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Edward Norton – Lifting the Veil

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

Edward Norton in "The Painted Veil."

Edward Norton in “The Painted Veil.”

Edward Norton

Lifting the Veil

by Jay S. Jacobs

When you think of actor Edward Norton, chances are you think of gritty modern urban dramas – like Fight Club, American History X, The 25th Hour, The Italian Job, The People vs. Larry Flynt or Primal Fear.  The always interesting actor has been looking backwards in 2006, though, doing two straight period pieces.  Earlier in the year, Norton starred with Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel in the old-fashioned magician drama The Illusionist.

His newest project is a labor of love.  Norton has been trying to get together an adaptation of the classic W. Somerset Maugham book The Painted Veil for years.  He has worked with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) for about seven years to update the story of a British doctor in the 1920s who learns his wife has had an affair and drags her to a Cholera-plagued town in China.

“It’s been a long process,” acknowledges Nyswaner.  “On the script, Edward encouraged me to embrace the central theme, which is the grace that comes with forgiveness.  In a book, which has a narrative voice and explains what’s going on in someone’s head, you actually can have the luxury of having characters who remain very, very bitter until the end.  You somehow rise above that bitterness and have that experience.  In a movie, you have to embrace one thing or the other.  I think we moved away from Walter’s bitterness so that we could make him ultimately pull forward.  It’s about transformation.”

Norton knew from early on that Naomi Watts would be the perfect actress to play Kitty, the spoiled wife who learns to respect her husband in the midst of tragedy.  Watts signed on right away and suggested an old friend, John Curran, as director. Curran had previously directed her in We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

“My process is to find out their process always,” says Curran.  “I really don’t think I have some sort of magical genius that I can give Edward Norton that’s going to make him a better actor, you know?  The best thing I can do is create an environment that inspires him and then just get the hell out of the way.  That’s kind of the way I view it.”

Edward Norton sat down with us at the Regency Hotel in New York a couple of weeks before The Painted Veil was to open nationwide.

Edward Norton and Naomi Watts in "The Painted Veil."

Edward Norton and Naomi Watts in “The Painted Veil.”

Can I start by asking you about filming in China and what it was like? 

It was a great experience.  I think 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 when you step out of work or head home.  It’s not that often that the experience of making the movie has a lot of parallels to the experience the movie has in the story.  But, it was in this case.  We were, obviously, far from home.  We were working through the difficulty of translation.  Sometimes the inefficiency of communicating that way.  People doing things differently than you’re used to.  Having your own problems being away because you’re often in another context.  A lot of it said very directly what the story is about, and that was special.  Other than that, it was great.  You know, there are attendant frustrations to making anything way out in places where there aren’t any paved roads and things like that.  But those logistical challenges were minor compared to I think how great the Chinese crews and our colleagues there were amazing.  They were really good.  Their work ethic is unbelievable.

What was it about the film that caused you to want to do it?

For me, it was a combination of two things.  One is that… if you watch David Lean films, or Out of Africa, selfishly, you can’t help but think how great it would be to have that kind of experience.  So, when you see the potential in something for that kind of scope, it’s very tempting.  But, 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 it, I found myself more moved by this story of these people going through the process of losing their illusions about each other and managing to recover a deeper sense of each other.  I related to it more than I tend to relate to stories about wedding planners and things like that.  For me, it was the combination of the epic scope of the film but with but with a set of themes at the heart of it that held it together.

Were you familiar with Somerset Maugham’s writing before? 

I had read a few of his things.  I had not read The Painted Veil.  I read Ron’s script before I read the book.  I went back to the book and then in a way moved on with the script.  Up and away from the book.

Your character is really different from the book.  A lot more extreme in the movie, I would say.  With adaptations, how did you change?

In some ways, I think the Walter of the book is more harsh.  In the sense only that in the book, many of the same things that happen in the movie happen, but they happen in different ways.  In the book, she 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 finally lands when she goes home and in some ways confesses… asks for forgiveness from her father.  In the film we made that happen between her and Walter, before his death.  But as Ron said, we never wanted to abandon the basic idea of a woman confronting the limitations of her view of life.  We wanted to let those changes take place between those two characters.

Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in "The Painted Veil."

Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in “The Painted Veil.”

What do you particularly like about this character?

About Walter?  Well, it’s not so much… I think I understand what you’re saying, but I never look at a character and decide whether I’d like to have a beer with him…

No, I mean as an actor, why is he an interesting role to play?

Just that he has so many levels to him.  He’s a character who on first impression  – much as she perceives him, the audience has a chance to perceive him – he’s a little bit antisocial and he’s very cerebral.  As the story goes on, these kind of unsuspected depths keep getting revealed in him.  The depth of his passion.  The depth of his capacity to be hurt.  To be vengeful.  He becomes almost violent… certainly psychologically violent.  That too, even gives way to a kind of humility and compassion that you don’t see in him in the beginning.  So as an actor, you sit there looking and go, wow, this guy is quite an onion, you know?  He keeps going layer to layer.  I think Kitty [is] equally [complex].  That’s what makes it a very complicated little dance that those two do.

