking these jobs. It’s very encouraging.”
When pressed whether he’d be getting involved in national political campaigns, Mr. Norton demurred: “There are certainly people I’d …. I guess my only hesitation is that I always tread a little bit cautiously …. I don’t think celebrity alone is …. You have to be careful about how you do it. I’m much more inclined to engage with people through a substantive issue that I know something about, than I am to just sort of say, ‘I’m behind this person, so you should be too.’ Which I think is beyond ridiculous. And I don’t think it’s good for the candidate.”
In addition to being involved with Enterprise, Mr. Norton is a committed to environmental and social activism—financially supporting the Nature Conservancy’s Yunnan Great Rivers conservation project, Friends of the High Line, the Grand Canyon Trust, Earth Justice, the Wilderness Society, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the John Hopkins Neuro-oncology Research Lab, among others.
“I’m not fond of calling it charity,” he said. “It just sounds like giving money away. I think I’d call it activism.”
“He’s passionate about so many things,” said Mr. Curran. “I think the reason that he’s an actor is that it’s probably the only profession where he can funnel all of his various interests into. I mean, he’s interested in so many various things—from his charitable work to flying airplanes to scuba diving—he’s really alive about all of these things. I think acting is the only kind of profession that makes sense for someone like that. He gets to travel. He gets to jump from subject to subject. He gets to try different characters, and he gets to investigate a lot of different stuff that’s out there and that’s active in his mind.”
Mr. Norton lives in New York full time: “I don’t think there’s any reason you need to be in Los Angeles as an actor. There’s a John Updike line that I love where he said that the true New Yorker in his secret heart thinks that people living anywhere else must be, in some sense, kidding. Which is pretty much how I feel.” He’s managed to stay out of Us Weekly (though in the past he’s been romantically linked with such high-profile women as Courtney Love and Salma Hayek), though he shrugs off the label of being famously private.
“Everybody is private,” he said. “There’s no appeal for me personally, nor do I think it serves what I want to do in my work at all, to disgorge my life in some kind of public context. I don’t know why that would apply to me any more than a whole lot of people I could think of.”
He’s able to move freely about the city, unbothered on subways. “I think New Yorkers are inherently grounded on a certain level,” he said. “It’s not an industry town, so there are people pursuing 149 different dreams on any given block. A measure of success in any given one of them is no great shakes to the other 148 people.”