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Ed Norton On 'Birdman,' Wes Anderson And Why $40 Makes Him Proud

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Ed Norton On 'Birdman,' Wes Anderson And Why $40 Makes Him Proud

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Ed Norton On 'Birdman,' Wes Anderson And Why $40 Makes Him Proud

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Edward Norton costars in the black comedy "Birdman," directed by Alejandro Inarritu. Norton was in the Wes Anderson films "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Moonrise Kingdom" and starred in "The 25th Hour," "Death To Smoochy," "Fight Club," "American History X" and "The Incredible Hulk." In "Birdman," Norton plays a pretentious, self-absorbed, but very talented and edgy, theater actor who's been cast in a play directed by a washed up movie star played by Michael Keaton. Keaton's character had been famous for portraying the superhero Birdman. Norton's character has no respect for superhero movies in general or this actor in particular.

In his own condescending way, Norton is trying to teach Keaton what theater acting is really about and how the stage is a place to reveal truth, with the implication that Keaton might have been a star, but he's not a real actor. The movie is in part about ego, aging and clashing approaches to acting, as Keaton tries to reignite his career and reinvent himself. In this scene, after a botched preview performance, Keaton suggests to Norton that they get a cup of coffee and try to work things out between them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BIRDMAN")

MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan) Let's go. Walk.

EDWARD NORTON: (As Mike) Where are we going?

KEATON: (As Riggan) To get you some coffee. Did I do something to disrespect you?

NORTON: (As Mike) Not yet.

KEATON: (As Riggan) Look, I have a lot riding on this [bleep] play.

NORTON: (As Mike) Oh, is that right?

KEATON: (As Riggan) Yeah. People know who I am.

NORTON: (As Mike) [Bleep], they don't know you, your work - man the guy from the bird suit who goes and tells coy, slightly vomitous stories on "Letterman."

KEATON: (As Riggan) Well, I'm sorry I'm so popular, Mike.

NORTON: (As Mike) Popular? I don't give a [bleep]. Popular? Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend.

KEATON: (As Riggan) I don't even know what that means, so.

NORTON: (As Mike) It means my reputation is riding on this. And that's worth - a lot. A lot, exactly, yes. If this doesn't work out for you you [bleep] back to your studio pals and dive back into that cultural genocide you guys are perpetrating. You know, a douche bag's are born every minute. That was P. T. Barnum's premise when he invented the circus and nothing much has changed. And you guys know that if you crank out any toxic piece of crap people will line up and pay to see it. But long after you're gone, I'm going to be on that stage earning my living, baring my soul, wrestling with complex human emotions, 'cause that's what we do.

KEATON: (As Riggan) So is that what tonight was about, you wrestling with complex emotion?

NORTON: (As Mike) Tonight was just about seeing if it's even alive, seeing if it can bleed, you know, this isn't the back lot, Riggan. This is New York City. This is what we do things.

KEATON: (As Riggan) Where are you going?

NORTON: (As Mike) They have coffee here.

GROSS: This is the scene from "Birdman." Edward Norton welcome back to FRESH AIR, I love the film. (Laughter) Congratulations on it.

NORTON: Thanks, I love this shows, so it's good to be here.

GROSS: Thanks. So it must've been show much fun to have a script with lines like popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.

NORTON: Somewhere in our household there was a thump at 2:30 in the morning, when I fell off the couch laughing at that line.

GROSS: How did you get this part?

NORTON: The short answer is that I had - I read it, and I had breakfast with Alejandro Inarritu. And I essentially told him he wasn't leaving the cafe alive, until we had shaken hands, that I was going to play this role. The longer answer is that I - I've known Alejandro sort of socially and just as a colleague because we started in the film business at about the same time in the mid-'90s. And I was just, you know - one film after another that he made and pressed me more and more and more. And I felt, by the time I saw his previous film to "Birdman" called "Beautiful," I really couldn't figure out how he was making these kinds of films, and it made me want to be a part of his process and see it from the inside it really, really avidly. And so I had told him the next time he had anything that I would sign on, sight unseen. And I think he sort of took me at my word, and he called me about it.

GROSS: I've read that part of your portrayal of the actor in "Birdman" is based on observing your director.

