Edward Norton has made a career of playing jailbirds on screen. His edgy intensity lights up movies like this weekend’s Stone, despite one writer calling him “the passport definition of no distinguishing marks.”
The Yale graduate’s slight, gawky frame is not exactly what you have in mind when you think criminal and yet his portrayals of people on life’s fringe’s have earned him Oscar nominations and come to define his career.
In his first big screen part Norton played the dual role of altar boy Aaron and his alter ego, the psychotic Roy in the film Primal Fear. Accused of murder, he is zealously defended by a defense attorney (Richard Gere) who is drawn to the sweet Southern boy until he realizes that Aaron is totally insane. A complete unknown when he auditioned for the role, he tricked the film’s director into thinking he shared an eastern Kentucky background with Aaron by speaking with a twang —which he picked by watching Coal Miner’s Daughter.
“The most I had to offer was anonymity,” he later said. “The potency of the revelation about who my character really was in that film was in part reliant on the fact that people had absolutely no prior knowledge of me.”
Next time behind bars he pulled a De Niro, and in American History X physically transformed to play the role of a white supremacist sent away for murder. In jail he learns the error of his ways and works to help his brother from going down the same, wrong-headed path.
“I knew this guy was going to have to be really physically fearsome,” he says, “and that’s not something anyone would peg me for. [He’s] defined by rage and this body he’s created is the physical manifestation of that.”
In this weekend’s Stone he stars as an arsonist who will do anything, including using his wife as bait, to earn parole. Despite having played convicts in the past, Norton was keen to bring an extra layer of realism to this role so he met with actual prisoners to learn how they spoke.
“Their language is fantastic. At one point, one of these guys was telling me about a fight and how he had to just let it happen and not fight. (He said,) ‘When you’re short time, you have to be a vegetarian.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Vegetarian, you can’t have beef with nobody.’”