Edward Norton on 'The Painted Veil' The Painted Veil is a love story set in the 1920s about a young English couple and a journey that takes them to one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth. Edward Norton talks about what drew him to the film.
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Edward Norton on 'The Painted Veil'

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Edward Norton on 'The Painted Veil'

Edward Norton on 'The Painted Veil'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In "The Painted Veil," Edward Norton and Naomi Watts played the roles of Dr. Walter Fane and his unfaithful wife, Kitty. They are an English couple in China in the 1920s.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Painted Veil")

Mr. EDWARD NORTON (Actor): (As Dr. Walter Fane) I'd like to say something to you. I came to see you to ask you if you'll marry me.

Ms. NAOMI WATTS (Actress): (As Kitty Fane) You could knock me down with a feather.

Mr. NORTON: Could you not tell I'm in love with you?

Ms WATTS: You never showed it.


SIEGEL: The film, which opened last week, is the third attempt to breed cinematic life into Somerset Maugham's novel about marriage and infidelity. This time, the Fanes share starring roles with a character that was only in the background before - China.

"The Painted Veil" was filmed in China. It was a co-production with the Chinese film industry. The Chinese countryside where Dr. Fane goes to study a cholera epidemic is the real Chinese countryside. For Edward Norton, who studied some Chinese history at Yale, that was much of the attraction of making "The Painted Veil." And he says filming in China made it easier to make a movie about being in China.

Mr. NORTON: As an actor, a lot of times, you work on a film and you can't help but be - you're combating the artifice of it that's present all around you, and very rarely does the actual experience of making the film in any way feed into what the film is about. But in this case, we were far from home. We were working across the frustrations of translation. And that's very much what the film is about, that's what the characters are going through, so there was an interesting parallel experience in that.

SIEGEL: China in the '20s is this panoramic setting of the story, of "The Painted Veil." But the story - it's huge. It's vast, but the story sounds very small, intimate, personal story.

Mr. NORTON: Well, I think, Sydney Pollack, I think, famously said that all great films are really love stories. And I think that that's certainly true in this case. It's at core, as you said, set against a very epic backdrop. It's -this is very much a story of, I think, the way that a man and a woman struggle through forgiveness to get back to love in their relationship.

John calls it a relationship in reverse. The story of a relationship -

SIEGEL: John Curran, the director.

Mr. NORTON: Yeah. And I thought it was a great line. He said it the first time we met and it was lot other things that really made me feel that he understood the love story, sort of, profoundly. Because I think what Somerset Maugham's really getting at with his title, "The Painted Veil," is that all of us, often, we really fall in love with the illusions we have about a person as much as who they really are. And that, I think, is in some sense the painted veil that's in front of our vision of the truth.

And when our illusions get torn away, it can be a really, a process of disenchantment and pain.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Painted Veil")

Mr. NORTON: I'm afraid that you thought me a bigger fool than I am.

Ms. WATTS: I don't know what you're talking about.

Mr. NORTON: Don't you.

SIEGEL: In this scene, Norton's character confronts his wife with her adultery.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Painted Veil")

Mr. NORTON: I might think about how hard I've tried to make you happy, debasing myself, acting as though I was as thrilled as you by the latest gossip, and its vulgar. And it's (unintelligible) that you are -

If you interrupt me again, I'll strangle you.

SIEGEL: It's the scene, he says, that both he and Naomi Watts were most struck by in the screenplay.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Painted Veil")

Mr. NORTON: I hoped that one day there'd be something more. I was wrong. You don't have it in you.

Ms. WATTS: If a man hasn't what's necessary to make a woman love him, then that's his fault.

Mr. NORTON: It's a scene in which it's two people who just cut right at each other's, you know, weakest spots. And it was really savage.

SIEGEL: What did you and Naomi, two excellent actors, what do you say about it? What's the huddle about the scene before you do it?

Mr. NORTON: I think if I remember it, in some sense, it was about how hot does it get and how quickly? How long do these two people attempt to keep it polite. You know, how long does that British civility in sort of, you know, discussing the proper way to handle an affair, hold before it breaks down into, you know, that kind of George and Martha Virginia Wolfe type. You know, just lacerating attacks on each other. And the great thing about working with John Curran is he is not afraid to have you try it a lot of different ways.

One of the things that was challenging about this film is that we had to work badly out of sequence, and we had to that scene very early in the process without having really done much of what led up to it. And so there's really nothing you can do but try one a little cooler, one a little hotter, and one still hotter than that, and trust John to find the right pitch for it.

SIEGEL: As you were getting involved in making this, as you were deciding to do it, did you go back and look at the two previous movie adaptations that -

Mr. NORTON: I didn't. Actually, I did read the script before I read - the script led me to the book. And so I actually did go back, and I have never seen the Garbo one.

SIEGEL: Yeah. I was kind of waiting until that, preparing to talk with you that there was a Garbo picture, and there's a terrible movie made in the '50s.

Mr. NORTON: Right. The "Seventh Sin." I think that's -

SIEGEL: "Seventh Sin." Yeah.

Mr. NORTON: I don't think any of us that "The Painted Veil" - any of the previous films had a presence that made us, you know, reconsider taking it on.

SIEGEL: This was not like doing the second "Manchurian Candidate."

Mr. NORTON: No. No. Which I thought the better of.

SIEGEL: Of books or stories or places that are out there that do not currently involve you, are there characters you would love to play of stories you would love to be in it, in a movie?

Mr. NORTON: Oh, sure. I mean, I've worked for a few years already on adapting Jonathan Latham's great book "Motherless Brooklyn" into a film. We're still working on the script of it, sort of a noir story about a detective with Turret's.

SIEGEL: If I came to you, if were in the movie business and I came to you, a sure thing block buster film, it's set in the 28th century and you're in the spaceship and you're sort of crinkly forehead or something, do you tell me to get out of your office right away or might you hear me out?

Mr. NORTON: Oh, I hear just about anything out. I never - I'm always looking for something new under the sun. It's hard to find fresh stories, so I never rule anything out. I mean, you know, if someone had come to me and said it the wrong way, a British couple in China, you know, in the '20s, I might have gone snooz. You know, but when I saw this and felt that had the potential to be one of those films with real scale, both emotionally and in the landscape, I couldn't resist it.

SIEGEL: How often do films come across the desk or do people stop you and say there's fireman was a bipolar disorder and he's got -

Mr. NORTON: Right. You know, it - once you get into the business of making stories professionally, you find that everybody has got one. And a lot of them are good, but you just can't do them all.

SIEGEL: This is a common part of your life, this being pitched ideas for a script.

Mr. NORTON: Yeah. Yeah. Even - everybody.

CONAN: Everybody, even though you're about to say even.

Mr. NORTON: Yeah. I'm going to say, like, you know, I've been being examined by a doctor and had them, you know, tell me a great book that they love and (unintelligible) to be movie. And I've said, you know, give me the good news first and then let's talk about your story.

SIEGEL: Well, Edward Norton, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. NORTON: A pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's actor Edward Norton. His new movie, co-starring Naomi Watts, is "The Painted Veil."

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