Sarah’s Backstage Pass was invited to interview Edward Norton and director John Curran at the Trump Tower Hotel in Chicago. Ed is starring in the dramatic film “Stone” he plays a prison inmate and John Curran directs. We meet in a large conference room and sat around an oval table. There were five other journalists besides myself. Upon entering the room and shaking Ed Norton’s hand, I immediately noticed his warm and welcoming smile. Both were great to meet and chat with. Please bear through the lengthy answers as the film is complex and both men do shed light on many of the film’s issues.
Question: (To: John Curran) We see films that are about the internal lives of characters, where we spend the majority of the film with two people sitting across from each other and what they’re going through and the transformations we see, can you talk a little about that? I know that was a component in “The Painted Veil” as well as “We Don’t Live Here Anymore”. You seem to be drawn to those types of interpersonal dynamics.
John Curran: I read this script and there was something that I probably couldn’t articulate that I was very drawn to. When it came together, it was at a time that was very visceral for me. It was 2009 and there was a big debate going on in the country about ideals, and ideals somewhat that were faith based, you know, an argument going on. There was a lot of anger and there was a segment of the American population, primarily older, about to retire, It seemed to them that everything they knew to be true was crumbling, and I had this script that this guy was…that was always going to be set in this sort of working class prison and I felt that in some way this script was representative of something that could tap into that conversation for me as a film maker.
So my entry into this film, and I guess it’s similar to other films, was personal in a way and I felt like it was something that I could spend a year and a half on and find layer after layer after layer to explore, which is the sort of film that I like. I guess it does come down to character rather than plot. Plot you start building externally, you know, more physical stuff layered on the top of stuff, whereas a film like this you just keep going deeper in the subtext, which I prefer.
Working with Edward, he’s very similar, that’s the kind of stuff he gets really jazzed on. It’s not like ‘how can we blow up more things?” I can’t imagine having a conversation with him like that, you know, that he’d be really thrilled about going in that direction. So, I had these people, Bob and Edward, that at different times for different reasons were coming at it and I wasn’t going to miss out on that opportunity. I didn’t know when that would ever happen again for me.
Question: How do you play someone who’s had a religious epiphany in a film? How do you play someone who’s undergoing something that deeply internal and that’s hard to define?
Ed Norton: That’s a good question. That question, that challenge as you framed it, was part of the appeal. In many ways, that’s what we were talking about. I think once John articulated a view of it, the kinds of themes he was just talking about, that this is not just about a plot twist and manipulation, but in fact, the basic arc of the film being a person who seems solid and a person who seems sort of unstable or marginal, sort of shifting, almost shifting position, their whole energy shifting, one going off the rails and one seeming to come to a kind of peace from a state of high anxiety and desperation.
When we were talking about the whole thing, John sort of said there’s this crossing point, there’s this point at which something is taking place, at which one person is going, the denials in his life and the inauthenticity of his life is going to take him off the rails, and for the other person something is going to put into him a new kind of a sensation of peace. I think John had come up with, it wasn’t in the script, but John had come up with the idea in essence of Stone witnessing violent act as his moment and Jack’s seduction by Lucetta as that equal. And an opposite moment for him, kind of criss-crossing each other, from that point forward, what’s been a trajectory between these two people.
So for me, what I liked about that was the idea that midway through the film is a manipulation that you’ve been aware of, has been engaged is suddenly no longer maybe even taking place. That the character is actually even leaving behind his own manipulation and something’s happening. So that’s where it becomes, the challenge of your question is, it starts going… well, what would be happening to a person that would be, you know…it was very appealing, the idea that what’s unsettling is not the evil of a person but in fact their calm. Their sudden calm is what’s unsettling.
We would talk about the fact that if that state of calm is going to seem very strange, then you might want to make a choice in the beginning toward a state of agitation that’s so high that the character just seems like he’s completely off the rail.
The guys that we would talk to, these inmates who were actually familiar with this process, were very, very illuminating for me. Some of these guys were months away from that process, and they were that guy. (Stone)
I mean, literally, I was impersonating, on some levels, that energy we saw in some of these guys who were so anxious about this process that they were virtually sleepless. They couldn’t stop talking almost, they were so wrapped up in the head spin of this thing. Weirdly, we even had this specific relationship with one of the guys who was really compelling, who had cornrows and everything. I remember one day he came in and he’d just had them (the cornrows) out, and it just struck me that he looked so much less hard, and we were like, that would be interesting if past a certain point, without anything else, you just like…
John Curran: Like going through a hair conversion.
Ed Norton: Yeah, like, spiritual conversion by simply loosening your braids.(Laughs)
Question: You’re both telling a story of a man who becomes successful in a very different sense. Not in the an economic sense, not in a sense of celebrity, not in a sense of the sort of things that are often just sort of casually thought of value in our society. Was that important to you and…
John Curran: You mean his success as what? That it’s a spiritual…finding a sense of peace?
Question: Yeah, finding a sense of himself and his life and his, I mean, spiritual awakening and all that, absolutely, but also just a sense that “Wow, I don’t have to chase the American dream, there’s something else to chase here.”
John Curran: We never really wanted to kind of qualify that where he goes to is necessarily a happy ending. It’s like, he’s evolved to something else, but does he go off and join a peace movement? Does he go off and murder someone? Who knows? But, I think it’s more that sense that he’s absolutely 100% comfortable with who he is, which is an enormous movement forward.
Ed Norton: I do relate to a piece of what you’re saying in that, one of the things I’ve always found very….as John started talking about this film, we were talking about it literally right after the economy tanked, and John was saying, this was the moment to make this. I did relate very much to sort of the presentation of the script of a guy, De Niro’s character, a guy who, just as you said, he has been married 40 years, he goes to church every day, he has a good job, he has all the pillar constructs of a quote, unquote good life, and yet there’s an enormous amount of denial of the inauthenticity of this for him, and there’s consequence to it.