(LAUGHTER)

NORTON: It is. There's a percentage of humor in that. But the clip you just played could be Alejandro minus the Mexican accent. I think he says and believes and really feels a lot of what Shiner expresses about sort of the degradation of, you know, the process of making true art in the face of too much commercialism. And I think he really feels those things and really, really wants to be himself like Shiner does - the type of artist who resists getting co-opted by all of that. And so he really was kind of an inspiration, and it was nice to have been there because it was like having, you know, the avatar for what you're trying to incarnate right next you all the time.

GROSS: There's a couple of scenes where it's basically like one really long shot that follow, you know, actors. And, I mean, in a couple of these scenes - like during this one really long shot, there's people like walking on and off camera, and everything is so perfectly choreographed. Often in films, scenes are very short and highly edited. Or there's a long scene, but there's not that much choreography within it. So I'm wondering what's it like for you when you're doing a really long take and if any one thing in that take is wrong, the whole thing has from the beginning again.

NORTON: Yeah. Alejandro has conceived it as kind of a waking dream, like a seamless, floating, shot. The entire film moves along without any apparent break or edit and throughout virtually the entirety of the film. So it's not like one of those films where there's sort of a bravura seven-minute shot within the middle of the film that's sort of a set piece. It's the entire film presents itself as a single, unbroken, seamless movement of the camera.

And the amazing thing about Alejandro, I think, is that he said right away, look, there's a reason for doing this, which is, I'm telling a story about a person in a spiritual crisis who might actually be losing his mind. He might actually be going crazy. We're not sure, and I don't ever want to leave the bubble of his anxiety. I want the audience with him inside the bubble of his mounting panic and all the things that happen to him without any break because I want them to experience life in this seamless way that he's experiencing it. And I think as soon as he said that, and we realized he's doing this because he's trying to create not a showy, you know, presentation but he's trying to create a really deep emotional sensation that aligns the audience with the main character, it became really exciting. And in terms of doing it - it required more preparation, but once you got around to doing it, it was actually an incredibly liberating way to work.

GROSS: People pride themselves on being improvisational in movies, but in a scene where everything has to be choreographed and orchestrated in advance because it's one long take, you can't be improvisational. It would throw everything off.

NORTON: Well, not exactly. I mean, it's funny, but the thing is that you can create - once you've - once people have gotten, you know, the dance - and it is a dance. It's like a choreography. It's a complex choreography with a lot of people, but once it's been sort of built as a foundation, I think that's the enormous pleasure of working with people like Michael Keaton and Zach Galifinakis and people with like an astonishing ability to, even within a set choreography, sort of do a back-flip, you know, that you weren't expecting.

And the fun of it was sort of once we got going, realizing that it wasn't going to be magical unless people came up with sort of unrepeatable moments within the context of all that choreography and it happened a lot. I think there's lots and lots within the film that - that is what you would call improvisational. And I think among the many things that Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer, like one of the greatest I've ever worked with is that he was capable of, like, turning and burying his face in his shoulder because he was laughing at something improvised and never letting go of the camera and losing the shot. He's really, like, one of the greatest photographers in the history of the trade, I think.

GROSS: So there's this scene where your character and Michael Keaton's character have a fistfight. And it's kind of clear neither of you are really used to having a fistfight. So it's this really like you know awkward fighting. Can you talk about shooting that scene?

NORTON: That's probably one of the funnier scenes for us. It was challenging mostly because it's very hard not to laugh at Michael Keaton when he's doing a scene like that - like, I grew up on the guy. I used to watch his movies and copy his lines, and it's very, very difficult not to laugh when you're doing scene like that. But it was enormous fun. Probably the most nerve-racking thing about it was that it came after probably one of the longest shots in the movie - one of the longest sequences without any kind of a stitch in it - in the movie - and you get to this point where you have to throw a punch and hit it and have the camera angle be right. And you just think like, if we miss this, if we goof on - just on this one punch, technically we've just thrown away, you know, 12 minutes and four big scenes where actors might have done some really fantastic stuff. And you're going to lose it all to like messing up a stunt. And that was - that was a little anxiety inducing.

GROSS: So did you have to actually land punches on each other?

NORTON: Well, no - these guys are, you know....

GROSS: They were not good at this (laughter).

NORTON: I - you know, they're actors. I mean, it's like the Dorothy Parker line, scratch an actor, you'll find an actress. I mean, I think this is....

GROSS: Can you explain that to me? I don't get that. Honestly I don't get it.

NORTON: I think that...

GROSS: Is that that actors are effeminate? Is that the joke?

