LIANE HANSEN, host:
Cowboy boots, 10 gallon hats and snap button shirts are hot this year in Hollywood. Although westerns have been popular screen fair since the silent era, this month actor Edward Norton puts on a Stetson to play a contemporary cowboy in the new film Down in the Valley. The valley is the San Fernando Valley down in California. And Norton's character is a muscle-bound charmer named Harlan Fairfax Caruthers. Early in the film, his polite aw-shucks manner wins the heart of a teenage girl and her neglected younger brother.
(Soundbite of Down in the Valley)
Mr. EDWARD NORTON (Actor): (As Harlan) How far are ya'll going?
Ms. EVAN RACHEL WOOD (Actor): (As Tobe) We're just going to the beach.
Mr. NORTON: (As Harlan) That's nice. I ain't never been to the beach.
Ms. WOOD: (As Tobe) How long have you lived here?
Mr. NORTON: (As Harlan) Not too long.
Ms. WOOD: (As Tobe) You can drive there like in less than an hour.
Mr. NORTON: (As Harlan) I can't. I don't have a car.
Ms. WOOD: (As Tobe) How come?
Mr. NORTON: (As Harlan) How come I don't have a car? I don't know, I don't like them. They kind of make you lazy.
HANSEN: Appearances, however, can be deceiving. And as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Harlan's cowboy ways mask a deeply troubled man. Edward Norton, who also receives producer credit for the film, is in our New York bureau. I'm tempted to say howdy, but welcome to the program.
Mr. NORTON: Thank you, Liane.
HANSEN: What appealed to you about this character and this script?
Mr. NORTON: Well, I felt that David Jacobson, who wrote and directed it, was depicting a vision of modern life that I felt I understood or related to. I felt like he was rolling around in issues of how kind of what we've made of the landscape has affect our psychology and our fantasies and things like that. And it was a western, it is a western in all its archetypes and story structures and things like that, but when he articulated to me, he said I think we ought to make a western about the West that we're experiencing now, not some fantasy of the Old West, but the way that that fantasy is, you know, juxtaposed with what we actually experience. And that, I really liked films that I feel like are wrestling with the issues of the times we're living in right now and I felt this was very much that.
HANSEN: Do you think Harlan is an anachronism, he's really kind of a vestige of the Old West who just happens to be inhabiting the body of someone in the New West?
Mr. NORTON: I think that's the way he presents himself, yeah. I think that as the story goes on, you begin to realize that in some ways he's an extremely modern person or that, like the children who he's like in some ways becoming a spiritual advisor to, in a way he, he may be in fact be a product of this modern environment himself. But he, he does stand out. He stands apart because he is seeking something, a fantasy of the West, of a simpler time that may not exist any more.
(Soundbite of Down in the Valley)
Mr. NORTON: (As Harlan) Most days I just wanted to bounce out of my own heart, to walk under a sky full of stars, and hear nothing but the wind. And when I do speak, I want it to be with my true voice. Do you think you talk with your true voice?
Ms. WOOD: (As Tobe) I don't know. How do I know it?
Mr. NORTON: (As Harlan) 'Cause you don't hear other words in your head while you're talking. The things you really want to be saying. You don't say things that don't matter to you.
HANSEN: Yeah, he wants, he wants to get the girl and ride into the sunset and have every man be an honest man.
Mr. NORTON: Yeah, and people be kind, and you know, a place where he can be alone with the girl. It's kind of, you know, My Darling Clementine is his fantasy in a way. And I think what the children in the film respond to in him is that he's very, he's got a very poetic sense of what is wrong with the world and what has been lost. But as you've implied it, it masks some fissures in his own personality. Yeah.
HANSEN: The way the film progresses, little bits are revealed about Harlan throughout the movie. And there's a lot you don't want to talk about because then it sort of ruins the whole movie. But part of the thing is we're never sure what he's saying is true. Did you create a back story for him?
