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  Edward Norton Fights His Way to the Top
By Barbara Teasdall

  Like the poker player he portrayed in Rounders, Edward Norton has learned to keep his cards close to his vest. At least when it comes to his personal life.

The eldest of three children born to a lawyer father and a teacher mother, Norton grew up in Columbia, Maryland, with the burning desire to be an actor. He believes that the roles he chooses are all his fans need to know about what makes him tick. Norton wants his acting to stand alone and to be unencumbered by any fodder about his personal life.

After graduating from Yale in 1991 with a degree in history, the now 30-year-old Norton eventually wound up working at New York's Signature Theatre Company, known for staging the plays of Edward Albee. A phenomenal audition landed him a role in 1996's Primal Fear, opposite Richard Gere, as the accused killer of a bishop. A Kentucky mountain dialect, cloaked in altar-boy innocence with a streak of psychosis, made the role Norton's breakout performance; so riveting that it garnered the newcomer Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actor.

Norton followed this up playing Drew Barrymore's boyfriend in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You; as Larry Flint's lawyer in The People vs. Larry Flint with Woody Harrelson and one-time steady Courtney Love; and as a reformed white supremacist in American History X, with Edward Furlong and Beverly D'Angelo. The latter led to another Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Actor. Perhaps just to keep fans guessing, Norton turned down the role of the title character in Saving Private Ryan.

In his latest film, Fight Club, Norton plays a Gen-Xer who tires of his white-collar world and enters the realm of the fight club to which he is introduced by a new friend, Tyler, played by Brad Pitt. Attempting to overcome frustration with their boring everyday lives, young men beat each other to a bloody pulp, which eventually leads Tyler to near-messianic status.

During a late September heat wave in Los Angeles, a very articulate Norton spoke with a great deal of thought and intelligence about his new film and about growing older.

Q: In Fight Club, it’s implied that young men today are angry and looking for a way to express their rage? Isn’t that a gross generalization?

Edward Norton: I totally agree with that. I think it's a very important distinction. There is nothing in the film that's a suggestion. First of all, it's important to distinguish what a character in the film suggests and what the film suggests. What Tyler is proposing is one half of the dialectic in the film. By the end, the other characters have pulled back from that and the film kind of leaves it in your lap to decide. So whatever Tyler's espousing isn't necessarily to be confused with the message of the film.

Q: But what do you think?

  EN: I'm just saying that it leaves it open to you to figure out — like the narrator — how far do you want to go with something like this? But I also think that even Tyler is not really espousing violence directed outward against other people, as a form of redemptive gesture. He says, "Hit me." It's about, "I want to have real experiences. I don't want to die without having had real experiences in my life." I think the aggression in Fight Club, and the radicalism in Fight Club, is very much directed inward. I think the Fight Club is kind of metaphoric for the fight against your own impulses to get cocooned in things. Which is why, when the guys fight, they get up and hug each other at the end and thank each other for the experience. It's the gesture that's helping them strip away the fears; the fears of pain and the reliance on the material signifiers of their self-worth.

Q: So what do you do to get out your own aggressions?

EN: I think people do all kinds of different things.

Q: Since you're not like that in real life, how long does it take you to get into character for a fight scene?

EN: The intense fighting stuff has to be very well choreographed. I think one of the strange ironies of film is that sometimes the violence in film that seems the most intensely brutal is actually the kind of acting that's the least emotionally connected. I get more of an emotional rush for the fight in the car, when we're arguing, or when I'm burning my hand, or something like that. Technically, with fight scenes, you have to repeat them in very small fragments, over and over.

Q: How did this script change from the original, the one that director David Fincher had when he first approached you?

EN: It's very true to the spirit of the book. There's very little text in the film that's not verbatim out of the novel. I think the ending is amplified into a more cinematic ending. In some ways, it's shifted a little more toward the redemptive, in the sense that there's a definite pulling back from Tyler — a defeat of Tyler and a retreat from everything Tyler's going towards. In this film, like at the end of The Graduate, he's accomplished something. You don't know what he's accomplished exactly, but you get the sense that he's reached some kind of middle ground between his old self and this side of himself that he's been battling.

Q: You've spoken about how you think these ideas apply to your generation.

  EN: I don't know that I'd want to put a simple label on the whole thing, but I do think a lot of why I responded to the book — and why all of us responded to the book — is that it was one of the first things I read that made me think, "In a much more substantive and complicated way, this is really on the pulse of the energy I feel in my generation." Much more than I had felt with these kind of Baby Boomer-created Reality Bites visions of us, as this kind of reductive, aimless, angst-ridden slackers. I felt Fight Club — in a way that none of that stuff did — really probed down into the despair and paralysis that people feel in the face of having inherited this value system out of advertising. There were so many things in the book. My first encounters with Brad and with Fincher were just kind of sitting there going, "I loved this," and reading these aphorisms out of the book. They were really things you felt like you could almost whack up on a big poster and they would become a banner. It was the first thing I read that I thought could really be what The Graduate was for that generation or Rebel Without a Cause; something that really rooted around in the dynamics of this frustration.

 
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