Edward Norton. Photo: Magnus Sundholm for the HFPA.
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HFPA in Conversation: Edward Norton’s Multiple Talents

Edward Norton, like his character in Motherless Brooklyn, has an obsession with words. He got familiar with fictional private detective Lionel Essrog when he read Jonathan Lethem’s novel in 1999. The story touched him and he bought the movie rights to the crime story.

“I felt a mix of astonishment and sympathy for this character because you hear his inner voice which is intelligent, funny, calm and wise but you see the outward manifestations of his condition which are really jarring, shocking, funny, strange and honest. I hope I’ve been able to capture those things in the film,” Norton tells HFPA journalist Ting Ting Xu.

Norton wrote, directed, produced and is starring in the movie that is set in 1950s New York.  “When something bad happens to Lionel’s mentor and best friend he is forced to set off on this journey of stepping out of his shell and figure out what went on. At the same time, he learns that very racist motivations affected political decisions.”

Lionel, a lonely Brooklyn born orphan, has Tourette’s syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Because of that, he is called a freak. “He has the impulse to repeat words, say them out loud, sometimes yell things in an uncontrollable way. And there’s an authentic component of Tourette’s that has to do with fixation on words and sounds that I really think is fascinating and though a struggle in some ways has this kind of creative beauty in it, and humor even.”

Norton himself likes to mimic people. “People think I’m trying to be funny. But it is a real struggle for me to not mimic the sounds of people I’m even in conversation with. I have to consciously not do it. I’m fascinated by literally the shape of the mouth that creates a given sound. I related to my character’s obsession with words and the way that words twist in his head, rhymes, syllables and the way that they twist around and get reshaped.

He won the Golden Globe for his first movie, Primal Fear in 1997 and was nominated for a second time for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2014. Before his movie career, he wrote plays in college and was acting in theaters.  Weirdly, in my early years in New York, it circles back around to relating to this film because I was working in affordable housing and I was kind of moonlighting in the theater. I was always very drawn to the theater stagecraft, making movies and writing stories.”

Listen to the podcast and hear what would he do if he wouldn’t be an actor; why many people were looking at him cross-eyed when he presented the plot of Motherless BrooklynMotherless Brooklyn movie and affordable housing in New York; why he wanted to direct his passion project; how was it directing actors like Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe and Alec BaldwinPrimal FearIan McKellen at the Golden Globes; what happened with his Golden Globe speech; what advice Tom Cruise gave him; what good came out of his Golden Globe win and how he chose his projects after that; whether he is going to direct again; what kind of movies he is watching with his son; and whether he will tell his son that he played the Hulk.