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INT: Edward Norton

Dec. 28, 2006by: Jenny Karakaya

It is refreshing to finally see Edward Norton steer his talent in a more romantic direction. In person, he seems as inexorable and uncompromising as exemplified in many of the characters he’s portrayed. His tough demeanor’s not to say that he isn’t remarkable. After all, his outstanding performances as infamous destructive and abrasive characters in AMERICAN HISTORY X, PRIMAL FEAR, FIGHT CLUB and 25TH HOUR are powerful showcases of his butt kicking talent. I reckon this is one bad boy you don’t want to mess with!! However, Norton’s much anticipated role in the film THE PAINTED VEIL, contrarily demonstrates a different approach to revenge as his boundaries for love and deception become challenged.

THE PAINTED VEIL is the third film version and adaptation of the classic novel written by Somerset Maugham. It is a melodramatic period piece and classical romantic story that focuses on an unhappy married couple, whose survival becomes questionable in a remote Chinese village plagued with a deadly epidemic. Norton, a reserved bacteriologist costars with Naomi Watts, who delivers another brilliant performance as Norton’s bored, socialite onscreen wife. Together they exhibit a magnificent chemistry that translates into a beautiful, timeless piece. Check out what Norton had to say when I had the pleasure of talking to him about working in China, Naomi Watts, the challenges in portraying his character Walter, and his determination and desire to make his latest release, THE PAINTED VEIL.

Edward Norton

What was it like filming in China ?

It was a great experience. When you make movies, a lot of times, the artifice of the experience is very present all around you, so you'll be creating a reality, but then, when you step out of work, it's not that often that the experience of making a movie has a lot of parallels in the story. It was [paralleled because], in this case, we were working far from, and we were working through the difficulty of translation. Sometimes [there's] inefficiency communicating that way—people [do] things differently than when you do them. Your problems fade away because often this other context fed very directly into what the story was about and that was, kind of, special. There are frustrations to making anything way out there in places where there aren't even paved roads, but those logistical challenges were minor compared to how great the Chinese crews [were]. Their work ethic was just unbelievable.

Why did you decide to take on the role of Walter?

It was a combination of two things. If you watch David Lean films or Out of Africa, you can't help but think how great it would be to have that kind of experience. When you see the potential in something for that kind of scope, it's very tempting. The best of those movies, I think, are the ones that have themes at the heart of them that transcend the period. When I read [the novel] The Painted Veil , I found myself more moved by this story of these people, kind of, going through the process of losing their illusions about each other and managing to recover a deeper scene of each other. I related to it more than I tend to related to stories about wedding planners or things like that. So, for me, it was, sort of, the combination of the epic scope of the film, but with a set of themes at the heart of it that I thought were moving.

Were you familiar with W. Somerset Maugham's other novels?

I had read a few of his [novels, but] I had not read The Painted Veil and I read Ron [Nyswaner's] script before I had read the book and went back to the book and, in a way, then we moved on with the script.

How was the Walter’s character different in the book than in the film?

In some ways, I think that the Walter in the book is more harsh. In the book, many of the same things that happen [also] happen in the film, but they happen in different ways. In the book, [Kitty] has to go back to Charlie after his death and sleep with him again before she realizes how thoroughly awful he is. In the movie, we moved that recognition further forward. In the book, the impact of the experience with Walter and everything finally lands when [Kitty] goes home and asks for forgiveness from her father. In the film, we made that happen between her and Walter before his death. We never wanted to abandon the basic idea of a woman confronting the limitations of her view of life, but we wanted to let those changes take place between the two characters.

What makes the role of Walter so challenging for you?

He has so many levels. On first impression, much as [Kitty] perceives him, the audience has a chance to perceive him as [being] a little bit antisocial [and] he's very cerebral. As the story goes on, his unsuspected depths keep getting revealed—the depth of his passion, of his capacity to be hurt, in a way, [and] to be vengeful. He becomes almost violent [and] psychologically violent. That, too, gives way to a kind of humility and compassion that you don't [notice] in him in the beginning. As an actor, you sit there going like, "Wow, this guy is quite an onion. He keeps peeling away and peeling away". I think he hurt Kitty, equally. That's what makes it a complicated little dance between the two of them.

What attracts you to Chinese culture?

I didn't go looking for a film about China. The fact that I had some background in [its culture] just made it more appealing once I had encountered it. At the moment, it happens to be the [largest] country on Earth [and] it's one of the oldest cultures. In a lot of ways, China to me is like America in the sense that it's too vast to encompass [it] easily or [to] make general statements about it. It's geographically diverse [and], just like America, it's ethnically diverse. It's a place that's [going through] enormous changes that are happening and that are palpable. In that moment that this story takes place, it was another moment in which change was ripping across that country and people were asserting their right to throw off the shackles of other countries meddling their affairs.

Does the location of the film really matter?

It could take place in another similarly historic moment in another place, but, in this case, it's not really part of the book, but [director] John Curran brought specificity to the historical moment in the film. He pushed me and Ron {Nyswaner] to get more specific about when this was taking place and what was going on. We all recognized that that was smart because it resonated with things that we're seeing today. John Curran is a good dramatist. He looked at this and said, "How can I create an environment around these characters that drives them closer together? Beyond cholera, what can be going on?" He found this moment in Chinese history when foreigners were being attacked all over the countryside and it's just good drama.

What were the effects of giving more attention to the Chinese perspectives?

The more we gave voice to the Chinese perspective on people's interventions and their affairs, the more the Chinese people we worked with felt even more deeply connected to it. It was fairly late in the process when we wrote that scene where Walter is saying to the colonel at the campfire, "I don't get your beef with me," and the colonel says, "I understand that, but your country is pointing guns at our country". The more we gave voice to the Chinese perspective, the more it gave it resonance, even for our Chinese colleagues.

What's it like working with Naomi Watts?

She's supreme. I really can't say enough good things about her. Beyond any film I've ever worked on, these performances were in lock step. There was no way to do one without the partner doing the other. They're so intimately intertwined; it's definitely the closest I've ever worked on a day-to-day level with another actor. It's just fantastic because she's so unafraid to work at levels of nuance. She's putting together things so subtly. I love that [scene] in the film with her and Diana Rigg because she's really not saying that much, but you feel the impact of this perception of Walter watching over her to the point when she walks out and can't speak. That kind of work is so gorgeous. I think it's the best of what you can do in film acting because it's almost gestural. She's got a great feeling of how much the camera can draw out of [her].

How long did you and Naomi Watts discuss The Painted Veil?

Naomi [Watts] and I talked for a couple of years. She was involved [with it], also, for a long time. A lot of times, we, sort of, wrote a lot about it.

Did you write letters to each other?

Yeah, not pretending to be the character or anything, but just kind of doodling on what we related to. Because the script was also developing, [we debated] how far we are going to take this moment, how overt is the forgiveness, [and] how much do you want them to say on his death bed—how much of it can be expressed in words and how much of it doesn't need words.

The both of us relied on John [Curran] enormously. She had a relationship with [him]—they had known each other for 15 years and already had done one film, [ We Don't Live Here Anymore ], so that was great. We had to shoot this film profoundly out of sequence and do a lot of the deep scenes of [Walter and Kitty's] relationship in the middle of the movie without having shot any of the beginning yet. That relies a lot on a director going, "Don't worry about hitting it perfect. Let's do pitch 1 here and [here] and give me the raw materials to sort it out later". I think that requires an enormous amount of trust in a director because you feel that you have to be willing to, essentially, fail to do things that may be, like, clownishly wrong and you need a lot of trust among everybody.

Source: JoBlo.com

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