NORTON: (Laughter) I think it's that there is - I can only guess what she meant, but I don't think that Mike Scheiner and Reagan are, you know, out of touch with their feminine side or their vanity or their concern for appearances.

GROSS: Oh, so we're equating women with vanity, are we? This is a slippery slope.

NORTON: No, not women. Just actresses.

GROSS: OK, and that's better - OK.

NORTON: It was a woman that said it. It wasn't me. I think neither of these guys is a good fighter particularly, and they have - the typically messy fight of untrained brawlers.

GROSS: Yeah. And you're doing like a real, like, put-up-your-dukes kind of pose. It's very funny. So in "Birdman," Michael Keaton plays an actor who is famous as the superhero Birdman. And he declined - 20 years ago he declined to star in "Birdman 4." He was done with the franchise. Then his career has been in decline ever since. People really only know him as Birdman. Now, you were in the 2008 film "The Incredible Hulk," and you played the scientist who's transformed by gamma - big - radiation into the Incredible Hulk. It's not what you became famous for, but it did very well at the box office. Is there a level in which you can relate to the story of somebody who is in a superhero movie and became too well-known for that?

NORTON: Not so much. I would say I encounter the large preponderance of people who come up to me with some sort of a strong relationship or reaction to work I've done since, you know, the mid-'90s. It's for other things, and I think - that doesn't mean I don't find people appreciate it or that I'm not proud of that one. I think it's a lot of fun I really wanted to make that movie, and I grew up on it, too. And I think there's a very mythic element to the Hawk story in particular. But I never - I didn't find it constricting or limiting in the slightest.

GROSS: You did turn down being in subsequent films. How come in subsequent Hulk films?

NORTON: I think that, you know, my feeling was that I experimented and experienced what I wanted to. I really, really enjoyed it. And yet I looked at the balance of time in life that one spends not only making those sorts of films, but then especially putting them out and obligations that rightly come with that. And there were just a lot of things that - I wanted more diversity - I sort of chose to continue on my path of having a diversity of experiences. Maybe on some unconscious level, I didn't want to have an association with one thing in any way degrade my effectiveness as an actor in characters. I think you can sort of do anything once, but if you do it too many times it can become a suit that's hard to take off in other people eyes. And if I had continued on with it, I wouldn't have made "Moonrise Kingdom" or "Grand Budapest" or "Birdman" because those all overlapped with - and those were more the priority for me. But I totally, you know, I continue to be a fan. And I'm really, really happy I got to do it once. That particular character I think has a really proud tradition actually of really good actors playing him. And I think I'm really happy to be part of it.

GROSS: My guest is Edward Norton. He costars in the new film "Birdman." We'll talk more after break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Edward Norton. And he co-stars in the new film "Birdman." Let's talk about how you got into acting. I know when you were 5, you had a babysitter who was cast on Broadway as Cosette in "Les Mis." Is that right?

NORTON: Yeah, that's right. If my memory serves, she was sort of understudying or in the company and then got the chance to go into the - one of the lead roles. I remember my parents bringing me up to see her in it, which was exciting.

GROSS: That did not happen to any of my babysitters. Did it make you think that getting from here to there - from here to Broadway wasn't really that hard because your babysitter was...

NORTON: You know what? I have never thought of that, but that's - I have never made that connection, but I absolutely think you're right. I think that's 100 percent accurate that it made it seem doable to me from where I was.

GROSS: And did it make "Les Mis" really important to you?

NORTON: No, I can't say that. I was fascinated by musicals when I was younger, but they always seemed foreign to me. They never felt like me. I never saw myself in musicals. I never - I was never one of those theater kids who sort of goes around singing show tunes. I just didn't.

GROSS: What did you see yourself in?

NORTON: It's funny, I used - we used to make our own movies with , you know, I was talking to Mark Ruffalo about it the other day - we were talking about making home movies just by using the pause button. You know, essentially the old video cameras we had where you actually had reaction had to put the entire VHS tape in the camera. And we didn't have flat beds or anything like that, so you just made movies by pressing the pause button and then setting up the next shot and erasing over it until you got the take you wanted, you know. And we used to make - we used to make - my friends and I used to make, like, you know, "Enter The Dragon" type films, like home sort of mock sort of spaghetti westerns and mock kind of be kung fu movies and things like that. And...

GROSS: Did you have fake blood?

