Edward Norton on His Passion Project, ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

Edward Norton is no stranger to scene-chewing roles. His film debut, as sociopathic altar boy Aaron Stampler in 1996’s Primal Fear, earned him a Golden Globe and the first of his three Academy Award nominations. In the two decades since, he has given iconic performances in American History XFight Club, and Birdman, to name a few, leading many critics and filmmakers to call the now 50-year-old actor the best of his generation.

Even by Norton’s standards, his latest character is a flashy one. In Motherless Brooklyn (November 1), an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning novel that Norton also directs, he plays Lionel Essrog, a private detective who has Tourette syndrome. Essrog stutters and tics his way through an investigation that begins with the murder of his boss (played by Bruce Willis) and takes him deep into the dark, tangled web of New York City politics, ultimately pitting him against a power broker (Alec Baldwin) based on Robert Moses, the infamous mid-century city planner. It’s a fittingly deep dive for Norton, who has a degree in history from Yale and spent 20 years working on the screenplay. 

Norton sat down with Hemispheres at his publicist’s office in Manhattan to talk about noir films, New York City history, and how those things converged in his new picture, just days before jetting off on a European vacation with his wife, film producer Shauna Robertson, and their 6-year-old son. “I promised my family that we could take a big break when I finally finished this thing,” he said. “We’re going to really wander.”

Norton and Willem Dafoe in 'Motherless Brooklyn'

Norton and Willem Dafoe in 'Motherless Brooklyn'

I read Motherless Brooklyn not long after the novel came out, and I loved it. How did you discover it? 

Someone tipped me off to it before it was published, actually, so I read it in galleys, in 1998 or so, and I was immediately struck by the uniqueness of the character. It’s a great hard-boiled gumshoe novel, but I think Jonathan Lethem himself would say that the thing that everybody really hooks into and remembers about the book is the interior life of this very unique character. That was the grab for me, and I went after getting the rights to it before it even came out. Technically, when the film comes out, I will have been working on it for about 20 years. 

Your adaptation changes the time period, from the late ’90s to the ’50s. How come?

I told Jonathan that my instinct from the get-go was that I wanted to relocate the story in the film to the ’50s. It has a characteristic that’s like the ’50s. The characters talk and act kind of like old-school New York private eyes. Also, we’re politically correct or sensitive to disabilities [today]. I felt that an era where the world was pretty tough and hard-boiled and masculine would be a more isolating place to put this character. Fortunately, Jonathan was really receptive to these ideas right away. He basically said, “The plot was always secondary to me. It was always about Lionel. If you want to send him into another adventure, I love it.” 

In the film, Lionel ends up confronting a developer who’s planning to build a highway through a black neighborhood in Brooklyn. These seem to be references to the actual history of Robert Moses destroying a swath of the Bronx to build the Cross Bronx Expressway.

One of the greatest things about American noir is that it’s essentially a genre that says there’s a shadow world underneath the skin of everything we think is great about America. Under the democratic society we’re so proud of, there are things going on that are disturbing. Whether it’s in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, that’s what the noir detective does—he moves in the shadows, and through him we see what’s underneath. 

The most famous example of that is, of course, Chinatown.

Jonathan and I talked about a line that’s attributed to Machiavelli, that every great city is built on a crime. Chinatown is a very murky movie. Most people really don’t know what the hell is going on 80 percent of the way through it, but what you come away with is not just that it has this fantastically charismatic detective that pulls you through the murk; you come away with this understanding that LA’s original sin is that it stole its water. Great fortunes were made in a deep corruption that reshaped the whole of California. There was a period in New York history in the mid-century where the decisions were made that paved the way, literally, for how the old city was going to become the city that we live in now. Decisions were made about the highways, the bridges, the projects, and what of the old city and its character would remain versus what was going to go under the wrecking ball. 

One thing that went under the wrecking ball is the old Penn Station, which you re-create in the film.

Penn Station, to many people, is the symbol of what got tragically lost. We thought [re-creating] it was ambitious, but maybe we have to have a moment where you see the ghost of this great space.

