Edward Norton’s extraordinary performance in American History X has to be likened to De Niro’s career-making role in Taxi Driver, another film that explored the darkness of America’s underbelly. The surprise is that Norton got to this point so quietly, with so little media fanfare along the way.
He is a performer with no preconceived image, no burden of expectations, and this despite parts like the criminal kid in Primal Fear (for which he was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actor and won a Golden Globe), the singing juvenile lead in Woody Allen’s Everybody Says I Love You, the dedicated loser Worm in Rounders. At almost 30 he’s hardly a baby by Hollywood standards.
But in Primal Fear he was, as one writer put it, a somebody playing a nobody and masking his own flair to do so more convincingly. “The most I had to offer was anonymity,” he told Interview. “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.” He admires above all Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo, and Hoffman names him as his natural successor. He never wants to be the multi-million dollar romantic lead, though it’s beginning to look as though he could be.
Before this, it might have seemed he was limited by his unremarkable physique. Weedy in Rounders, winning enough in the Woody Allen, he’s always been the passport definition of no distinguishing marks. But in American History X he is unrecognisable and frightening – muscular, tattooed and bearded.
“I knew this guy was going to have to be really physically fearsome, and that’s not something anyone would peg me for. This character is a kid who basically wants to cry and covers it with anger. Defined by rage, arming himself against his own emotional pain – and this body he’s created is the physical manifestation of that.” He ate protein, he pumped iron… but it doesn’t look as if he’s chosen to keep the bulked-up body, interestingly.
In American History X he plays Derek Vinyard, a former violent white supremacist who has emerged from prison to reject his racist beliefs – and to try to prevent his younger brother (Edward Furlong) from going the same way. The film attempts to trace the roots of race hatred – which, in this case, lie partly in family tragedy.
“In America, racism is much more a gang phenomenon, growing out of a need for a sense of belonging. It does not have the political underpinnings it seems to have in Europe. So I felt like it was an American tragedy. But within that particular setting, it is universal. Contemporary urban society breeds frustration, and often the snapping point becomes race.”
He doesn’t dwell on the screen brutality. “The key moment of the film for me isn’t the cracking someone’s head on a kerb” – making them bite the pavement and stamping down, as Derek does. “It’s after Derek’s been raped in prison, when you see someone really experience the truth of what’s going on inside them. The moment the fronts drop away. The capacity to hit vulnerable moments defines really good actors, for me.
“Some parts you do from the outside in – Rounders, for me was about the look. I took the costume designer to a Rolling Stones concert and said, “Look at Keith Richards – that’s who this guy thinks he is.” But sometimes you have to go more in the other direction. Get inside someone’s head, as well as observe the tactile and temporal reality: “Acting talent is a talent for observation and empathy.”
It leads to one sympathy-grabbing moment near the end of the film where the changed Derek passes a mirror, and catches sight of the swastikas still tattooed on his body. Isn’t that dangerous, when applied to a bigot? Norton says the character needs to be on the grand scale: “Derek needs to be larger than life. For half the film he’s seen in flashback, and that’s how his brother sees him, as heroic. He’s set up in the way classical tragedy sets up its heroes. The tragic heroes are not foot soldiers – and their tragedy is enhanced by the potential of their stature.
“Anything can be misinterpreted, and a lot of stories have the built-in potential for offending someone if handled badly. Film is such a powerful medium right now, it’s like a mirror held up to something we don’t want to look at. There are two levels on which the film can function. Either it can give people pause or – and to me this is almost more interesting – it can force an average liberal audience to contend with the complexity of someone like this.
‘An all-too-common reaction to something like racism is to hate the act so much you dismiss the person. But in this film you’re forced to confront the complexity of the character and his tragedy – and the fact, which people don’t want to recognise, that someone like him can come out of a normal middle-class home.
“For me, it gives a pretty unequivocal message about letting rage control your life. I would have been much less comfortable if on any level he had got away with it. It would have been like if you got to the end of Macbeth and they didn’t take off his head.” It’s an interesting analogy. Did director Tony Kaye mean American History X to be the story of a tragic hero? If not, here may lie the source of a much-publicised controversy.
Britain’s most famous commercials director, Kaye was making his first feature with American History X. He gave us the snoozing penguin for British Rail, the bus blown up in front of a Volvo – and a history of what might be called event art. He paid a homeless man to wander the Tate; he put his car up as “Jewish car for sale” in the Sunday Times, and collected the ensuing correspondence. When he clashed with the studio, after the first cut of American History X was completed in May last year, he was never likely to keep quiet about his woes.
Squabbles between Kaye and New Line led to Norton editing parts of the movie. An unusual move – but by then, claimed New Line head Mike de Luca, he felt “like I’m protecting a child from an abusive parent, except that the child is our movie and the parent is its director.” Kaye expresses his protests with full page ads in the trade papers, quoting from John Lennon and Edmund Burke, Einstein and Lincoln. He tried to get his name taken off the film’s credits, but ironically he was stymied by the Director’s Guild of America which rules you are not allowed publicly to criticise any film you direct anonymously.
Kaye extraordinarily filed a case against the Guild, for curtailing his right of free speech. But in terms of column inches, the story seems to have died away. Norton is inclined to brush it off, saying: “There’s no ‘My version’.” He talks about “Tony’s compulsion with hype art,” hinting at a purposely-created controversy. But it leaves unanswered questions.
Kaye calls Norton a “narcissistic dilettante… obsessed with his image, obsessed with screen time”; someone who used his time in the cutting room to beef up his own part, who has “stabbed Kaye in the back” despite having been given the chance to do his best ever screen work. Because he’s a “terrific actor” (something not even Kaye denies), Kaye suggests he mistakenly considers himself a director. Oddly enough, after completing a film with Brad Pitt for David Fincher (of Seven fame), Norton is himself directing a story which casts him as a priest and Ben Stiller as a rabbi. But does the picture of the spoilt star ring true? Not really.
He’s certainly no self-publicist. He knows he can never again pull the Primal Fear trick of total anonymity – but he’s going to try. On a personal front, he’s reluctant to reveal even what he read at Yale. The answer is history; he speaks fluent Japanese, is on the board of the New York Signature Theatre Company, which he joined under the aegis of Edward Albee. He grew up near Baltimore and is rumoured to be dating Courtney Love, with whom he worked on The People Vs Larry Flynt, since when she has changed her image from the sleaze queen in baby doll nighties to model for Versace.
The Courtney Love connection is improbable but telling. It means there must be flamboyance there somewhere, surely? And a reluctance to become “fodder for the media grist mill” doesn’t necessarily imply that work appetites aren’t obsessive, greedy. Norton has referred to himself as “a zealous control freak”.
• American History X opens next Friday.
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