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Everybody’s Talking but Him : Edward Norton Lets His Star-Making Turn in ‘Primal Fear’ Speak for Itself

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a scenario too often repeated in Hollywood.

A young, unknown actor draws rave reviews in his first film. The town begins to buzz. He is courted by big-time agents. Then the hype begins. The magazine interviews. The photo shoots. The TV talk-show circuit.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 18, 1996 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 18, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Artistic director--The artistic director of New York’s Signature Theatre was misidentified in Tuesday’s Calendar. He is James Houghton.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 19, 1996 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Edward Norton--A quote from Interview magazine--"this whole celebrity world is weird anyway [and] yet so right for parody"--was mistakenly attributed to Edward Norton in a profile of the actor in Tuesday’s Calendar section. The comment was made by Ben Stiller in a separate interview in the same issue of Interview.

Suddenly, everything begins to hinge on the success of his next movie. And if that movie doesn’t reach expectations, people quickly dismiss his once-budding career.

Edward Norton has chosen to do none of that.

Norton, 26, is receiving stellar reviews for his pivotal supporting role as altar boy/murder suspect Aaron Stampler in the Richard Gere legal thriller “Primal Fear.” Some in the industry are even comparing Norton’s introduction on the big screen to Dustin Hoffman’s breakthrough role in “The Graduate.”

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But unlike many actors on the cusp of fame, Norton is keeping a low profile at a time of his initial triumph.

One reason for the low profile, according to sources, is that Norton realizes that revealing too much about himself might detract from the rural, backward character he portrays on the screen--potentially clouding the impact with audiences. So Norton skipped Paramount’s press junket.

But the actor and his handlers also want to avoid the celebrity roller coaster that so often chews up young talent.

“I’ve seen them turn into Brad Pitt or I’ve also seen them have their moment and fade away,” one source said. “Edward wants to let his work speak for himself. His view of it is, the less you know about an actor, the more you can enjoy their performance.”

Indeed, Norton’s first interview was given not to a journalist but to actress Drew Barrymore in this month’s Interview magazine. Barrymore, who co-stars with Norton in Woody Allen’s next film, the ensemble musical “Everyone Says You Love Me,” weighs in with the question: “Now, tell me where you’re from?”

Norton replies: “I’m from Columbia, Maryland. But I would rather not go too much into that side of things for personal and professional reasons.”

“You’re a tough nut to crack, Norton,” Barrymore tells him.

Norton goes on to say that “this whole celebrity world is weird anyway” and “yet so right for parody.” He adds: “I think that the more people know about you, the more they have to work to believe you when you’re in a role.”

This penchant for privacy can breed misinformation. Some believe Norton attended the prestigious Yale Drama School, but he actually only performed in some stage productions at the Ivy League campus. Norton graduated from Yale with a degree in history.

There is no confusion, however, about Norton’s soaring career.

Since his scorching screen test on “Primal Fear” more than a year ago, Norton has signed with high-powered agent Ed Limato at International Creative Management and Brian Swardstrom of Banner Entertainment, his personal manager.

Norton’s screen test was such a hot property, in fact, that it immediately came to the attention of Juliet Taylor, Woody Allen’s casting director. Norton met twice with Allen, who then cast him as an attorney opposite Barrymore in Allen’s film, which also stars Tim Roth, Julia Roberts, Goldie Hawn, Allen and others.

After wrapping that film, Norton plunged into his next project: “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Directed by Milos Forman, the film is a biographical movie based on the 1st Amendment legal battles of Hustler magazine publisher Flynt (Woody Harrelson). Norton plays Flynt’s attorney and friend, Alan Issacman.

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Altogether a dazzling year for an actor not far removed from the New York stage.

In the spring of 1994, Norton had come to the attention of Edward Albee, whose plays were being performed by the Signature Theatre Co. in New York.

“When [Albee and I] saw him audition, we thought he was extraordinary,” recalled James Naughton, Signature’s artistic director. Norton was cast in Albee’s play “Fragments.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, Paramount Pictures was having trouble casting the crucial role of Aaron in “Primal Fear.” The studio had set its sights on Leonardo DiCaprio (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”), but the actor passed.

DiCaprio’s decision touched off a casting hunt that stretched from California to England. In all, 2,100 actors were seen.

If anyone in Hollywood deserves credit for discovering Norton, it is Deborah Aquila, senior vice president of features casting at Paramount.

In searching for someone to portray Aaron, who comes from rural Kentucky, Aquila said she was searching for an actor who could project innocence, yet also be able to “turn it on and off.”

“Edward walked in with an Appalachian accent that was perfect,” Aquila recalled. “This kid had me over a barrel completely. He had me convinced he lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

Later, Norton confessed that not only was he Eastern born and bred, but spoke fluent Japanese.

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Those who have seen Norton’s two screen tests said that many of the actors vying for the role simply took a seat and began exchanging dialogue. Norton, however, chose to sit in a corner and he decided the character should have a stutter.

Director Gregory Hoblit said what gave Aaron’s character such strength was Norton’s ability to appear as an ordinary person.

“We needed someone young and believable and who had a certain innocence about them,” Hoblit said. “Edward had all of those qualities.”

Producer Gary Lucchesi said Aaron’s character actually benefits from having an unknown actor play him. “Audiences didn’t know what to make from him and were not expecting the dramatic twists that may have come from a more recognizable actor,” he said.

Howard Koch Jr., “Primal Fear’s” executive producer, recalled that during the first few hours of filming, some crew members on the set would yell out, “Hey, Norton!” because the actor’s name conjured up the Art Carney character on the 1950s Jackie Gleason TV series, “The Honeymooners.” But the crew quickly came to respect Norton’s talent, Koch said, and the ribbing stopped.


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