By Lauren Huff
October 31, 2019 at 08:30 AM EDT

“The film is about an underdog,” says Motherless Brooklyn director Edward Norton, who also adapted the screenplay based on Jonathan Lethem’s best-selling novel. Norton could be saying the same thing of himself: The movie was a labor of love for the thrice-Oscar-nominated actor, 50, who spent nearly two decades getting it made. “Writing it was an off-and-on process for me,” he admits.

The 1999 book is set in the late ’90s, unlike the film, which takes place in the 1950s. Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a detective with Tourette syndrome who investigates the murder of his mentor, Frank (Bruce Willis). Along the way, Lionel runs up against power-hungry New York city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) — loosely based on NYC megabuilder Robert Moses — who destroys diverse neighborhoods to make way for his real estate plans.

“I think one of the great ironies of Brooklyn is that you had all these historic middle-class and working-class African-American neighborhoods, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of those neighborhoods got tagged as slums and torn down so that the projects could be built, which then became real slums,” Norton says of the now uber-trendy borough.

Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.

The actor, who first moved to New York nearly 30 years ago, says that Brooklyn is currently “unrecognizable” to him. “Change is good, but I think [people are] looking at what the cost of progress is,” he says.

Ultimately, Norton hopes audiences come away with a more hopeful message: “The essential theme in the film is that part of becoming heroic is stepping up and taking care of other people,” he says. “And the way people are looking out for each other over power and money is the way to stay true to who we say we are in this country.”

Motherless Brooklyn hits theaters Friday.

For more on this fall’s most anticipated movies, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly at Barnes & Noble and newsstands now, or buy it here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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