The actor takes on a role who's character has an identity crisis and falls in love with an underage girl

Edward Norton is an intense guy. He takes his craft seriously and puts a lot of himself into his characters. He was especially proud of Down in the Valley and the time invested to bring it to the screen. He likens the film and his character of Harlan to Fight Club. He plays someone that is stuck in a dream world and becomes inherently dangerous because of it. Down in the Valley has a few intimate scenes between Edward and a then seventeen Evan Rachel Wood. I was curious about how those were shot. Edward had nothing but praise for his co-star. She seemed as emotionally invested as he was in the project and wasn't afraid to be daring.

You hadn't done a film for a while. What made you want to do this one?

Edward Norton: It's true. I was taking a little time off. I had worked on a series of things, and I felt very content and satiated. I wasn't burnt out in a bad way. I had some really good experiences, and I didn't want to just keep going until I had a bad one. I remember saying to my agent that something will come along that I won't be able to say "no" to, and when that happens, then I'll do it. Then my agent called me and said he had read this script that wasn't ready to be a movie. It was very strange and very stream-of-consciousness, but the guy is really interesting. So I met David [Jacobson, the director] maybe three years ago, and we started talking about it, and I couldn't resist it. It was dancing in so many things that I'm interested in. It was so strange and challenging that I started getting that tickle of that feeling that I get with the ones I've done that I think are the best ones. I felt that about Fight Club, American History X and "25th Hour." Movies like that I generally have had the feeling that it might not work, and when I've had that feeling, it's generally produced the more interesting stuff. I decided to engage in it with David. We spent like six months together, just working on the script, tearing it apart and rewriting it. Then we raised some money to make it.

What were some of the elements that attracted you?

Edward Norton: In the broadest sense, I felt it was a dissection of the way we're living right now on many levels. It was an examination of things I felt I recognized in my generation's spiritual issues. This may sound like a strange comparison, but not dissimilar to Fight Club. It was about people trapped in a world that makes them feel very numb and very disconnected from each other. Harlan, in a lot of ways, is not unlike my character in Fight Club. He's a person willing to engage in desperate fantasy to create that feeling of the real. Even though those films are very different articulations of that complaint, I felt that it was a companion piece. David's from the Valley, and he talked a lot about growing up in the Valley, feeling such an intense absence of any kind of context. He had no cultural or spiritual information and no guidance. He said that he wanted to study how fantasy is sometimes your escape valve for those feelings. I thought that was really interesting. I really liked the idea of making a Western about the West as he and I and the people our age are actually experiencing it. Looking at that fantasy and whether it's something that existed and is lost or did it only exist in movies in the first place? We don't really know, but I liked the idea of a man and a girl trying to ride on a horse across the West, but if you did that today, you'd actually run into about six freeways and seven housing developments.

You have quite a few intimate scenes with a then underage Evan Rachel Wood. How did you film those and what was it like working with her?

Edward Norton: She's tremendous. I really can't say enough about her. She's very young, but she's got a very mature talent. She's a much more naturally talented actor than many adults I've worked with. Evan is in her own way, really pursuing an artistic muse of her own. Even in the time I've known her, she's turned down the kinds of stuff that would turn her into a gargantuan young star. She's pursuing things that she feels, and I just admire that enormously. I think it's an incredible level of self-possession for someone her age. The experience of working together was very easy. Evan and her mom were both very invested in what the story was about. They both live in the Valley also, and we all talked a great deal about what the movie was about and why we were doing it. How did the intimate scenes feed that, why were they necessary, and then specifically, how were we going to do them and handle it? They collaborated with us on it and they were both fantastic. They actually made it easier on me and David, not the opposite. They were very reassuring. It was as good a group collaboration that I've been involved in.

How did you get Bruce Dern involved in the movie?

Edward Norton: (laughs) I don't remember! All I really remember is David coming to me and saying that Bruce Dern wants to play Charlie, and I went, "Forget it!" You can't beat that! I mean, he's the guy who shot John Wayne on film. He'll tell you that too, every day. He's like, "I don't know if I told you, but I'm the only one who has actually ever killed John Wayne on film." "I think you told me that yesterday, Bruce."

Had you ever ridden a horse before making this movie?

Edward Norton: I had ridden, but never to the extent where I trained for this. I had some great coaches and rodeo riders. It's very hard and I spent a long time working with them on it, which was a lot of fun.

What were some of your specific Western inspirations for the character of Harlan?

Edward Norton: There's certain Western anti-heroes that I loved. In some ways, it's very different, but I loved Cool Hand Luke. It's not a Western, but Luke is a character that you love him, but you know that he's never going to pull it together, and it's that poignancy of someone who has a certain poetry to them. There's also the Kirk Douglas movie "The Lonely or the Brave," but that's kind of the first of the "cowboy being confined" movies. It's not my favorite movie, although I really like Walter Matthau in it, he's amazing, but that was in David's mind. I loved the John Ford movie, "My Darling Clementine." I think Henry Fonda is amazing in that film. There's so many. "The Searchers" is a great film, a dark film. "Searchers" is so much about racism, and there are so many different things going on in that one.

Can you talk about the Harlan and Lonnie [Rory Culkin] relationship? Why is he interested in him besides him being Tobe's [Evan Rachel Wood] brother?

Edward Norton: My theory about it is that Harlan sees himself in Lonnie. He sees a boy looking for guidance or that Harlan gets the chance to be the father he didn't have. More, I just think Harlan is just in tune to other people who are searching. He sees the way that these kids are needing a sense of themselves or a sense of the world.

Every time that they proclaim the death of the Western, it's revised in a new way. Do you think this is part of some trend that is reexamining the genre in a new context?

Edward Norton: It's never going to be dead, because the West is there, and also our National identity is so bound up in the West, in a sense that our President still puts on a cowboy hat. He's a rich kid from a Connecticut family who acts like a cowboy. Maybe he's as deluded as Harlan is, I don't know. There's no denying that the Western mythology is part of our national mythology, so it's constantly evolving and changing.

Are you surprised that people are able to read so much into this movie?

Edward Norton: People have said a lot of different things, and that is the part of the whole thing that is the most interesting to me; the idea of creating something that lets people bring their own responses and feelings into it. People are engaging with the piece. Like Spike Lee or many of my other favorite people I've worked with, I think David's got a sincere commitment to the idea that a film, at its best, is going to ask you to do some of the work emotionally and intellectually.

Can you talk about some of the other things you've been up to and what you have upcoming?

Edward Norton: I produced this film, The Painted Veil, which will come out in the fall. We're still working on an adaptation of "Motherless Brooklyn." I took a good amount of time off, but it's taken a long time to get Down in the Valley out. The Illusionist is going to come out in August, I think, and then The Painted Veil will be in the Fall, so they sort of stack up, even though you don't really intend it to happen that way. Actually, I'm not that fond of it happening that way, because I think I worry that it undercuts people's ability to get carried away by a character, but they are very different, so maybe it will be okay.

Down in the Valley opens in New York on May 5th and is rated 'R' for violence, sexual content, language and drug use.

Cinemark Movie Club
Julian Roman