NORTON: Yeah, we did everything. We did all kinds of stuff. I mean, I think actually when "Reservoir Dogs" came out and then "Pulp Fiction," I really - I remember the theater in New York I saw "Pulp Fiction." And I sat there just with the smile stretching around my entire head because I thought someone's actually gone and done a great movie in exactly the same spirit of all of us who, you know, made our own little pulp action movies in the backyard using the pause button. I just thought he - he did it for all of us kind of. It was great.

GROSS: Were you directing those movies or starring in them?

NORTON: Yeah, yeah. We wrote them and made them and to me, whenever you're - when I'm making stuff today, I still feel like the whole enterprise is - for all the money that comes into it and all the sophistication of the toys you get - your kind of just trying to get toward that sensation where you're playing in an unencumbered way. You're trying to minimize the stress of the pressures that come with getting these kinds of toys and these kinds of budgets and get into the same headspace that you were in then when you were just, you know, sort of excited about every little idea and trying all kinds of crazy things. And I think that talking about "Birdman," the thing that sort of blew me away watching Inarritu and Chivo Lubezki do the film was they were - it was like back to - they had no storyboards; they had no computer pre-visualization. You would turn and they would be standing sort of over in a corner with their heads near each other doing this weird little dance like they almost, you know, like Stevie Wonder at the piano, with their heads swaying. And what they were doing was like what an Olympic skier does when he pre-visualizes the course, you know? They were just mentally talking the shot with each other. And it was like a combination of watching kids playing with an old video camera. But on the other hand, it was like watching two masters, you know, paint together. And I think it's hard for people who don't make movies to grasp, like, how risky that was. It wasn't really risky for us as actors. But for them, you know, for Alejandro, he was taking away the entire insurance package of editing later. You - the reason you shoot coverage, the reason you shoot different angles is because you want to have the opportunity to manipulate it later and salvage something if it's not working. And he essentially threw all that optionality out the window when he made this film, which is quite a dangerous thing to do.

GROSS: Edward Norton will be back in the second half of the show. He costars in the new film "Birdman." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Edward Norton. He costars in the new film "Birdman." He also starred in the "25th Hour," "Death To Smoochy," "Fight Club," "American History X" and "The Incredible Hulk." He was in Wes Anderson's two most recent films.

I want to ask you about your work in Wes Anderson's films. You were one of the stars of "Moonrise Kingdom" and were in "Grand Budapest Hotel." Wes Anderson's films walk this really interesting line between comedy and deep emotion. I usually find myself, like, smiling through most of his films, and by the end I'm in tears because they work on a very deep, emotional level. What does he tell you about the tone he wants from you as an actor? And let's use "Moonrise Kingdom" as an example. And in "Moonrise Kingdom," you're playing a scoutmaster. And they're called the Khaki Scouts, but it's the equivalent of the Boy Scouts.

NORTON: Yeah. Scout Master Randy Ward, to be precise.

GROSS: Yes.

NORTON: Everything you just said, I agree with. It's exactly what I've loved about Wes from the get-go. This sort of the whimsy and the incredible humor and everything, but there's always these moments of, like, pathos that come in and sideswipe you. And every time I watch the "Royal Tenenbaums" I'm laughing and laughing, and then for whatever reason, as soon as there's that scene where he releases the falcon or the hawk over the city and they play that Velvet Underground song, I tear up every single time I watch the movie at that point. And I think it's - I can't explain it.

I think, you know, I've come to think that a lot of Wes's movies are about the same thing, which is maybe people struggling with the way that the family that you're born into fails you or you don't have the family that you sort of want. And so you go and create the family that you need, you know. So many the characters in Wes's movies are essentially creating alternative communities that support them. And I think there's something really sweet in that idea. And I certainly felt like that was part of, you know, what was in "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Grand Budapest."

GROSS: Let's hear a scene from "Moonrise Kingdom." And you're the scout master at the Boy Scout-type summer camp. And you've just opened up one of the tents and realized one of the boys is missing. So you're organizing a search party with the boys in your scout troop.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONRISE KINGDOM")

NORTON: (As Scout Master Ward) You have your orders. Use the orienteering and path-finding skills that you've been practicing all summer. Let's find our man, bring him safely back to camp. Remember this isn't just a search party. It's a chance to do some first-class scouting. Any questions? Lazy-Eye.

