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Edward Norton: The incredible sulk

It's one of the summer's biggest blockbusters, and he's one of Hollywood's biggest stars. But now Edward Norton has fallen out with the film's producers. Rob Sharp uncovers a monstrous row

This weekend, the makers of the new Incredible Hulk film – the story of an ordinary man with a destructive alter ego – are experiencing an unfortunate case of life imitating art.

The opening two days of a major movie are traditionally the time when actors do interviews with magazines and appear on television talk shows. So one would have expected Edward Norton, the star of The Incredible Hulk, opening in cinemas worldwide today, to have a busy diary. But yesterday it emerged that Norton has embarked on a month-long holiday to Africa.

The news could not come at a worse time. The movie is competing with a bevy of Hollywood rivals, including another recent comic adaptation, Iron Man. Combine the negative headlines of Norton's departure with the slightly sceptical early reports about the film and what you have on your hands is an oversized green turkey in tight, ripped shorts.

Nick James, editor of the film magazine Sight & Sound, said: "It's certainly surprising. It's usually written into stars' contracts that they're supposed to do a certain amount of publicity – especially for such a big-budget blockbuster. Edward Norton has been in a wide variety of films, so interviews would provide good human interest angles for the press. His absence will affect the publicity."

While the Los Angeles Times reports that Norton has in all likelihood sealed his image as "a prickly perfectionist", others have not been so kind, labelling him not so much the Incredible Hulk, as the Incredible Sulk.

This is not the first time Norton has provoked controversy. The press surrounding his curriculum vitae paints a portrait of an ambitious 38-year-old control freak aiming to punch above his weight. The actor shot to mainstream recognition after 1998's American History X. While the actor won plaudits for his portrayal of a white supremacist, reports emerged of a slough of arguments between the star and the film's director, Tony Kaye. Norton was granted final cut of the film after producers exercised their contractual power to take it away from Kaye. In response, Kaye said Norton had replaced him to put himself in more scenes, slamming the actor in trade-paper advertisements that derided him as "narcissistic".

Fast forward to 2002 and Death to Smoochy, about a children's show host targeted for assassination. Here, he showed he could over-obsess about image. Despite portraying what the costume designer Jane Ruhm described as a hippie, Norton commissioned a suit made of hemp from Armani. "I could have made Edward a great suit without having to go through millions of phone calls and negotiations," Ruhm told the film magazine Premiere. "In the end, I didn't want him to wear those clothes but ... he did."

Watch a scene from The Incredible Hulk
The negative reports continued with Red Dragon, released in the same year. The film's director Brett Ratner told The Times in 2003: "Edward's instinct is going to be, 'I have to take over this film'. That's both a blessing and a curse."

Add to this 2002's Frida, a portrait of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Although the screenwriters Gregory Nava, Diane Lake and Clancy Sigal received credit for the script, the producer-star Salma Hayek hired Norton, her boyfriend at the time, to research the role extensively. This resulted in the version of the script that eventually reached the screen. Explaining his credit omission for the film, Norton said: "I got shafted by the Writers' Guild at the last minute, but I wrote the draft that got made."

Then there was his reluctant turn in the 2003 remake of The Italian Job. After his breakthrough role in the 1996 courtroom drama Primal Fear, Norton signed a three-picture deal with Paramount. He and the studio negotiated for eight years over what Norton would do to fulfil his contractual obligation. He was eventually cast in The Italian Job, with the threat of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit if he failed to appear. Critics described his performance as "reluctant".

What is clear is that the actor vaunts something of an intellect. He was born in Boston in 1969, and grew up in Maryland. He attended Yale University, graduating in 1991 before moving to New York to act off-Broadway. In Primal Fear, he took the role of Aaron Stampler, an innocent young man accused of a brutal murder, for which he picked up a Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. The foundations of his career were thus secured. Off screen, he is generally known for his reluctance to embrace his celebrity status, and once said in an interview: "If I ever have to stop taking the subway, I'm gonna have a heart attack."

But while a prolific actor, and boasting a slew of good-looking female conquests under his belt (Courtney Love and Hayek among them), Norton is no conventional leading man. Many critics believe he could not carry a film or project with the same sex appeal as, say, Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt. Yet he is still more than willing to throw his sometimes monstrous weight around.

Norton is believed to have come on board with The Incredible Hulk role because he saw some kind of potential in the Bruce Banner character. As Dan Jolin, features editor of the film magazine Empire, explains: "I think Norton is very serious in a sense. He signed up to the job as a co-writer as well as a star. I think he did this because there were some interesting ideas in the last Hulk, directed by Ang Lee [from 2003], which was a serious film, though it turned out to be an intriguing box-office failure. So the Banner character attracts a different kind of talent and, as a result, Norton was clearly passionate about it."

What happened afterwards seems to fit the emerging picture. While the producer has not gone on the record, the general consensus is that creative differences occurred. Where once Norton may have been credited with the screenwriting role, either in his own name or under a pseudonym, the credit is rumoured to have been removed. This is believed to have occurred when it became clear the project would be much more commercial – and action-oriented – than initially anticipated.

The Radio 4 film critic Nigel Floyd goes some way to explaining Norton's caprice. "I think he's an interesting character," he says. "But he seems to be out of kilter with current cinema. He is very cerebral and I think his performances are over-cerebral at a time when summer blockbusters really are not. You do not need a cerebral actor to appear in a Hulk film. I think he might have been at home in the 1950s or maybe the 1970s. This is when a bunch of actors took control of projects to make more interesting films. I think he wants to exercise more control. But you've got to have more money behind you before you can do that.

"I don't think he can continue to get away with it. While lots of his films are interesting, they haven't made the big money, and if they've succeeded it's not necessarily because it has been him in them. Can you imagine someone saying on a Saturday night, 'Let's go see the latest Ed Norton film?' That's the question you have to ask yourself."

Floyd says that while Norton's input has helped some films, such as 2005's Down in the Valley, The Incredible Hulk's producers would not necessarily welcome the same degree of meddling.

All might not be completely lost, however. Norton has done some publicity, appearing at the US premiere of the picture on Sunday, skulking up a specially dyed green carpet with perfunctory geniality. But his other appearance hasn't been typical of an actor's PR work.

On Thursday's edition of the Jimmy Kimmel Live talk show, presumably in a pre-recorded piece, he joked about his own tendencies to veer towards rage. One comment was: "We have some serious work to do here; we're trying to resuscitate this franchise from the fucking cellar... so just shove off." Another was even more prescient. "This is like my first big action movie and this is what I fucking get... This is not what I fucking signed up for."