Mr. Norton, when did you realize that you’re a good actor?
When I was younger I had these moments where I realized that I was relaxed enough that I was surprising myself with my spontaneity, especially when it wasn’t all managed, and I thought, “This is what you should be chasing, this feeling of spontaneity.” I can remember when I worked in the theater for a few years there were moments when I was thinking, “This is good, this is rich, we’re finding a lot in it, I can feel that it is having an impact.”
Are there times when you struggle to achieve that?
Yes, other times I start on something new and feel very cold, very like I’m faking it and very lost. So it’s not that you get to some spot and every day after that you feel strong in what you’re doing. You know, I went through many times when I started to ask myself, “What am I doing?” And I had no idea.
But ultimately acting makes you happy?
Yeah, I think. It is also about balance and finding the balance between the very cerebral part of your brain and the much more impulsive creativity that can come from chaos. So for me it is very much about that balance. The cerebral part of acting and the perfectionism can be exhausting, but the spontaneity can be very joyful. So it’s about managing these two sides of the experience. But yes it’s fun. I mean, there is no point in doing a movie if you’re not having fun.
Has it ever gotten to be too much for you?
Yes, for sure.
When does that moment arrive?
It can come at many different times. I know I am working too much if I’m sort of sagging and there are other things I want to be doing. There is no reason to do this work if you don’t feel inspired by it. For me part of the solution is working less. Just not doing one after the other after the other…
Is working less why you still look so young?
I’m actually one of those rare actors who lie about their age in the other direction. I am actually 27, but I keep wanting to get cast in more mature parts so I lie upward.
Do you do a lot of preparation before each project?
Preparation is very important. I start by looking at many things, from clothes to music to voice. I know it sounds weird, but sometimes figuring out the clothes can really start to help you inhabit a character. It’s different every time. Sometimes it’s music, sometimes the voice is important first.
Yeah, for one film I spent quite a bit of time talking to inmates of this prison near Detroit where I met with one guy who had this incredible voice; it sounded like sandpaper and glass. I got close to replicating it, but his was even more intense.
How does that work? You just call up a prison, tell them who you are – and then you are allowed to meet with the inmates?
No, in that environment everything is controlled. The prison facilities have public relation channels and they set everything up in meeting rooms. It is not loose at all. I am not stepping into their cells; they bring the prisoners to you in a conference room.
Does keeping a low public profile help your work on screen to shine?
Yes, I always felt that that stuff is very corrosive, not just to your quality of life, but to what people see on screen. To me, all that is baggage that gets between the audience and the character that you’re trying to make come to life. There shouldn’t be all this pollution in between. I think it becomes more and more difficult to break free of that once it starts to happen so I always felt very defensive about that.
Some people say you can’t control how much the media wants to participate in your life.
I think it’s very much in your control. You learn to navigate. It takes some time but you learn to navigate those different things and try to keep doing the thing you originally set out to do as much as possible and minimize the way that those other things distract from it.
Do you ever get concerned when your films don’t get as widely distributed as you’d like?
No, no. I have always made films out of the same impulses. In the past couple years I have made a few more that were in a more independent model. But, for example, The Illusionist never got any distribution and it did really, really well. If you let that be your yardstick you can get wound very, very tight. I have had enough experiences.
What do you mean?
You go through the experience of the initial release and the way people assess that, but then so many films these days form their own relationship with people over time and you begin to have a bit more faith in the longevity. In a way it’s a relief to find out that films will find their own measure.
That’s all well and good until the film can’t get made in the first place.
True, I don’t even know if Fight Club would be made now. But there is always something coming out that defies that gloomy prognosis and you realize that they do get made.Return to Top