CHARLIE KILGORE: (As Lazy-Eye) What's your real job, sir?

NORTON: (As Scout Master Ward) I'm a math teacher. Why?

KILGORE: (As Lazy-Eye) What grade?

NORTON: (As Scout Master Ward): Eighth.

KILGORE: (As Lazy-Eye) Do you need a PhD for that?

NORTON: (As Scout Master Ward) Lazy-Eye, no, but you know what? We're actually in the middle of something here, in case you didn't notice. One of our scouts is missing, and that's a crisis. Anybody else? Redford.

LUCAS HEDGES: (As Redford) What if he resists?

NORTON: (As Scout Master Ward) Who?

HEDGES: (As Redford) Shakusky. Are we allowed to use force on him?

NORTON: (As Scout Master Ward) No, you're not. This is a nonviolent rescue operation. Your mission is to find him, not to hurt him under any circumstances. Am I making myself understood?

SCOUTS: Yes.

NORTON: (As Scout Master Ward) Good. I'm going to change my answer in fact, this is my real job - scout master Troop 55, a math teacher on the side.

GROSS: (Laughter) So great.

NORTON: I think my favorite, like, people talk about how meticulous Wes is and how little room for improvisation, but he walked up to me about three takes into that sequence and said to me and the kid - he comes up to the kid, he said, you know what? Add one more question ask him if you need a PhD for that. I, like, had to - I walked away and laughed for 15 minutes and had to come back and do it because every time I hear it now, like, I'm so happy he put that in in the last minute. It cracks me up.

GROSS: Well, and I love, too, that this whole sequence is done as if it were, like, you know, a war movie where, like, you're the general and, like, you rescue, you know - you eventually rescue - or try to rescue this boy. And then you rescue your superior who didn't have faith in you, but, you know, you rescue him from a situation. And - but it's all on such this, like, small children's scale.

NORTON: Yeah, although there's nothing small or children's scale about Harvey Keitel. He weighs, like, 240.

GROSS: (Laughter) And you had to carry him out.

NORTON: And he's got a density of muscle that you've never seen in a man that age and carrying him on your back is something.

GROSS: Did you have the muscles to carry him out?

NORTON: It's anything but childlike. You know what? I'll admit this on the air. I don't think I ever have, but he's so heavy...

GROSS: (Laughter).

NORTON: That not only the idea of jumping, but even running with him was so ludicrous that they had to build me a Harvey Keitel backpack dummy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

NORTON: That had - made of foam - that had straps on the chest so that I could wear it and run with him because three union grips couldn't carry Harvey, let alone one, you know, 155-pound actor.

GROSS: That's hysterical. I'd like to see that. I want to play a scene from another movie that you made. And this - I think this has become something of a cult film. It's called "Death To Smoochy." I don't think it did that well at the box office, but I just think it's a wonderful film and worth checking out if you haven't seen it.

It's from 2002, and in this, you play a character whose calling is being a children's TV character, dressing as a rhino in a pink rhino suit. It's kind of like a Big Bird character, except it's a rhino. And you're so committed to, like, to this character and the good it can bring in the world, but you're not on TV and nobody wants you. So, like, to earn a living at this point in the film, one of the things you're doing is performing, you know, singing and playing guitar at a methadone clinic. And so, like...

NORTON: In Coney Island, no less.

GROSS: In Coney Island, yeah. So you're performing and everybody's basically in a deep nod (laughter) as you're singing. So I want to play you singing in the methadone clinic in your pink rhino costume.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEATH TO SMOOCHY")

NORTON: (As Smoochy the Rhino) Thanks a lot fellows, ladies. Yeah, looking at the faces here, I think it might be getting time to wrap things up. So I'm going to close it out with a little ditty. You may recognize the tune, but I'm taking a few liberties with the lyrics. If you figure out the chorus come on and join on in, OK?

(Singing) Oh, we'll get you off that smack, oh, yes we will. Oh, we'll get you off that smack, oh, yes we will. Oh, we're going to get you off that smack. We'll kick that monkey right off your back and get your life on track, oh, yes we will. It's important to get started now though, you know why? Because the smack can lead to crack, oh, yes, it can. Carl? You know what I'm talking about, brother. Sing it with me now. Giving up that smack, oh, yes, we are.

GROSS: I just always laugh every time I hear that. Did you have anything to do with writing the song?

