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Actors on Acting: Edward Norton, SAG Conversations


In the current short-attention-span climate of media interviews for actors to promote their films we are regaled with daytime lifestyle segments, late night talk-show banter and an endless parade of red carpet walks to hear celebrities shout over the throngs to say how much they liked doing a movie and show us what clothes they can afford. All of them are doing their due diligence in the maelstrom of film promotion as we watch them drink, eat and talk with one another while various logos and theme songs blast through our home systems to try and differentiate which award show we are watching.

Save for a few long form podcasts (WTF, The Nerdist, etc) and the occasional 'Charlie Rose' episode there is little along the way for a connoisseur of the acting medium to really sup upon besides the same few sound-bites hauled out for the award-season trail. Then again, there are very few actors who actually can talk about the craft of acting for more than a few minutes and make it compelling.

Then there's Edward Norton.

The SAG Foundation has been hosting some long-form interviews for actors available on their YouTube channel. These range from cast discussions to individual career comprehensives. Many are a full hour, some longer. Here, Edward Norton, one of the most eloquent and insightful orators on the profession at large graces us with a complete two-hour sit down with Variety interviewer Jenelle Riley. He is here because he has two films in contention at the Academy Awards with 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' and 'Birdman'. Yet, the conversation is so comprehensive you forget that fact until they come back around later.

As an actor what excites me about this interview is Norton's absolute willingness to discuss the craft of acting in an intelligent, simple and concise way while also eschewing the need to be beholden to any one technique or teacher. Knowing he has a room full of actors, Norton dives right into the history of the Group Theatre and the various branches of Stanislavsky's system that grew forth from it. How after the passing of Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg the dogma of each of their respective teachings became hardened scripture and those carrying the mantle of those teachers were getting further and further rigid to its principles.

Along the way he attempts to dispel some myths from the lexicon of his off-camera dealings such as his audition for 'Primal Fear' where he earned his Taft-Hartley to his dealings with turbulent director Tony Kaye on 'American History X'. There are many anecdotes along the way (my favorite being his inability to get a waiting job) but more compelling is simply Norton's thoughtful and evocative framing of the work and those he collaborated with in achieving it.

When he finally gets to 'Birdman' and 'The Grand Budapest' he says something every actor and teacher should hear. What many of the techniques that have disseminated down from on high often can't instruct is style. When walking onto a Wes Anderson set and the details and direction are so specific one has to have a sensitivity to the artist and their voice. Conversely when that energy is manic and charging forward as in 'Birdman' one must also adapt to whatever creature is evolving in that time and place. Internalizing within oneself against such voices to grip onto a singular technique is to close oneself off to what is happening.

Here it is-

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