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Edward Norton On Why Method Acting Is Misunderstood — Hamptons Film Festival

You don’t land 20 years of fantastic roles without learning a thing or two about the history of the art.

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Anyone watching movies for the last 20-plus years knows the work of Edward Norton: Whether it’s his Oscar-nominated turns in “American History X” and “Birdman,” his iconic turn in “Fight Club,” or fan favorites “The Illusionist” and “The 25th Hour,” Norton’s ubiquity has made him a fixture in American cinema.

Needless to say, the actor has spent the last two decades building up one hell of a resume, which is exactly why he was honored for a career achievement award at this year’s Hamptons International Film Festival. Luckily for everyone at the festival, Norton made some time to talk with storied New York film critic David Edelstein to a crowd of 500 or so people, where he dug into some of his influences and brought up some academic criticisms of acting as an art form today.

READ MORE: Edward Norton Discusses the Collaborative Process in Highlights from Locarno Film Festival Panel

Here are five takeaways from his talk.

His Other Passions Fuel His Work

Norton was not only at HIFF to receive kudos for his previous work, but was promoting an upcoming surfing documentary titled “Bunker 77” that he is executive producing. IndieWire had the chance to speak with Norton briefly before the panel about his involvement with the project.

“A friend of mine, Takuji Masuda, made the film,” Norton told us. “I’ve narrated surf films and I’m a fan of that subgenre. There was a particularly good connection too because the Hamptons has such a good surfing community and I surf out here so I thought it would be a good festival to show it at.”

He Won’t Tell Which Actor His “Birdman” Character Is Based On

In “Birdman,” Norton plays Mike Shiner, a stage actor notorious for his extreme narcissism and bad temper. When asked about where this performance came from Norton joked, “there are more of these in the profession that you might think.”

"Birdman"

“Birdman”

“There were actors that when I was coming up in New York theater, of an earlier generation, who were legends for their combination of brilliance but you hear stories of their incredible bad behavior,” Norton said. “[Philip Seymour] Hoffman and I used to say ‘Are we more square than they are?’ I felt like I hardly knew anyone who had the reputation of these great enfant terribles of the stage. There was one in particular that was, if anybody’s looking really close or paying attention to certain intonations in the film they will figure it out.”

He Doesn’t Watch His Own Films

“I want to watch other people’s movies,” Norton said when asked if he revisits any of his old roles. “I’d rather go watch Jacques Audiard’s new movie than anything I’m in.”

Why Audiard, the French director behind last year’s Palme d’Or-winning “Dheepan”? Norton explained. “He’s a French filmmaker who not nearly enough people know, who made ‘The Beat my Heart Skipped,’ ‘A Prophet’ and ‘Rust and Bone,’ which is as phenomenal of a triptych of films as I’ve ever seen.”

He Still Defends Marlon Brando’s Work in “The Score”

During the talk, Norton spoke about actors that he felt were truly iconic and how they inspired him. While he mentioned Cary Grant and Harrison Ford, he spent a great deal of time talking about Marlon Brando, who he got to work with on the 2001 heist film “The Score.” Brando is infamously known for using an earpiece where someone would read him his lines right before they were to be recited. While many consider this a cop-out as an actor, Norton had a much different experience on set with Brando.

“I thought he was hampered by the genre,” Norton said. “I don’t think I would have done that film if not for those two actors [Brando and DeNiro] being in it. I think Marlon got boxed-in to a limited expositional role. I loved watching the way he went about keeping it somewhat fresh for himself.”

Brando’s method fascinated the younger actor. “There were reports that we didn’t even learn the lines, that he used an ear mic, but I thought that was fascinating,” Norton said. “He would take it in and then say it. He would have this odd little pause that wasn’t quite natural. Of course, there is a veteran wisdom in this, because that doesn’t matter because its not a play on stage. He would bring it out of himself very fresh, and after three or four he would go ‘I got it” and he would just do it.”

It was a notably fresh approach in contrast to other performers. “I know a lot of actors that don’t know the lines in three or four takes anyway,” Norton said. “Truth is, it wasn’t goofball or lazy, it was a very interesting way of coming in and trying to keep the work fresh.”

He Thinks “Method Acting” Is Misunderstood

While most fans wouldn’t naturally associate Norton with Method acting, he actually believes this derives from a misuse of the term from its very origins.

“The phrase ‘the Method’ got badly misused and misunderstood,” Norton said. “It came to get ascribed to just Lee Strasberg and specifically Strasberg’s notion of sense memory. He had this idea that your own emotional and sense memories were valuable because if you could get down into those pools of emotion that you could open up a conduit to accessing a whole spectrum of emotions. To me, that’s useful and compelling in the context of a classroom and in the context of developing yourself as an actor.”

"Fight Club"

“Fight Club”

Norton, however, felt that Strasberg’s approach has been simplified over the years. “My personal opinion, both intellectually and through experience of working with people who got way too hung up on the cult of Lee Strasberg, is that when you are working with somebody who isn’t using the circumstances of the text it’s like acting with someone who’s looking in a mirror,” he said. “I think that became crippling to a lot of actors.”

READ MORE: Darren Aronofsky on His Private Writing Process, Fighting Financiers and His Mysterious New Film

Later on in the talk, he returned to that point. “It got called the Method, but it wasn’t really the Method,” Norton said. “The method was Stanislavski. His definition was nothing more than a call to a more naturalistic type of theater.”

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