Edward Norton wants to make films that matter -- The actor discusses his past roles and his three new flicks

By Gregory Kirschling
Updated May 05, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

The first movie that really made Edward Norton go, ”Oh my God!” was Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing; he was 19. ”For me, that film was massive, ” he says today, at 36. It knocked him out when the director ended his combustible drama on race relations with opposing quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. ”Lee’s asking us, ‘So King said this, Malcolm said this, now what do you think?”’ Norton recalls, ”and I remember sitting there, just flattened by it, because you expect a movie to conclude itself for you, and it didn’t.” Norton says he staggered out to the lobby, bought a ticket for the very next show, and went right back in to watch it again.

That’s exactly the kind of movie Norton aspires to make. Ten years into his career, which began big, with an Oscar nomination for his debut performance in Primal Fear, he’s delivered several hard-hitters: The People vs. Larry Flynt, Fight Club, American History X, and 25th Hour (also a Lee film). Of all his own projects, these are Norton’s favorites. And now he’s adding another movie to that list: Down in the Valley, opening in New York this week, is an indie that casts him as Harlan, a twang-talking South Dakota cowboy transplanted to the fenced-in San Fernando Valley, where he falls in love with a teenager (Evan Rachel Wood) and soon reveals a wilder, more unhinged side of his personality. Norton likes that the movie poses questions that ”it doesn’t necessarily answer for you.” Valley is the first of three new Norton pictures this year: In August’s The Illusionist, costarring Paul Giamatti, he portrays an enigmatic 19th-century Viennese magician in love with the prince’s girl (Jessica Biel); and in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, due this fall, he plays a British doctor fighting a cholera epidemic in 1920s China.

As you may have noticed, Norton has taken some time off lately. Since 2002’s 25th Hour, he’s been seen only in supporting parts in The Italian Job and Kingdom of Heaven — which had him acting behind a silver mask. ”I didn’t want to go into something feeling less than totally enthused about it,” he says of his respite, ”just for the sake of getting paid or whatever. I just had had such satisfying experiences, I didn’t really feel like going and having an unsatisfying one.” Never shy about sharing his ideas, Norton hates when a director makes him feel like a ”puppet.” At those times, ”I feel like saying, ‘Go work for Pixar and make an animated film, or get somebody else, because I don’t have any interest in parroting you.”’ In 1998, the collaboration imploded when American History X director Tony Kaye, in a rather public dustup, furiously claimed Norton had stolen the film from him in the editing room (an accusation Norton denied). But for Down in the Valley, the process rolled along just as Norton likes. Prior to shooting, he spent six months reworking the script with writer- director David Jacobson. ”I think that there’s no question that Edward is going to challenge every director that he works with,” says Naomi Watts, who plays Norton’s wife in The Painted Veil. ”But if the director is smart, he will always listen to Edward’s ideas, because 99 percent of the time they’re brilliant. And they’re probably better than anyone else’s!”