"We are the sin eaters. It means that we take the moral excrement we find in this equation and we bury it down deep inside of us, so that the rest of our case can stay pure. That is the job. We are morally indefensible, and absolutely necessary." This is Edward Norton as Col. Eric Byer in his manifesto to Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross in "The Bourne Legacy." It's their only shared scene in the picture and it's this striking piece of dialogue that truly captures the texture and complexity Tony Gilroy has imbued in the "side-quel" film. Indeed, one would be generally hard pressed to find villains — for lack of a better word — as nuanced as Byer in a summer tentpole, but that was exactly what drew Norton to the character and to the film itself.
"What I like the most about Tony is that he doesn't operate in black and white, or heroes and villains, he writes a very grown up world of ethical shades of grey and he never talked about Byer as a villain," Norton told The Playlist, when we spoke to the actor as the film hit theaters last Friday. "He always talked about him as a patriot, as a person who genuinely believes that he's serving a greater good and he emphasized that Byer is very, very cognizant of the conflicted morality of what they're doing. It's not that he enjoys what he does, he has a framework in which he looks at it that lets him wear that set of responsibilities."
And the things that fall under Byer's domain includes Operation Outcome, the program that developed Aaron Cross and a host of other agents. With the film playing out against the backdrop of the events in "The Bourne Ultimatum," the CIA scrambles to contain the fallout from Operation Treadstone and Blackbriar after they are exposed, and Byer makes the diffcult choice to scrap his own similar operations at the Department of Defense, with a plan to eliminate all active agents in the field. Cross goes on the run, hoping to survive and find a way to maintain the elevated physical and mental strength Outcome has given him. But as Norton explained, for Byer, he's far more clinical about everything he does because it's all a requirement of his position.
"He's not against Jeremy's character or Rachel [Weisz]'s character, they're all collaborators in something that he believes in. He just looks at it as a necessary evil," Norton shared, adding, "One of things I thought was fun, working on it with Tony, was the idea that this guy probably doesn't sleep very much. He's forty-something years old and his hair has gone white, and he's got vampiric bags under his eyes. We really tried to make the weight and stress of the job evident. To me one of the things that was interesting is, 'What's the cost of being a sin eater? ' "
But just what exactly are the sins that Byer and, to a degree, Cross as well, are forced to bear upon their shoulders? For anyone who has followed Gilroy's films, including the 'Bourne' series that he wrote, "Michael Clayton" and even "Duplicity," there is a common theme throughout. And it's another element that intrigued Norton as he approached the film. "I think that Tony has a very cool thread running through almost all of his films [about] the way that corporations are becoming an insidious force that threatens a lot of what we take to be our institutions of democracy and freedom and ethics and everything…," Norton told us. "I like the provocative investigation of the ways that corporate institutions threaten to oppress us in his films. I think it's smart and timely and fun, so when I read this I could see that he was adding that in to the expanded landscape of the Bourne story, and he was doing that in a very clever way, so I liked that."
However, this film finds Norton stepping into an already well-established franchise but without the pairing of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass that made it such a smash success, with new blood both in front and behind the camera. We asked Norton if he had any hesitation about joining a series that was already off and running.
"In this case, this history of it in terms of being part of a series, that wasn't a negative to me. I've been involved in a number of things that were part of a longer series, and I like those kinds of films. I think serialized films or multi-installment films can be really fun whether it's 'Harry Potter' or 'Lord of the Rings' or the Hannibal Lecter series or 'The Sopranos.' I think there are certain films and certain stories that are particularly well suited to being told in a longer form," he answered. "….And Tony Gilroy was the key to that because he's the thread of consistency from the other ones, into this one, and he gave me a lot of faith, because I'm really a big fan of Tony's work. I like his films a lot, I like his writing a lot, [and] I've been very interested doing something with him anyway. There's a combo of being a fan of the series and a fan of Tony's work, that made it easy."
With "The Bourne Legacy" topping the box office last weekend, audiences made it clear they're excited to see further adventures in the Bourne world. But where the series goes next remains to be seen. Still, we had to ask if Byer might surface in any follow-ups, and while Norton waits to find out, he did suggest that if the character did return, he may grow in some interesting ways. "Sometimes when we talked about it, we talked about things like 'The Fugitive,' like the way Tommy Lee Jones' character starts off very relentless, but has kind of this arc of growing awareness that there might be something going on here that he needs be equally concerned about, y'know? And I like that idea. But again, that's gonna happen between Tony and Danny Gilroy," he said, the latter being the co-writer on the picture.
After "Moonrise Kingdom" earlier this summer and "The Bourne Legacy" capping off the season, Edward Norton doesn't have anything immediately on his acting calendar. But nonetheless, you'll find him at TIFF next month where he'll be there to support "Thanks for Sharing," the directorial debut from "The Kids Are All Right" screenwriter Stuart Blumberg that he is producing, which stars Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow. Blumberg and Norton are longtime friends and collaborators, (Blumberg wrote and produced Norton's sole directing effort thus far "Keeping the Faith") and were able to get this film moving after the former's Oscar nod for 'Kids.' While Norton is keeping it a bit under wraps until it unspools in a few weeks, he told us he's "proud" to see Blumberg continue to grow as a filmmaker and happy to be a part of that process.
"The Bourne Legacy" is in theaters now.