That shot seemed to me like an argument for preservation over development.

Certainly for honoring the characteristics of cities that make them unique. It’s funny, in ’99, when this book came out, we were making Fight Club. I think part of why people connected to that film so much is it spoke to the feeling that the franchising of the world was making everywhere feel the same. That idea of waking up and not knowing where you are, because there are no distinct characteristics to anywhere anymore, is a real anxiety of our generation. People struggle to find authenticity and a sense of place, and everything that goes under the wrecking ball and is replaced by the banality of what’s everywhere is a loss of a certain kind.

I felt as if you’re saying something not only about the mid-century changes to New York, but also the way that the city is being developed today—largely to benefit the wealthy.

There’s no doubt about it. A lot of that process began with the decision to call middle-class minority neighborhoods slums when they were not, and to designate them as a problem when they were a rich part of the fabric of middle-class life in New York. And that process has continued. I think that there was also an element of authentic racism in the vision of the projects—putting low-income, minority people in these intensely consolidated communities, building infrastructure like low bridges over highways so public buses could not go to beaches. These are things that authentically happened. There’s a line I really love in the film, where Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character says, “Do you think we’re making this up, like it’s some black propaganda conspiracy theory? It’s not!”

Norton and Brad Pitt in the 1999 cult hit 'Fight Club'

Norton and Brad Pitt in the 1999 cult hit 'Fight Club'

And a lot of people have no idea about this history.

It’s interesting to dig into that stuff, but first and foremost the movie’s got to work with a character and a murder mystery. A lot of the best of these films, whether it’s Chinatown or even Forrest Gump or Rain Man, have an interesting underdog who pulls you through the story, and that’s where Jonathan’s creation of this Tourettic detective is such a work of genius. He’s funny and heartbreaking, smart but also really lonely. He really gets at you, and I think if the film works it’s because your heart’s aligned with him and you want him to figure it all out and triumph. 

It would be easy for a character with Tourette syndrome to come off as cartoonish. How did you avoid that?

It’s absolutely true that when you’re presenting a character who has an affliction, you have to decide to what degree you’re going to mine the things that are beautiful and unique about it alongside the things that are painful about it. The thing about Tourette’s is it’s literally a creative force, in the sense that it does not express itself in everyone the same way. Some people have physical seizures and twitches and tics. Some people have a vocal component where they get fixated on a word and say it over and over. A smaller percentage have a component of the condition that leads them to say inappropriate or uninhibited things. No one has the same mix. And in that, it’s kind of wonderful, because as an actor you have a freedom to improvise your own mashup of those things. I wanted to achieve something where you have amazement, discomfort, empathy, admiration… 

A little bit of humor… 

When the noir detective can’t hit on the blonde at the bar because his OCD won’t let him stop relighting the match—if that’s not a laugh, you’re not human. But at the same time, when he’s in pain and it overtakes him to the point that he seizes up, you see that this is painful and he is authentically isolated and lonely.

How did you balance your improvisation with being the film’s director? 

The bad thing about directing yourself is that you’re never, as an actor, completely free to concentrate and exist within the character. You have to step outside it and look analytically at what’s going on. The upside is that if you know it’s you who’s going to edit it and make the choices later, as an actor you feel very free to give yourself a lot of raw material to experiment and play with and maybe go too far, because you don’t have to be protective of your performance.

Many of your most memorable performances have been in films that have dark endings, like American History X and Fight Club. Without giving too much away, the ending of Motherless Brooklyn doesn’t entirely go that way. Do you think being older and having a family now influenced that decision?

You hit on something very true, in the sense that when I started working on this, I had a view of an ending that was much more hard-boiled and cynical than where I got to with it.

More like Chinatown?

I had a thought that how far Lionel is going to evolve would be limited. And the biggest effect of waiting and making the film when I did, with all that is going on in the world around us, is that by the end I did not want to make a film that encouraged people not to care. What really rose in me over time—partly through having a family and partly just because of what’s going on in our country—is that I wanted to have Lionel become a bigger person and get off the sidelines and out of his own problems and care.

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