In the story the young, this inmate, when he’s trying to paint a portrait for that guy initially of what it is, you know his pitch “why I’m gonna’ be a normal person” is “I’m going out, I’m gonna’ get a job.” It’s all the same things, and by the end as you’re saying, he has completely left behind this kind of material or social notion of what constitutes a good life and, in some ways, has just asserted what he’s really actually found is something much more…it’s much deeper in the sense he’s saying “if I’m in here, my issues are the same, if I’m out of here my issues are the same.” In some sense he’s found the liberation of just recognizing that his path, his journey is enough.
You know that’s a part, that’s really the definition of a good life is chasing himself instead of sort of these representative constructs that let other people say, “yes, you have a good life,” and, I like it. John said this one time when we were working on it, and I thought it was true, the very fact that he finds this in some loopy pamphlet is kind of great because it challenges the idea that there is only one way to define, you know, spiritual life or a connection to the divine or whatever. It’s like the loopier the better in some ways, you know?
Question: Could you tell me a little bit about getting into character and how you portrayed an inmate. It’s a very interesting role.
Ed Norton: We worked in a prison that had a facility that was shut down, so we were in this empty part, but the active part was right there so it was very easy, I had very nice access to just sitting in rooms like this and just interviewing. I just interviewed guys, like maybe a dozen guys over two weeks and then a few really intensively and I’d say almost every detail and probably 60% of the actual lines came off of these two or three guys really.
Sarah Adamson: I’d like to talk about the lines for a minute. “I don’t want no beef with you.” I love that. That got a lot of laughs last night.
Ed Norton: That was one when the guy said, that but it came because he told me…he was a very tough guy, very fierce and he was talking about how many aggressions he was having to deflect and I just said “Why,” and he said, “Cause I’m a vegetarian now” and I said, “Oh, so you mean ethically, you mean you don’t want to have conflicts?” and he went “No, no man, I’ve got my review in two months and I’ve got to be a vegetarian…no beef.”
Sarah Adamson: It’s a great line.
John Curran: I just want to say, for the record that I had cut that line out. I’m admitting it now that I cut that line out of the film and that Edward made me put it back.
(Ed Norton is grinning ear to ear)
Sarah Adamson: Well…It did get lots of laughs last night. (“Stone” was the opening film at the Chicago Independent Film Festival)
Ed Norton: This guy, his name was Jay and he was poetically funny, in terms of his…I mean, I can’t even quantify the number of things he said. Like, he told us the thing about blowing up on a parole review and starting to walk out the door, and that whole thing about saying all these weird things like, “If you’re gonna’ flop me, I’ll do it standing on my head,” and, “I’ll see you outside before you see me.”
All these phrases and all these calling people scrubs and short-timers and meatballs, and calling his wife a dime. He talked so much that I just kept a list of everything he said and we would sort of try to figure out where and how we could put it in. I know it’s a weird thing to say, but I’ve always noticed watching movies myself…this will be a totally weird analogy, but like I remember watching that movie “Master and Commander” and the first twenty minutes I had no idea what anyone was saying, you know, it was like all this maritime…but what it does, is it makes it feel real. When it feels so thick with the environment that you don’t know it, then I think unconsciously what it does to you is it makes you go “this is really real.” It makes you embrace the place and the sense of it.
John Curran: It clicks for you. It clicks deeper.
Question: Milla Jovovich is in the film, I think it would be remiss not to mention her. I found her really fascinating as I think she’s a terrific actress, but she’s known as a genre actress in a lot of corners. I think she rose to the challenge in this film. I thought it was really fascinating and the way she used the dialogue, when she says something like, “When the body wants something, the mind will follow.” I thought she really finessed the dialogue in a way that I thought she gave additional layers to the dialogue, and I thought it was just a kind of startling performance from her. Any thoughts on that?
Ed Norton: I totally agree. I thought she was spectacularly great. We were so worried with that character because Lucetta has such a weird…
John Curran: She’s sort of the fireworks in the film, and really demanding. I mean, everyone is complex, but she has so many colors to her and she’s like a constantly shifting shape and I would find actresses, and…. Look, once Bob and Edward were doing it (the movie), I had no shortages of actresses that wanted to play that role, and I met a lot of them and, some of them had some aspects of her, but they didn’t have others, and I was really struggling with it. It was sort of a fluke.
It was a combination of the casting person and I just talking about in general, I said was there anyone who ever came in, tell me about some people who have come in and really blown you away for auditions. She was thinking, then said, “You know, one time Milla Jovovich came in to do a reading for “Chicago” and it was just off the charts,” and she described it, and I was like, “Wow” and I told Edward and he said, “Milla, she’s fantastic.” Just the way he reacted to her, you want, obviously, their opinion as an actor, adds a lot of weight to the decision.
Ed Norton: I don’t think no one even clocked that it was her in that Spike Lee film “He Got Game,” but she played the hooker who Denzel gets involved with. This really low end street hooker and yet she had this quality of sweetness, innocence and everything. I told John to check it out, because to me there was something about it…it translated into something.
There’s a sincerity to almost everything she says (in the film) that’s very unsettling because she’s like, a lot of people would play her and put a lot more nefarious intentions in her, and yet she goes the other way with it. There’s such a sincerity to each and every one of her interactions that it’s very disturbing. It’s more disturbing because she’s less obviously evil or manipulative. She’s manipulating and yet, what I love about it, you get the sensation that there’s no guile. She seems to believe almost everything she says and it makes her almost more dangerous in a way.
Panel: Thank you so much.
Ed and John: Thank you
Sarah Adamson © October 20, 2010