Presence of mind

For a man renowned for intelligent but sober discourse - and for keeping his private life far from prying eyes - Edward Norton can be surprisingly droll, even open, when discussing matters close to his heart.

Aside from his very public work with the United Nations (on biodiversity) and several social housing programs (in the US and, more recently, Africa), the in-demand actor - best known for his starring role opposite Brad Pitt in 1999's Fight Club - remains something of an enigma, not given to granting interviews unless the spirit resolutely moves him to do so.

The boyish-looking star (he turns 43 on Saturday) once declared he would ''have a heart attack'' if he ever had to ''stop taking the subway''. Now the reluctant celebrity, whose relationships with hellraiser Courtney Love and Latina bombshell Salma Hayek brought unwanted attention, is making news again for a pair of radically different films. One is a big-budget studio picture, The Bourne Legacy: the latest in an action-spy series that caused the producers of the James Bond franchise to sit up and take note. The other, a low-budget independent offering: the sweet, offbeat Moonrise Kingdom, from director Wes Anderson, about a pair of eccentric kids who elope for fun, as only children do.

When we meet to discuss this latest turn of events, Norton is caught in the midst of the world's biggest film festival, Cannes. But far from flinching at such an environment (''I don't get much out of doing a red carpet,'' he says), the presence of the Anderson clan appears to put him at ease.

''He's one of the very distinctive filmmakers from my generation,'' he says of The Royal Tenenbaums writer-director. ''What I associate with Wes's movies are characters that are so sincere it's almost funny. It's fun to be a part of this.''

Unlike his co-stars, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, Norton is new to the Anderson experience, although he's been a fan for years. ''He wrote me a letter after Rushmore about a play I was doing, a very Wes Anderson-like handwritten letter. I still have it somewhere,'' he says. Anderson, he adds, captures the ''magical'' nature of childhood and fantasy in a unique, warm-hearted way.

Norton's own childhood experience was more like The Wire. ''There were more drug busts in my high school than boy scouts,'' he says, when I question the comparison. ''You don't know what Baltimore was like in the 1970s. I don't want it to sound like I grew up in the heart of the inner city … but I went to a public school. When I saw Rushmore, what made me laugh was this scholarship kid who gets kicked out. I remember as a kid having the offer of a scholarship, that it was going to be like going to Mars, and deciding to stay in my public school.''

Despite this, he went on to attend Yale, having shown promise at sport and the arts. His first film role - opposite Richard Gere in the 1996 thriller Primal Fear as a seemingly deranged killer - led to an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. He's worked steadily ever since: in films as diverse as Woody Allen's musical Everyone Says I Love You; as a reformed neo-Nazi in American History X (for which he received another Oscar nod); opposite Matt Damon in the poker drama Rounders; alongside Woody Harrelson in The People vs. Larry Flynt (with former fiancee Love); delivering well in Brett Ratner's Red Dragon; plus further plaudits in Spike Lee's 25th Hour and The Illusionist, among others.

Yet, despite a steady stream of quality roles, Norton hasn't been shy in biting the hand that feeds. Bad-mouthed in industry circles for dismissing the 2003 remake of The Italian Job as a contractual obligation, he also reneged on the idea of returning to star in The Incredible Hulk in what became this year's The Avengers ensemble. He found Christopher Nolan's Batman series of far greater interest, he says.

Evidently, time away from the studios - and the film business as a whole - has helped. ''If you do it for a long time, your relationship to it changes,'' he says. ''You have to take breaks, and find ways to continue to enjoy it. Or you just get stale.''

His latest acting experiences appear to have been positive. Moonrise Kingdom was an all-hands-on-deck experience, in which cast and crew bunked up while on location to keep costs down. ''If you've been working in movies for 15 years and can't afford to make a Wes Anderson movie,'' he says, ''you should fire your accountant.'' Working on the Bourne film was also a joy. ''Tony Gilroy's fantastic, a great director'' and both men are auteurs, he says.

The oft-outspoken star, who remains reticent to discuss side projects (such as a tentative HBO TV series with producing partner Brad Pitt), politely declines further questions.

''You know, it gets a little manic,'' he muses, of the setting of our interview at Cannes. ''And that's never been my favourite thing. But if you strip away the strange mania around it, it's still very rooted in a celebration of global cinema … That's what's so valuable about it.''

Art for the sake of science

Despite being a Goodwill Ambassador with the United Nations, promoting biodiversity and championing the environment since 2010, Norton insists we won't be seeing this (or his social causes) promoted in film, despite the exposure it could offer. ''The people who work in the scientific field, they need help to convey what it's about,'' he says. ''It's about telling a story, in a way. I don't flatter myself - I'm not a scientist, I'm not a conservation expert. But if I can help bridge that challenge, then I can contribute.''

Maintaining an active presence with projects in the US and Africa remains key to that. But, as with his private life (he's in a long-term relationship with Canadian producer Shauna Robertson), he prefers to keep the two worlds apart. ''The issues surrounding things like the environment are like anything else, a big company even, they're a communications challenge,'' he says. ''But, no, I think film explores the world in more oblique ways than that.''

The Bourne Legacy is in cinemas from Thursday. Moonrise Kingdom is out on August 30.

Twitter @EdGibbs

The story Presence of mind first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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