IT'S not often that a completely unknown actor steps from the wings of obscurity to snag a pivotal supporting assignment in a major feature, headlined by a major star, and then has the impertinence to be the film's saving grace. But such was the case with Edward Norton, who made his film debut in 1996 in the Richard Gere starrer Primal Fear. Norton first rescued the picture from falling apart (Gere was close to walking because the film's producers took forever to fill Norton's role), and then from falling flat (with apologies to Richard, Norton's stunning performance was the only thing to recommend the otherwise desolate courtroom drama). Marking one of the most astounding feature debuts in years, Norton's critically lauded, Golden Globe- and Oscar-nominated performance catapulted him into the media spotlight. On the strength of this one performance, Norton inked deals for two additional A-list projects (he had to turn down a role opposite Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Franz in American Buffalo because of scheduling constraints) — all this before Primal Fear hit a theater near you. How to explain this insta-fame? We can't credit witty talk show appearances, stylish magazine covers, or the zealous efforts of high-powered agents. We can't say it's because he's so damned good-looking, or that he's got the right connections. No, Edward Norton became a hot property for one simple, beautiful reason: he can act like nobody's business.
Who exactly is this electrifying Johnny-come-lately that has everyone spouting off comparisons to Graduate-era Hoffman and young De Niro? That's been a surprisingly tough question to answer. Norton, a Yale grad who can, and does, speak with almost frightening eloquence on any issue concerning his work, has proved scrupulously guarded when anything with the barest hint of a personal nature is broached. He has his reasons: in the manner of fellow reticence-prone actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Norton wishes his work to speak for itself without issues of celebrity muddying up the viewer's experience. Norton gives his characteristic considered explanation: "Every little thing that people know about you as a person impedes your ability to achieve that kind of terrific suspension of disbelief that happens when an audience goes with an actor and character [he's] playing." So, the less you know about Ed Norton's likes, dislikes, lovers, family members, and quirks, the more you can enjoy his performance — fair enough. He also abhors the thought of cheapening his private life by having his emotional experiences become grist for the Hollywood gossip mill: "I don't have any desire to be some clam — or Greta Garbo. Anybody can ask me anything, but I firmly believe I have the right to answer or not, especially if I explain why."
What we know is that Norton was born and raised in Columbia, Maryland, the eldest of his lawyer father and a teacher mother's three children. We also know that, as long as he can remember, Norton has felt the impulse to act, and in fact, started appearing in plays at the age of five. He attended a school for theatrical arts in the Baltimore area, and by the age of eight was already asking precocious questions like "What is my objective in this scene?" He appeared in numerous undergraduate plays during his years at Yale. Following a post-college stopover in Japan, where he worked for Enterprise Foundation, an organization founded by his grandfather that develops low-income housing internationally, Norton headed back to the States to fulfill a date with destiny on the stages of Manhattan. He supported himself with the typical part-time waitering jobs, and his rounds of auditions and acting classes started paying off with castings in off-off-Broadway productions. In 1994, the budding young thespian drew the attention of Edward Albee, whose plays were being staged by New York's Signature Theatre Company. After an "extraordinary" audition before Albee and Signature's artistic director, Norton was cast in the world premiere production of Albee's Fragments; he subsequently joined the Signature ranks.
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood . . . casting for the Richard Gere vehicle Primal Fear wasn't going so well. Paramount's first choice to play the role of Aaron Stampler, a seemingly sinless Appalachian choirboy accused of murdering a Chicago archbishop, was young actor-on-the-rise Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo had given the thumbs-down to the project, thereby throwing the studio into a hectic multi-continent hunt for a replacement; casting agents auditioned over 2,100 hopefuls. The search for just the right look and accent ended with Edward Norton, a slender, pale unknown with piercing intelligence and lopsided features, who claimed that he had grown up in eastern Kentucky, and he had the accent to prove it. Norton affected a twang-perfect hick dialect, modified it with a slight stutter, packaged it with a believable altar-boy innocence, and the part was his. Norton's two screen tests for Primal Fear were volcanic enough to spark an instant industry buzz, and before he knew it, he had landed a role as Drew Barrymore's lawyerly fiancT in Woody Allen's ensemble musical Everyone Says I Love You. But the newcomer's working year was far from over — following production on Everyone Says, Norton joined the cast of Milos Forman's biopic, The People vs. Larry Flynt, in which he portrayed Flynt's attorney and friend Alan Isaacman.
Glowing notices haven't all been confined to Norton's winning performances. Everyone co-star Drew Barrymore cooed, "Edward has a beautiful soul and heart. He is not out there self-destructing. He is Old Hollywood. He's classy. He's genuine." Larry Flynt co-star Courtney Love, who also dated Norton, concurs: "Edward is so brilliant, so chivalrous. In terms of ethics and integrity, he transcends virtually everybody I've met in the entertainment world. Both as an actor and a person, he's pure class."
Fortunately and unfortunately, all this intoxicating attention transpired during a difficult time for the Norton family — Edward's grandfather, famed architect James Rouse (he developed Boston's Faneuil Hall marketplace and Baltimore's Harborplace), died in April 1996, and his mother died the following year, not long after she underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. Tipping the fortunate side of the scales was the fact that Norton could use his newfound celebrity to organize a screening of Everyone Says I Love You in Baltimore to benefit the ongoing research of the Johns Hopkins Hospital oncology team that operated on his mother. Norton's outlook on his sudden and overwhelming film success has necessarily been influenced by both traumas: "It's a nice position to be in; I'm lucky. At the same time, all the excitement of that has been put into stark perspective. . . . In some ways, the highs of it have been blunted, which in a way, is a gift."
The chameleonlike facility with which Norton switches dramatic gears — you've got to admit, there is a huge chasm between callous choirboy killer and warbling, lovestruck lawyer — was next put to the test in the poker-themed noir film Rounders and in Tony Kaye's controversial American History X, in which he delivered an Oscar-nominated performance as a reformed white supremacist. 1999 witnessed the buzz-laden release of David Fincher's Fight Club, a dark and violent film in which Norton portrayed a morbid pencil-pusher who finds release from his stultifying corporate existence by engaging in fisticuffs.
Biography by Mr Showbiz