Q&A: Edward Norton on ‘Budapest,’ ‘Birdman’ and final bows

Edward Norton in Oscar films
Edward Norton is in two Oscar-nominated films this year, “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and is nominated for supporting actor for his role in “Birdman.”
(Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles Times)

In “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson’s candy-bright fable of decades in the life of the title European edifice, he’s Inspector Henckels, a late-1930s police officer and a gentleman, a bright flash of civility before a dark era. The film received nine Academy Award nominations.

In “Birdman,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s loopy, dark comedy about show business and strange miracles, he’s actor Mike Shiner, a last-minute hire for the vanity Broadway project backed by Michael Keaton’s fading ex-superstar. It too received nine Academy Award nominations, including his supporting actor nomination.

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Discussing both films, Edward Norton speaks with the intelligent consideration that’s a hallmark of his career, occasionally cut by a quick, funny aside. To him, the honor is in being nominated — but sincerely, and for well-thought-out reasons: “The academy is, at least, a body of the people who actually make films, so to the degree that any of this stuff matters at all, it’s the nicest of compliments.”


With “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” you have the meticulous design of Wes Anderson, and “Birdman” seems like a more freewheeling affair.

I think, despite the kind of tonal differences and the experiences that the films delivered to the viewer — in terms of one being more meticulous and one seeming to flow in this kind of exuberant tumble — the truth is, both were the product of an enormous amount of preparation and very careful planning.

Wes Anderson has cast you twice as an authority figure.

I think my characters with Wes, so far, have been authority figures in uniform only and have, in fact, been humanists wearing a uniform. Henckels is an inspector who remembers what noblesse oblige actually meant. I felt like, in “Grand Budapest,” I was sort of the Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive” of the piece. He is the law, but he is the law with a conscience and a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.


Your character in “Birdman” spits out observations like “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” How do you keep that from going from zesty to bitter?

[Laughs.] Well, you know, not that bitter is inherently off the table as an option for that character ... . There’s the old line, how many actors does it take to screw in a light bulb? A hundred. One to do it, ninety-nine to say, “I could have done it so much better.” I think there is some of that in Shiner, as there probably is in every actor. What balances it is whatever his vanity, whatever his covetousness, the very fame that he eschews ... he would love a little more of. I think his feet are also authentically anchored in a real belief in what he does.

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“Birdman” is a film of big concepts, including the nature and character of acting, but then you showed up one day and you’re shooting a slap-fight in a Speedo.

Alejandro said it really well, comparing this film to his other films (“Babel,” “21 Grams”): “I’m not any less interested in what’s difficult about life. I’m just maybe a little more able to laugh at it.” In that sense — this will sound dangerously highfalutin — but when I read it, it reminded me of films like “8½" and what I love about Fellini’s films, which is the glorious ambition to get inside the human head. Not just the artist’s head, but inside insecurity, self-doubt, vanity, lust, covetousness, noble ambition, and just deal with it all in a way that’s both critical and compassionate at the same time.

Someone once said, “The best thing about an Academy Award nomination is you know what’s going to come before your name in your obituary.”

[Laughs.] God, I hope there’s quite a few things in front of that, even.