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."