NORTON: Probably one of the proudest things in my career is the occasional $40 check I get for residuals for lyrics and music on "Death To Smoochy," which I really proudly share without Adam Resnick, who is the mad-cap genius who wrote "Death To Smoochy" and wrote many of those songs like "Your Stepdad's Not Mean, He's Just Adjusting" and others. I ended up sort of kind of putting the musical underpinnings and embellishing on them. But sharing those music royalties with Adam is definitely a highlight of my career. And of course we're talking about Inarritu and, you know, bending the form of cinematic drama and everything. And then you break this out just to, like, fully put it in acetylene torch to my credibility as a dramatic actor.

GROSS: Oh, no, you're so much fun in this film. It's a terrific film.

NORTON: I'm kidding. No, I love this film.

GROSS: Does Jon Stewart not like the film? It seems to me he's tried to distance himself from it on his show.

NORTON: No, no, no, he - I think that's all - remember the way that Charles Grodin used to pretended to hate Johnny Carson? I think Jon Stewart loves that film.

GROSS: Oh, good.

NORTON: Yeah. It's funny, but I would actually say I had as much fun making "Birdman" as I've ever had making a movie. I think it was like one of the most creatively satisfying experiences I've had. And I think it's an incredibly audacious and very rare movie, but "Death To Smoochy" was for pure fun. After working on that movie I was standing around, and I felt like I'd been doing sit-ups. My stomach muscles were coming in, and I hadn't done anything. It's just we'd been laughing so hard for four months at Robin Williams and Danny DeVito and Jon Stewart and Catherine Keener. It was so hilarious that, you know, I didn't almost didn't care what came of the movie because I had such a good time doing it.

GROSS: There's a certain comic tone that you get in Wes Anderson films and "Smoochy" and in "Birdman." And I wish I had the vocabulary to explain exactly what it is, but it's - it's like you're so committed; you're so deep in the character. And the character is so committed to doing what they think is right that it becomes comical. What is that tone that you're getting that you get so well?

NORTON: That's funny, I wouldn't have said - but, you know, you're right. Like, Scout Master Ward and actually the character in "Grand Budapest," Henckels and Smoochy, they all definitely have almost a comical earnestness, you might say. They're just incredibly earnest about what they're doing. But Sheldon Mopes is a really - he's a very particular kind of a crusader, somewhat inspired by my friend Woody Harrelson, but...

GROSS: Wait - your character in "Smoochy" is inspired by Woody Harrelson?

NORTON: There is - if you go - since you're a fan, I'll tip you that if you go and listen to the particulars of Sheldon's vocalizations, you might start hearing a little bit of something you're familiar with.

GROSS: Really? Well, that brings up that you can - you're actually a pretty good impressionist. When you hosted "Saturday Night Live," you did a bit in the opening monologue with Alec Baldwin where he says, you know, in order to host "Saturday Night Live," well, you have to know how to do some impressions. And he just throws some names at you - of course they're all names of actors and directors you've worked with - like Woody Harrelson and Woody Allen (laughter). So how did you develop that knack? Is that something that you just had? Did you do that as a kid?

NORTON: I don't know. I sometimes think acting - I mean, acting's really a really different impulse in different people. I definitely think that for me as a kid, the impulse was not so much, like, the idea of great art or storytelling or anything. It really was, like, mimicry. I was a pretty compulsive - I compulsively liked to kind of just pretend to be other people. And people's voices always really fascinated me, the whole - the way that, like, personality or character traits were sort of, you know, reflected in voices. And I used the kind of - I never thought mine was interesting, so I was always more - I always thought, you know, other people who had more distinctive characteristics, it was fun to pretend to be them. And I think that - I'm not sure that I've ever stopped essentially doing that. I don't even know if I'm a good actor. I might just be, you know - what? - empathy, like, in the true sense. Like, I might just be good at absorbing other people and, you know, recreating them.

GROSS: My guest is Edward Norton. He costars in the new film "Birdman." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Edward Norton. And he's starring with Michael Keaton in the new film "Birdman." I want to play a clip from a 2002 film that you made, directed by Spike Lee, called the "25th Hour." It's adapted from a novel. And in this film, you play Monty Brogan, a drug dealer who was caught by the DEA. And you're about to begin a seven-year prison sentence. And the film follows you during the last day before you have to report to the prison. In this scene, you're visiting your father, played by Brian Cox, at the bar that he owns and runs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "25th HOUR")

BRIAN COX: (As James Brogan) Talk to Sal.