Can you explain how Chinese culture inspired you?

I should say, I didn’t go looking for a film about China.  The fact that I had some background in China just made it more appealing because I had encountered it.  But, you know, at the moment it happens to be the biggest country on Earth.  (chuckles)  It’s also one of the oldest cultures on Earth.  In a lot of ways, China is a lot like America, in the sense that it’s too vast to really encompass.  Usually people are going to make general statements about it.  It’s geographically diverse, like America.  It’s ethnically diverse, like America.  It has this deep, deep history.  So to me it’s a fascinating place.  Also, right now, this is what the story’s about – it’s in flux.  It’s a place where enormous changes are happening.  It’s palpable.  The moment when the 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 in their affairs.  It’s an interesting component.

Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in "The Painted Veil."

Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in “The Painted Veil.”

So the alien helped to reinforce their acclimation?  That was important to happen in China?  Could it have been anywhere else? 

I think you can argue this could take place in a similar kind of historical moment in another place.  You could change anything in a number of books.  In this case, I think, it’s not really a part of the book, but John Curran brought a specificity to the historical moment in the film.  Pushed me and Ron to get more specific about when this was taking place and what was going on.  In part, because I think we thought that was smart because it resonated with things we’re seeing today.  But, also, to be honest, I think it’s just because John is a good dramatist and he looked at it and said how can I create an environment around these characters that drives them closer together.  Beyond cholera, what could be going on?  He found this moment in Chinese history when foreigners were being attacked all over the country side.  You know, it’s just good drama.

In the story Walter was doing things that the Chinese had issues with spiritually.  Did that happen in the filming as well, where there were Western things they did not understand or approve of? 

Well, to make sure it’s not misinterpreted, the people in the town we were filming in didn’t get angry.  The scene in the film is that Walter’s insistence on the bodies being removed violates the Buddhist tradition of the body being allowed to rest so the spirit can depart.  I think the Chinese people we were working with; the more we gave voice to the Chinese perspective on people’s intervention on their affairs, the more the Chinese people we worked with felt even more deeply connected to it.  It was fairly late in the process where we wrote that scene where Walter’s saying to the Colonel at the campfire, I don’t get your beef with me.  I’m here doing the best I can.  The Colonel says, I understand that, but your country is pointing guns at our country.  The more we gave the Chinese perspective, the more it gave it resonance… even for our Chinese colleagues.

Can you talk about working with Naomi? 

Oh, she’s supreme.  I totally can’t say enough good about her.  I’d say beyond any film I’ve ever worked on – the two performances were like in lockstep.  There was no way to do one without the partner.  Without the other.  They are so intimately intertwined.  It’s definitely the closest I’ve ever worked on a day-to-day level with another actor.  It was just fantastic, because she’s so unafraid to work at levels of nuance.  It’s really a challenge.  It’s really great.  Because she’s putting things over so subtly.  There’s stuff in the film that she does that I just love.  I love that whole sequence with her and Diana Rigg, because she’s not really saying that much, but you feel the impact of this perception of Walter washing over her to the point where she walks out and kind of can’t speak.  That kind of work is so important.  It’s the best of what you can do in film acting, because it’s almost gestural.  It’d be like she’s got a great feeling for how much the camera can draw out of you.  I could not have had a better partner.

Edward Norton in "The Painted Veil."

Edward Norton in “The Painted Veil.”

You are very involved in environmental issues.  Which Presidential candidate do you think could do the most for the environment?

You know, I think it’s a complicated question.  I don’t have a glib answer for it.  I think I need to do a little more specific looking into what people are proposing on those levels.

You said you and Naomi felt really in tune with one another.  Could you talk a little about how you got there and how you worked with John?

Well, Naomi and I talked for a couple of years.  She was involved also for a long time.  A lot of times, we actually wrote a lot about it, which was really interesting, because the different…

Like letters to each other? 

Yeah… I mean… not pretending to be the characters or anything.  Just kind of noodling on what we related to.  Also, because the script was always developing – debating how far are we going to take this film?  How overt is the forgiveness?  How much do you want them to say on the deathbed?  What do you need expressed?  How much of it can be expressed in words?  And how much of it without words?  All that kind of stuff.  Then, of course, the both of us relied on John enormously.  She had a long relationship with John.  They’d known each other for fifteen years and had already done one film.  So that was great.  We had to shoot this film profoundly out of sequence.  Do a lot of the deep scenes of their relationship in the middle of the movie without having shot any of the beginning.  That relies a lot on the director going, “Don’t worry about hitting it perfect.  Let’s do pitch one here and pitch one here and pitch one here and pitch one here and give me the raw materials to sort it out later.  I think that requires an enormous amount of trust in a director.  You have to be willing to essentially fail.  Do a take that may be clownishly wrong.  You need a lot of trust among everybody.

Copyright ©2006  All rights reserved. Posted: December 29, 2006.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2006 Glen Wilson.  Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2006 Glen Wilson.  Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2006 Glen Wilson.  Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2006 Glen Wilson.  Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2006 Glen Wilson.  Courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures. All rights reserved.

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