Mr. NORTON: Yeah, David and I talked a lot. We had a very specific sense in our minds of what Harlan's underlying truth was. But of course, you know, the most interesting thing in some ways is to decide how much of that are we going to reveal? What do we want people to know and is knowing necessarily the best experience you can give an audience? I don't think so. And I think David doesn't think that understanding is always better than mystery. I admire David's courage as a filmmaker in the sense that when I would put the question to him, how much do you want people to understand, he would always say, you know, I want them to understand that there's more here than meets the eye and that maybe all that's been presented is not what it seemed to be, but without - he said if everybody has a different interpretation of the truth, I think that's good.
And that's very unusual. I mean I think that a lot of films today have a tendency to button themselves up for you and make sure that you understand them very explicitly at the end. And I've personally always been a fan of movies that leave you to do a lot of the work yourself.
HANSEN: Do you find that Harlan has anything in common with, say, the characters you played in Primal Fear or in Fight Club, where you were -it was almost like double acting, you're acting as if you're acting?
Mr. NORTON: Well, any time that a character has secrets, anytime that a character has layers in his onion that slowly reveal themselves, that's always challenging. I mean Primal Fear is very explicitly sort of almost playing two roles. This is different in that Harlan, whatever the truth underneath, you only see flickers of it. He really commits to his persona in a way that stays fairly consistent. So it wasn't as much of a two role kind of a thing. But it, but I do think the comparison to Fight Club is interesting. I found that people who responded to Fight Club kind of psychically in a way, are really responding to this film in a similar way. It's a strange comparison to make because obviously Fight Club is not a western, and this is not, in its specifics, it's not like Fight Club. But I do think that it's rolling around in a very similar landscape, which is the landscape of how the modern world in some ways entombs people or traps them in ways that make them seek almost desperate escape in fantasy or in a, or the desire to create a new idea of yourself.
HANSEN: Can I ask a little bit about process? I mean the fact that movies are not made linearly or chronologically, and here we have, you know, some very subtle revelations that go on with your character, that for the audience's sake, have to be revealed slowly over the course of the film. What's it like for you to work in that kind of disjointed process?
Mr. NORTON: I think a lot of actors who work in film might tell you that if there's one thing about it that probably from the outside people don't understand is how fragmented the process is. The magical experience of movies is that you go in and they're this seamless experience. At their best, you just get enveloped in the flow of them. But the actual process of doing it is so - disjointed is a good word. It's broken up into tiny pieces. They're not done in order.
I think that tracking the emotional line of a character and of a story through that process is definitely one of the most challenging parts of it. One of the things that I liked about making Down in the Valley is that some movies, and it's not to knock the films, they serve a different purpose, but when you make a heist movie, you're really more referring to the script and you're going, okay, wait, the jigsaw puzzle is more straightforward in some sense and when you're doing a part you know how it fits.
When you're making a movie like Down in the Valley, as an actor you can find yourself really at sea in the sense that you can be working on something and going, well how the hell do I know that this connects with everything else? It's all so strange. You know, just where are we? Where are we and what are we doing? And are we totally out of the boundaries here? Are we anywhere near where we want to be? Or are we anywhere near something that's going to fit with the rest of what we're doing? And I remember doing People vs. Larry Flynt, I was amazed at how fluid Milos Forman was in the way he approached the work each day. It shocked me and it almost, as an actor, it threw me, 'cause I came from the theater and I use to, I started off in movies thinking that if you shoot a scene and it doesn't play like a play right in front of you all in one take that you haven't gotten it. And Milos was one of the first people who really, I think, illuminated for me how plastic film is as a medium. And how much the process of filming is actually about gathering clay to sculpt later. It's not an edited film. You don't shoot an edited film.
And time's gone by, I've realized I appreciate more and more those processes where you really do feel that you're kind of flying by the seat of your pants. It produces more daring work, I think, in me at least.
HANSEN: Edward Norton stars in the new film Down in the Valley. It's in theaters now. He joined us from our New York bureau.
Thanks a lot for your time.
Mr. NORTON: I think it was fun talking to you. Thanks.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.