Understated Norton's Star Shines Brightly These Days
With a murmur directed at no one in particular, he turns up the thermostat before sitting and glancing warily about as the shuffling dies down and several sets of eyes turn to examine him frankly. The crisp creases in his obviously new shirt belie the bleary eyes, rumpled hair, and unshaven face. He exudes exhaustion, suggesting either a long night or a prolonged weekend of endless publicity demands--or simply discomfort at an early-morning engagement. Under the table, however, one knee bounces up and down relentlessly. The room remains unusually quiet until Norton himself breaks the silence by lightly asking how everyone feels.
Norton's plain, even bland features lend themselves perfectly to the world of character acting. In the Columbia-bred actor's brief film career he has created powerfully indelible characters, yet he says he's not often recognized in public. Nominated for a 1996 Academy Award for his stunning debut as a schizoid murderer in the thriller Primal Fear, he made a nervy follow-up by playing a breezy song and dance man in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You. From there he switched gears yet again for Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt and was convincingly shrewd as a composite of the real-life lawyers of the porno king and First Amendment advocate.
It was during Flynt that Norton raised eyebrows (and in some quarters dropped jaws) by reportedly taking up with co-star Courtney Love. Although the rumor mill has them still very much a twosome, Norton--known as a decidedly private man in the most public of businesses--has made it clear on previous occasions that he will not discuss his private life, so nary a peep about the relationship is being made from either side of the table.
Absent from the screen for nearly two years, Norton has proven equally careful about his film selections, parceling himself out to equally diverse projects. He recently participated in Out of the Past, a documentary chronicling the history of gay rights, speaking the role of Henry Garber, an early-20th-century gay activist. This month Norton is back on screen in Rounders, playing Matt Damon's best friend, the annoyingly charming poker-playing rascal Worm. Next he'll pair up with Brad Pitt in the provocative Fight Club. Perhaps most anticipated of Norton's current projects is American History X, in which a pumped-head, bald, goateed Norton plays a former neo-Nazi skinhead struggling to keep his brother from taking up his former life. (The film currently in limbo due to a skirmish between its director, Tony Kaye, and its studio, New Line.)
"I really don't mean this to sound the wrong way," Norton says, explaining why he chooses roles carefully and works sparingly. "The process of making movies is a grind. It's kind of an endurance experience as much as anything else. To do that and sustain the kind of energy . . . to do it well, [the part] needs to be something I can chew on to justify that much concentration and effort."
It's just the kind of deliberate answer one would expect from the Yale-educated, theater-trained actor. When pressed to respond to the slew of critics' awards and accolades he has received, he is unsurprisingly practical. "It's silly to suggest you don't want people to respond. The whole point is . . . you're not doing it for yourself, you're putting it out there for people to enjoy. Sometimes I think it gets a little hyperbolic, it gets a little disproportionate because of how much media hype there is around the business." The faintest trace of a smile plays around his mouth. "People responding really well to the films . . . thrills me."
Norton, who has a reputation for delving into research for his roles, is asked about his poker-playing skills. He confesses he didn't play before making Rounders and describes how screenwriters David Levien and Brain Koppelman played guides for him and Damon, introducing them around at various clubs and to professional players. Norton says his best poker coach was a woman, a professor at a design school who played on the side and won consistently at high-end clubs . "People were very willing and eager to help because I think they feel that the game gets misrepresented as a gambling game and they feel it's much more like chess, which I agree it is," he says.
When jocularly asked about his losses, Norton remains pensive, comparing the experience to professional tennis: "Matt and I played in some high-stake games and it was like hitting with [Pete] Sampras. It was going by you so fast that you literally weren't even sure what was happening, how it was you were getting beaten, but you were getting beaten, badly. And we were both out. We lost all our money in less than an hour. It was really an amazing feeling."
Under the table, Norton's knee continues its energetic bounce; above the table the pale, almost listless face turns politely back and forth as he answers more questions. Someone points out that Worm was more than a little wired in the film and pointedly compares the character's manner to Norton's present "morning-after" demeanor. Norton smiles at last. "No, no," he mildly scolds, "that wasn't me." He rises as the interview concludes, but finishes the thought. "There's a fine line between reality and the fictions we create."
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