Ed Norton - A dark star with plenty of fight left in him

Marvel may have dumped him as Hulk but now Ed Norton is back to his best, slugging it out opposite Robert De Niro, finds Matt Mueller

Few actors bolt out of the gate with as much bolshie career promise as Ed Norton. Earning an Oscar nomination for his debut role as a psychopathic choirboy in Primal Fear, he followed up with a string of riveting turns in the dark, fascinating likes of American History X and Fight Club. Critics declared him America's next great actor and he put his newfound cachet to industrious use, directing 2000's Keeping the Faith, salvaging then girlfriend Salma Hayek's passion project Frida with an uncredited script rewrite and racking up screen gigs with Spike Lee (25th Hour), Milos Forman (The People vs Larry Flynt) and Ridley Scott (as Kingdom of Heaven's leprous, masked king).

If that early, seemingly charmed ride has encountered a few obstacles in recent years, Norton's skill for delivering remarkable, arresting turns remains intact, as his latest film, Stone, proves. The actor has created a fascinating, one-of-a-kind character for John Curran's complex psychological drama: Gerald "Stone" Creeson, a misguided and manipulative convict who pits his wits against Robert De Niro's passive-aggressive, avidly Christian parole officer Jack Mabry and gains a peculiar faith while Mabry loses his. Norton wasn't all that keen when Curran, who also directed him in 2006's The Painted Veil, came calling, but the director won him over with his thematic take on the story.

"For me, it's not just character, it's what the thing is about that matters," says Norton. "In this case, the character was so thinly sketched but John said to me, 'This is about spiritual authenticity and the consequences of not being authentic.' He didn't care how I approached the character as long as he seemed like the least likely candidate for spiritual transformation. He told me to take it way out there."

Which Norton does, adopting an impressive set of corn rows and a voice that sounds like Creeson's being slowly strangled. It's a commanding performance (De Niro's great too), so it's startling that Stone's UK distributor Lionsgate have bypassed cinemas and released the film straight onto DVD. Adding insult to injury, it's the second star turn from Norton this year to suffer that fate, following Leaves of Grass. Both films embody the kind of challenging independent fare that increasingly struggles for air, so you can't pin the blame for an overall trend on Norton – but it's not stretching matters to say that these are wobbly times for the actor's career. If sparring with De Niro isn't deemed worthy of getting Norton back on to UK cinema screens, what is?

At 41, the actor finds himself at a crossroads. His name can bring an independent project like Stone to fruition, but he's not the film industry force he was – and his relationship with Hollywood has always been a complicated one anyway. Of his most broadly commercial outings, he took The Italian Job to fulfil a contractual commitment (he owed Paramount a film) after Primal Fear; The Score and Red Dragon offered the opportunity to work with other pre-eminent acting talents; and The Incredible Hulk allowed him to shape an effects-based Hollywood blockbuster from the ground up. "A lot of why I do something is just the novelty of the experience," he states, "though I would say the things that I'm drawn to most personally are things that I feel have some sort of finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist or that are grappling with complex issues. Those are the films that always meant the most to me growing up."

Early on, he got that balance of zeitgeist and complexity right with risky projects like American History X and Fight Club, and he agrees that the start-up years threw up a world of endless opportunity. But, he hastens to add, "You have these chapters in your life and I was never trying to have a masterplan. I believe that you have to follow the stream. You can't control everything that comes to you. You have choices but I don't see how I could have done it differently."

Although relationships with Hayek and Courtney Love plastered his name in gossip columns for years, celebrity has never held much interest for Norton, and he still refuses to discuss his private life. For the past few years, he's been seeing Shauna Robertson, a producer at Judd Apatow's production company, although it's a bicoastal romance – she's in LA, he lives in New York, his long-time residence. But even dating a Hollywood power producer, he's arguably less engaged with films than he once was, turning his focus towards personal issues by becoming a celebrity eco-warrior for conservation and sustainable development (he was appointed a UN Goodwill Ambassador for biodiversity last summer).

From an outsider's perspective, it seems that some of the assertive brio that's propelled him through much of his career has been lost. And maybe that's not surprising after he was publicly dragged through the mud last summer by Marvel Studios, whose CEO Kevin Feige ejected Norton from the role of the Hulk in Joss Whedon's The Avengers and rubbed salt in the wound by declaring the company wanted an actor "who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members".

I found it a cheap and unnecessary representation that it was about things other than money," sighs Norton. "They came to me avidly to talk about it and then at the end of the day it was just flat out a business decision." Further branding Marvel's dirty-laundry exhibition "low, unprofessional and very dishonest", Norton nonetheless says it hasn't been keeping him up at night, fretting about his tarnished reputation. "I would say that blew back on them much worse than it blew back on me," he avers. "I couldn't have been happier with the experience that I had making the film, but nor do I feel any kind of intensity about doing it again. A really good friend of mine's going to do it now [Mark Ruffalo] and he's awesome! Marvel's going to have to deal with their own karma – they've got bigger problems than me."

"And how could I get anxious over something like that?" he continues. "I couldn't ask for a more blessed position. The way that the work I've done has found its way into people's lives, it's everything that I got into the business to achieve so I just don't feel this relentless intensity about climbing higher anymore. I've got plenty of other things in my life to be getting on with."

That could be the crux of the dilemma for anyone hoping to see Norton mount a triumphant comeback to UK cinemas: the fire that drives brilliant actors to seek out colossal challenges doesn't burn as brightly as it once did. That's not to say that he's planning to quit (although he's planted that seed in other interviews). Norton still wants to direct and star in an adaptation of Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem's novel about a detective living with Tourette's ("One day...!"), he recently signed for Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom and he's co-producing the HBO mini-series Undaunted Courage, about the 19th-century expedition of American explorers Lewis and Clark, with his Fight Club partner-in-destruction Brad Pitt. There's even discussion of the pair reuniting on screen. "It's a possibility," he says. "We've talked about it but me and Brad being in something together is a complicated thing to put together."

It will only take one stellar success story to propel an actor of Norton's calibre back into the wider equation. But as busy as he's keeping these days, it might not always be in front of the camera . "I try not to work when I don't feel it," he vouches. "I don't have anything to prove to anybody, which is a lovely place to be."

'Stone' is out now on DVD

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?