Ever since he landed an Oscar nomination for his first-ever movie role in “Primal Fear,” Edward Norton has been dodgy about discussing his public life. Nevertheless, two more Oscar nominations and many different kind of movies later, he remains one of the most distinctive American actors working today.
Appreciation for his work has arguably never been higher. On Wednesday, Norton stood on an outdoor stage in front of 8,000 people in the Piazza Grande of the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where he received the Excellence Award from Moët & Chandon. The next day, prior to a public conversation at the festival, he sat down with Indiewire to unpack some big ideas about Oscar season just as its engines start up again. He also discussed his own evolving interests in roles, the current political climate in the United States and his philanthropic efforts with his crowdfunding platform Crowdrise.
This time last year, you were on the verge of an awards campaign for “Birdman” that would last several months. What’s it like to come up for air after all that?
It’s a relief when all that ends. Not to sound cynical about it, but once a film gets channeled by the industry into that death grip of marketing via the springboard of the awards season, it’s this repetitive grind of promoting something that runs essentially from the end of the New York Film Festival to the end of February. Who wants to spend that much time talking about anything?
How does that affect you?
It’s not a very pleasant experience to feel good about the outcome of something and then start to feel this mortification — that it’s being talked about too much. You want to say, “Just let it be. Let people enjoy it.”
Do you ever feel trapped by that process?
Not constrained, but in some sense the industry is like the Mexican myth of the snake that eats its own tail. I think the awards season has become this thing that has metastisized. I think something unholy has happened: The Academy is a group of people who make films — six or 7,000 people who are the core of the industry. That’s a thing completely unto itself. Past that, every single thing that transpires between November and February is awards created by bodies of critics, whether it’s the Hollywood Foreign Press with the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle or the L.A. one. Critics Choice. It goes on and on. Unfortunately, the reality of what’s happened is that what started off on an almost academic and critical-slash-journalist footing has — more than people want to acknowledge — become a game of monetization.
In what sense?
So the National Board of Review, which used to be a tiny dinner at Tavern on the Green, has become an event at Cipriani’s Midtown where they’re selling I don’t even know how many tables. Maybe a thousand. And getting a broadcast deal from some cable channel. All the guild awards used to be private. Now they’re also sponsored, televised on Bravo or NBC. They’re making money. Everything has turned into a monetization opportunity. As a result, it’s now not even the same little cluster of work being competitively congratulated — it’s all being done publicly.
How do you think that has an impact?
I think the impact of that psychologically is that the public at large looks at it and goes, “What?” People win the Nobel fucking Prize once in their life and they speak about it once at one dinner. Now, the industry has allowed something to occur that is actually damaging on multiple levels. It costs the industry and gets charged to the film. In other words, the financials on “Birdman” are negatively impacted by the awards season because the studios need to service two dozen things. It’s millions of dollars getting added to the negative side of the balance sheet for a film like “Birdman.” It actually increases the difficulty of that film becoming financially successful and perversely increases the sense that these films are risky.
How could that change?
I think the industry needs to set some boundaries. It’s like Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” — you know, an individual who tries to politely say, “I prefer not to.” It’s like Garry Trudeau’s line: “America is the only country in the world where failure to promote oneself is considered arrogant.” If you skip out on it, everybody takes that as a middle finger. And that’s challenging, even for a very brave person who doesn’t want to diminish a quality experience. It’s going to happen anyway in many ways.
What do you mean?
I’ve talked about this with some people. I think the Academy could do things. Nobody in the industry cares about any of it except the Academy, which carries weight, because they’re peers. The rest of it is seen as a dog and pony show. The Academy, which is a private organization, could save the industry by saying, “It’s our award and we can do whatever we want.” They could say that any film putting out paid solicitation ads of any kind — all these for your consideration ads that cost millions and millions of dollars, which just solicit awards — they could say that any film using them is disqualified from the Academy Awards. It would end it overnight.
Sounds like a radical proposal.
It’s not that radical. The studios would fall over dead, they’d be so happy. They don’t want to spend that money. I think they could go further. They could do things like say, “Look, we care about the Academy brand. You can go to your private appearances and your guild awards. If they’re televised, then you’re disqualified from the Academy Awards.” People would be like, “I guess that’s that. I’m not going.”
In any case, the “Birdman” situation went fairly well for you. How does your association with projects like that impact your expectations for what you want to do next?
