He recently brought his star power to the Oscar-winning 'Birdman', a cinematical tour de force set backstage in a New York Theatre, where a former screen superhero played by Oscar nominee Michael Keaton is dealing with all the vanity, humiliation and existential angst that goes with being a film star on the way down.
To celebrate the film's home release, Ed Norton talks to HuffPostUK about his own scene-stealing performance in the film, and how much ego is actually involved in getting up in front of the camera...
What attracted you to the role of Mike Shiner in Birdman?
I think he’s a very funny character because he comes off in the beginning kind of like a train wreck. He’s kind of like an anarchist who is blowing up everybody else’s bridges, but what I like about the movie and the way Alejandro [Gonzalez Inarritu, the director] approached the characters is that he loves all of them, he skews all of them, and some of the ones who seem like the biggest thorn in Riggan’s [Michael Keaton] side actually end up having perspectives that are fairly accurate and wise. They reveal things about him that are actually quite true and it’s a neat trick in the film because of course he’s the protagonist and you’re sympathetic towards him and you feel what he’s doing is admirable.
Ed Norton goes mano a mano with Michael Keaton in 'Birdman'
How much ego does an actor need to survive in the job?
I feel like the whole movie is an expression of Dorothy Parker’s line that if you scratch an actor you’ll find an actress. That pretty much sums it up. There’s a lot of truth in that, but what’s great about the film to me is that if you step outside the fact that it’s about performers the truth is Michael’s character could be anybody in the sense that he’s a guy at a certain age in life coming to grips with feeling like he’s drifted away from the best version of himself that he had in mind when he set out to do what he wanted to do. That sinking feeling or that clench where you are wondering if there are any moves you can make to resuscitate your sense of vitality – a lot of people can relate to that. Emma Stone’s character [Sam Thomson] talks about the delusion that you’re important and the delusion that anybody else really cares about your career or anything like that, and that’s not unique to actors. It’s just that actors are a terrific turbo charger on all of that.
Do you think in Hollywood ageism affects men as well as women?
You could say that, but then there are so many things that rebut that. Have I ever been told I’m too young or too old for a part? Sure, but sometimes you are. It would be the ultimate vanity to say “I am the channel for everything”. That’s the other old joke: How many actors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? 100 – one to do it and 99 to say “I could have done that so much better”. Maybe every actor thinks they could play every role but it’s not true. There’s things Judi Dench can do that I can’t do [laughs] believe it or not.
Michael Keaton has said every actor has his or her Birdman. Do you agree with that?
I guess what he means by that is just the voices in your head, but I really do think everybody has those conversations, everybody talks to themselves in their brain, everybody chastises themselves, everybody worries… It’s endemic to who we are. I think our brains torment us with doubt and questioning your decisions. Maybe the Dalai Lama doesn’t feel that way, but I bet he does. I bet he’d say he does.
Ed Norton and Emma Stone share Paddington Bear stares in 'Birdman'
This is a film that people are going to want to add to their collections and watch over and over again. Is that something you do yourself?
Sure. I return to films all the time, just like a great novel or something. There are certain films I go back and re-watch over and over. I told Alejandro when I saw the first cut of the movie, not even the finished version, “They’re going to be deconstructing this movie in film schools for the next 50 years.” What he and the cinematographer Chivo [aka Emmanuel Lubezki] pulled off technically alone is just astonishing. It borders on magical but I think thematically, too, people are going to be picking it apart for a very long time.
You give a very out-there performance in the film. Do you thrive on that?
I do think things that exist in that very narrow band between naturalism and kind of a heightened style are interesting. My favourite things are heightened to some degree and many of the most memorable characters in films and literature are heightened characters brought into reality by a performance. Stanley Kowalski [in A Streetcar Named Desire] is not a hyper-realistic character; he’s very outsized but he’s sort of hauled down into reality by the force of a great performance. Travis Bickle [in Taxi Driver] is in a lot of ways a terrifyingly, intensely-imagined character. There are those roles where the dare is how far can you take it without it going over into something that feels unreal? Those are really interesting.
Emma Stone says that one of the reasons she acts is because she’s driven by fear. Do you agree with that?
No, I can’t say that’s the case for me. For me the pull has been more that there’s an underlying investigatory nature to the work. You’re sort of being a reporter in a weird way except you don’t write the story, you deliver a character. But you still have to go and dig in in a lot of ways, and that has always been interesting to me because it’s rich. It’s like you meet interesting people and you learn interesting skill sets. That more than anything has been the root of it for me.
Ed Norton broke through with his stunning portrayal of Richard Gere's defendant in 'Primal Fear'
Do you have any plans to direct again?
Yeah, I hope to do it pretty soon. We’re trying to get something together. Brad Pitt and I are producing this HBO miniseries that I wrote some of and we should be shooting that next summer. It’s called 'Undaunted Courage' and it’s the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We’ve been working on it a long time and it’s finally coming together, but I’m not going to direct any of that. It’s going to be John Curran, who directed 'The Painted Veil', 'Stone' and 'Tracks'. He’s really a terrific filmmaker. I’m working on another thing too. It takes time to get these things together.
How do you stand on the art versus commerce debate?
It’s this fun tension that people like to engage in but sometimes they blow it up into more than it is and I don’t think it’s a modern conversation. The art versus commerce debate probably goes back to Da Vinci and it’s not invalid but I think sometimes people look to create cleaner lines than there actually are. One would have to say that this film is pretty much a rebuttal to everything it’s critiquing - not only in the way it’s made, it’s also everything you’d look for in an original, complicated and multi-layered film but it’s being put out by a major studio. It’s not an indie film. There are great movies this year and they’re coming out from major studios, so I’m not sure it’s as binary as people like to make it out. The world is always shifting and the way audiences find films is changing. Netflix is changing things and where people see films is changing. I don’t see actual evidence of the apocalypse in terms of art being atomised by comic book movies.
Is it a case of the industry adapting to new developments?
That’s always been true. Talkies were a big deal. Colour film. Television. The way we tell stories is always going to evolve. Not many people are painting on cave walls anymore, but you’ve got graffiti and taggers. We’re lucky because it’s fun to work on 'The Bourne Legacy'. I did that movie because I think Tony Gilroy is a great writer and he’s a filmmaker I wanted to work with, plus it was done in New York at home. I don’t have to be as precious and it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition, and that’s a very nice thing. It’s fun to work on those films and I love those Bourne movies. They’re really entertaining and they’re fun fantasies. The notion of how the business is shifting and the idea of imposing the world “crisis” on that seems a little hyper-analytical to me. In New York we’d call it “an uptown problem”. It’s not Gaza, it's “How are we going to get our movie out?”
Do you think Birdman is a fair reflection of life in the theatre?
I’ve no idea how these four guys wrote this movie because none of them are New York theatre people but they got so many details so right. All that stuff Shiner says about how you shouldn’t be trying to make previews work, the point is not to put on a great play, it’s to stick a fork in it, test it out, blow it up, flex the muscles of it… It’s this process of discovery in front of other people which is weird but it’s true and if a play is rich it never feels like repetition. If it’s a rich piece of material you can be months into it but you’re still figuring it out as you go along. It’s fascinating.
'Birdman' is released on Blu-Ray and DVD from 4 May. Watch the trailer below...