Edward Norton plays a dual role in Leaves of Grass, a black comedy about a Yale philosophy professor who returns home to rural Oklahoma and his drug-dealing brother and drug-addled mother.

He plays both the professor and the dealer.

Writer-director and co-star Tim Blake Nelson says he wrote the script with Norton in mind without telling him. He says he wanted him not for his talent but for his brain — he knew Norton would be able to perform counter-intuitively as twins.

“I think that’s a lie!” Norton says. “I think I know the actors it went to first! Tim and I had talked and I’d seen his work. He told me when he gave it to me, and I was very resistant, but not because of Tim. It was more that I was in the middle of writing something and had a rare window to focus on my own work and I was really determined to keep doors closed against life and any invitations into someone else’s head space.”

Norton is a gifted and prolific screenwriter himself, and while he admired Nelson’s writing on previous films, he had no intention of signing on.

“I told him I would read it and very likely I wasn’t going to do it because he’s cocky and full of himself. He said, ‘Oh, you’re going to read it, and you’re going to call. I have a strong suspicion that you’re going to want to do this.’

“I said, ‘I have an equally strong admonition to you that I am really, really not looking for work now.’

“I was at my grandmother’s house and read it and I was literally angry once I had finished. I knew I was going to have to call and say he was right. It was irresistible.”

Norton says now that he is happy to have taken the bait, because the subject matter shed light on personal issues he was facing.

“If I didn’t take any risks, I would probably be a lawyer somewhere. I’m not that good at self-assessment, but I definitely think that Tim’s script was a great portrait of somebody struggling to find balance. Bill (the central twin, the Yale professor) struggles to embrace the unpredictable and relinquish a little of his rational control of the right brain, things I think a lot of people can relate to; the struggle between ambitions and impulses to be lazy, or their fantasies of being liberated and free or having a family. I recognized the theme of balance.”

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