NORTON: (As Monty Brogan) Oh, dad, come on.

COX: (As James Brogan) No, see if he can help you with it.

NORTON: Dad, the guy's been out of the picture for 20 years.

COX: (As James Brogan) He still knows people.

NORTON: (As Monty Brogan) That's not the point. I don't want you to get involved, OK? I mean it; I'm going to be all right.

COX: (As James Brogan) You know you'll still be a young man when you get out. I know you don't think about it, but don't start any trouble in there. Keep your head down.

NORTON: (As Monty Brogan) Dad, don't worry about me, please.

COX: (As James Brogan) This should never have happened. You could've been - you wanted money? You could've done anything - anything you wanted - doctor, lawyer.

NORTON: (As Monty Brogan) Don't lay that on me.

COX: (As James Brogan) That's all I'm saying.

NORTON: (As Monty Brogan) Don't lay that on me. When Sal and his crew were squeezing you for the payments, I didn't hear you wishing I was a law school student then. Not one word from you back then. Where'd you think that money was coming from, Donald Trump?

COX: (As James Brogan) That was a mistake.

NORTON: (As Monty Brogan) Well, let's just forget it then.

COX: (As James Brogan) There were lots of mistakes. I should've stopped drinking when your mother passed.

NORTON: (As Monty Brogan) Oh, please, please don't do this.

COX: (As James Brogan) Yeah, 11-year-old boy with a dead mother and a drunk father. You know, I've got no one to blame but myself.

NORTON: (As James Brogan) Stop, stop. It wasn't you, Pop.

GROSS: That's my guest, Edward Norton, with Brian Cox in a scene from the "25th Hour." Is it interesting for you to hear that scene played back with the music after you've filmed it?

NORTON: Yeah, very. It's crazy what hearing something that you did does to your sort of memory synapses. Brian's voice is so distinctive, it's such a trigger on, you know, I can actually - it just sort of throws you to a period of work and a lot of details, and it's really interesting. It's really interesting to hear it and not see it, too.

GROSS: There's a scene in the "25th Hour" that's kind of an homage to "Taxi Driver." And I'm wondering if that was very influential, that film was very influential for you and for Spike Lee?

NORTON: That's funny, I've never - I've never heard that referenced. I totally get why because of the mirror...

GROSS: Exactly.

NORTON: ...Element. You know what's...

GROSS: And also the taxis driving by and the kind of slow-motion people staring at the screen...

NORTON: That's very, very interesting...

GROSS: ...And saying nasty things, like when Travis' driving by Times Square in his taxi.

NORTON: Yeah, you know what? That's totally interesting and I wouldn't even - I wouldn't be surprised at all if Spike - if that - it didn't occur to me at the time, but only for this reason, which is that the "25th Hour" was a novel written by David Benioff, who adapted his own novel into the screenplay. David, many people know because he's the creator of the "Game of Thrones" - creator and writer of the "Game Of Thrones" series, which is so hugely popular now. But it was his novella that he adapted. And the crazy thing was that entire monologue was in the novel. It's this big aria in the novel of the character talking to himself and saying all those things. And when David adapted his own book into the screenplay, he cut it out. And both Spike and I had separately, you know, put a highlighter around it and said, you know, why isn't this in there? It's one of the greatest things in there. And we were with Dave and we kind of sad, like, how can you cut out that mirror monologue? And he said, like, well, I just - I didn't think it was cinematic enough. And Spike - I remember Spike going yeah, you leave that to me that to me. He was like, that's my job.

GROSS: In the "25th Hour," your character rescues an abused dog and they become very close. Did you bond with that dog?

NORTON: It's funny, I like that dog a lot. We were initially really disappointed in the dog because in David's book, the dog is the most badass dog you've ever read about. It's a pit bull that's been torn to pieces and survived. And I don't remember why, you know, it's just one of these things, like, suddenly they show up with this very gentle lab (laughter). And they had to paint it darker because it wasn't even, like, a very scary looking color. And I was looking at Spike like, where is the pit bull from hell that Doyle is supposed to be? And I'm not sure I ever, like, recovered from that - from that disappoint. It was a sweet dog.

GROSS: Edward Norton, it's been a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

NORTON: You too as always, Terry.

GROSS: Edward Norton costars in the new film "Birdman." This is FRESH AIR.

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