I would say more that the threshold of what triggers your passion or excitement possibly shifts. It’s not theoretical. For me, it has shifted. I’m not trying to prove anything for anyone else or satisfy some internal question anymore as to whether I’ve accomplished how people look at me externally. I don’t aspire to do something I haven’t done. I don’t feel a restlessness about the work, especially in terms of acting, which is nice. It’s nice to feel relaxed about the idea that really special collaborators or really, really special pieces of work might not come along one after another, year after year. And that’s fine. When I was younger, it was more of a hunger to work. Having that abate and be replaced in some sense by a comfort, a sense of zen that good things will emerge with people and by waiting for them instead of chasing them and in some ways ending up in more marginal experiences — being more discerning will produce higher quality experiences. Being willing to wait for those is nice.
Because I am also interested in writing and directing things, and those things are longer cycles than taking gigs as an actor, it’s not driven by aspiration. It’s more that working with people like Wes [Anderson] or Alejandro [Gonzalez Iñarritu] on “Birdman” were examples of things that sit, for me, above that critical threshold of inspiration. They’re so good, and it’s such a pleasure to work with them. In the case of “Birdman,” I loved working with him and the piece was beautifully written. The idea of it was so audacious and unlike anything I’d seen someone take a swing at, I could tell that after 20 years of making movies, this would be unlike any other I’d worked on. That’s the criteria for what fires me up.
Speaking of cycles, we’re already in the midst of another election season. In 2009, you produced the documentary “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama.” Any plans for a sequel?
I’ve thought about it more from a distance. At this phase it has a tendency to all feel like theater to me and not real engagement with the issues. Ironically, in some ways, I’m more interested in seeing what Obama is doing in the tail-end of his presidency. It’s an ongoing affirmation of how well this guy plays the long game. The carbon emissions plan announced this week is a really big thing that the environmental community has been waiting for leadership on for literally his entire presidency. He’s the kind of guy who knows you can’t do everything at once. Even though you’re going to frustrate some people, you have to sequence things like a chess master. I admire that — the fortitude of spirit it takes to be calm and determined to get to pieces that are critical as time goes on. Even as all this noise is winding up about what’s next — between Iran, Cuba and this climate announcement, very significant things are happening. I think that’s cool.
Along the lines of instigating change, how have your expectations evolved for Crowdrise, the crowd-funding platform for philanthropy you co-founded?
My expectations are being perpetually exceeded. When we started it, the four of us, we talked about it in some terms that were ambitious. We thought one of our core observations we were making was that we’re in this era, starting with Facebook, where these platforms are emerging. People call them social networks, but I think of them more as platforms, in the sense that they are spaces in which people can perform long-term curation and implementation of some aspect of their lives. Facebook, in the beginning, was to some degree the catch-all. It was social, obviously, but all these charitable, business and marketing experiments took place within it. In a very short span of time, there’s been a maturation of people’s understanding of this culture. They’ve realized that if they want to conduct themselves as a professional, Facebook’s not really the space for that, so LinkedIn emerges. Then some say they don’t want all this curation, just to post bulletin-style what’s taking place. So Twitter emerges. People say, actually none of these are specialized platforms for visual postcards. So Instagram emerges.
How did these developments impact the concept behind Crowdrise?
Really, the maturation of the social network space has revealed to me that people are very conscious that they have modes they work in. They want specialized spaces to manage that part of the narrative of who they are. With Crowdrise, we talked about how we’d seen attempts to leverage Facebook for charity. There was that app called Causes. Frankly, it was a total wipeout. We wanted to leverage our own efforts for charitable causes in creative ways. There were these use-and-drop facilities where you could set up a payment, but it would evaporate when you finished it. We looked at Crowdrise as a link in the chain, a permanent social space to implement an activist life. You retain your narrative over time and see the aggregate of what you’ve done, turning off and on projects. I think that’s what it’s become.
Even though there are things like Indiegogo that kiss at charitable causes, they’re really more entrepreneurial spaces. Kickstarter is all entrepreneurial. Crowdrise is on its way to becoming the definitive space where people implement their charitable efforts as individuals. It’s really exciting. This year, we’ll do between $150 and $200 million in charity. That’s doubling every year in less than five years of running it. In a year or two, I think we could be raising half a billion dollars, which is a little head-spinning. It’s a bigger deal than we thought it would be. I don’t think Shauna [Robertson, Norton’s wife], Robert [Wolfe], Jeffrey [Wolfe] or I would end up feeling that we had a commitment to something of this scale. It affects the other things I’m doing. It’s been hard at times. We all have other careers. When did we decide we were going to run a tech company? But at other times, it feels like this thing you can’t walk away from. It just engages this whole other side of the brain. And it’s like, “Let’s run with it.”