Toronto Q&A: Stone's Edward Norton

A corporate drone who starts a fisticuffs-fueled underground revolution. A neo-Nazi skinhead caught up in a legacy of hate. A modern-day cowboy-cum-sociopath with serious delusions of grandeur. A drug dealer preparing for a stretch in prison in post-9/11 New York. It's safe to say that Edward Norton doesn't exactly shy away from taking on intense—and often intensely unlikable—roles, and with his latest film, Stone, the 41-year-old actor adds another social outcast to his rsum.

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Gerald "Stone" Creeson is a smooth-talking convict up for parole; his freedom depends on getting his straight-arrow case officer, Jack (Robert De Niro), to believe he's found religion and rehabilitation. So far, so Primal Fear...until John Curran's character drama takes a serious left turn as De Niro's character suffers a moral lapse and Creeson experiences what seems to be an actual epiphany. The film hits theaters October 8; TONY talked to Norton on the eve of the film's world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

Time Out New York: How did you get involved with this project?
Edward Norton: My involvement with this came through John [Curran]...when he and I were working on The Painted Veil (2006), he would talk about making a movie that really looked at how America presents itself as a religious, moral place and yet occasionally does things to contradict that. He kept saying, "Don't you think it'd be interesting to examine the way both individuals and cultures present themselves versus what's going on inside of them...and how, if you don't reconcile the difference between those things, a sense of moral corrosion sets in?"

Time Out New York: It must have seemed like quite a coincidence when Angus MacDonald's script came along...
Edward Norton: Well, those elements weren't quite as prevalent in Angus's script when we started. It was originally set in the South instead of Detroit, and it was just geared very differently...once John started working with it, the story really turned into: What is a spiritual awakening? What form does it come in? What certifies it as authentic? I wasn't sure about the script at first, but John told me, "Think of it as a starting point for how these two characters—Stone and Jack—invert": My character goes up, De Niro's character goes down. I loved the notion that this convict would seem, at first glance, to win the prize for Most Unlikely to Ever Have a Serious Spiritual Transformation...

Time Out New York: Is that a new yearbook category?
Edward Norton: [Laughs]Yeah, if there were yearbooks in prison, that would be Stone's category: Least Likely to Connect to a Higher Power. He'd have a lock on that! You look at Stone, with his hairdo and that exaggerated street-savvy way of talking, and you'd think, Oh my God, this guy is a fucking goofball. But he's the guy that goes like this [Raises his right hand up] while the guy who's the "good guy" of the story goes like this [Pushes left hand down].

Time Out New York: But you're never really sure if this guy is simply trying to scam his way out of prison, or if he's experienced a genuine religious moment, are you?
Edward Norton: This is not a film where there's a clear con at the end, with a big gotcha moment, and it was always very important that we left it ambiguous. I want the audience to walk out of the theater asking themselves, Was this real? Was he faking it? Did he start off faking it and then it becomes real at some point? That, to me, was a lot more interesting than a trick.

Time Out New York: Sure, in the same way that a complex character study about two men experiencing spiritual ups and downs is actually a lot more interesting than a typical thriller—but that is sort of how the film is being marketed, right?
Edward Norton: I totally agree with you, but Overture is actually very appreciative of what the movie is. I think it's hard to go out and tell people, this is serious meditation on serious themes. Go see it! [Laughs] But I have faith that there's an audience out there hungry for this type of films; they just have to be cultivated. My hope is that people will go, Wow, I went in expecting a mystery and this gave me something else that was far more interesting and thoughtful.

Time Out New York: You've been involved with a lot of films—25th Hour, The Painted Veil, Down in the Valley, American History X, even Fight Club—where you play somebody actively seeking salvation and a sense of inner peace. What makes you gravitate to these types of roles time after time?
Edward Norton: I don't really know, it's... Have you ever seen those Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell?

Time Out New York: You mean The Power of Myth series? I have, yeah.
Edward Norton: There's a riff that Campbell has about transparency: Narratives really penetrate people when they can look right through them and see that the story is really about themselves. I remember having a complete "a-ha!" moment when I heard that, and now, if I read a script that grabs me, it's almost always because it hits upon a nerve in relation to how we live right now. And that usually involves a character looking for some sort of salvation.

Plus, the part of me that's a genuine fan of movies gets excited over stuff like this or, say, Down in the Valley, because I remember how the movies that really meant something to me—stuff like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy—gave me such a shock and a buzz. I could be a part of something similar to what those movies accomplished; those are the movies I want to make. I mean, that's why working with John Curran feels like something unique. I don't think he gets nearly enough credit.

Time Out New York: What do you mean?
Edward Norton: I mean, here's a guy who's made three very different movies—We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004), The Painted Veil and this—and he's just laying down good work, one right after the other! It's hard for me to be totally objective, because I work with the guy. But there are times when I stand back and think, Wow, this is a director who's trying to make films that are profound and engage with big questions. I look at something like Stone and think: How did he get this movie made today? [Laughs] Nobody is getting to make these kinds of movies nowadays, one that deal with denial and faith and what happens when you find yourself facing a void in yourself...that's heavy stuff! That's Ingmar Bergman territory.

Time Out New York: Did you just compare him to Ingmar Bergman?
Edward Norton: I'll put it to you this way: I think a generation of critics grew up watching those late-'60s films during the era of Bergman and Fellini, and those heavy hitters—for those critics, these movies are the pinnacle. These critics get so wrapped up in canonizing that period that you wonder: Would these people recognize when modern filmmakers are doing quality work like that today? Or are they so wrapped up in their own erudition that they simply refuse to see it? I think John is trying to look at a lot of the same things those directors were examining, and he doesn't get enough credit for that. [Pause] And yes, I think Ingmar Bergman would have liked this film. He would have smiled on what we're trying to do here.

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