“The one who pulls focus is as important as anyone in front of the camera”: in conversation with Edward Norton

As I sit down to start the interview, I’m trying to square Edward Norton the person with Edward Norton as I know him on the big screen. Before me is the Hulk, then it’s Tyler Durden. It’s Derek and then it’s Miles Bron. But, in reality, I’m sitting across a family man, with his phone in hand. He’s got a wry smile as he looks up and asks me which paper I work for and where I come from. He’s tired after his talk in the Union chamber, but seems happy to be chatting with me, as his wife and children explore the Old Library downstairs.

Edward Norton, known for his roles in Fight Club, American History X and, more recently, Glass Onion, visited Oxford on 4th June, where he gave a talk at the Oxford Union debating society. A man passionate about environmentalism, he believes more in collaboration to effect change, rather than individual fame or status.

What role do you believe film and storytelling plays in shaping public opinion and driving conservation efforts, and how has your involvement in environmental causes influenced your choice of projects?

I’ve generally felt that documentary form is superior for dealing with the complexities of environmental sustainability, educating and provoking people toward action. Some of the early treatments of [environmental issues] have been disaster films and I don’t think those help really. I just worked on this series called Extrapolations on Apple TV that Scott Burns wrote. He’s the writer of Contagion and An Inconvenient Truth and a number of other really good films about complex issues. I call [Extrapolations] the Black Mirror of environmental disaster. It imagines in a very sophisticated and science-based way what the social, moral, and physical realities coming for us are. I thought it was a great example of using narrative skill and the imaginative power of storytelling to project what could be our imminent realities in a really compelling way that provokes thought. So the truth is, this thing I’ve just done is almost the first time that I’ve found something in my career to do something on these themes.

I suppose Fight Club is an attack on social issues as well, tackling consumerism.

Yes, but I think that’s more of an indictment of the material, consumer culture that leaves people feeling hollow. I think it’s more more of a spiritual analysis than an environmental one.

Then this new project, Extrapolations, is truly the environmentally focused project.

Yeah, Extrapolations really focuses intensively on the negative impacts that we could be facing from climate change.

Are you looking to do more of this in the future?

Hm. I like the idea of it, but of course, as with all things – it’s about encountering work that you feel solid about. The reason I did Extrapolations is that I think Scott is such a great writer. I really enjoyed this recent project and we need more of it for sure.

Having donated to Biden’s campaign in 2020, do you feel there is a political aspect to climate change?

I’ve been a low grade contributor to the Democratic Party. Anyways, I don’t think that the notion that environmental sustainability, environmental regulation, protection of natural resources, is really in any way a left leaning agenda. That whole idea is patently absurd, it’s ludicrous.

The most positive thing in this regard is that I think that we are in a tipping point, an authentic tipping point. The global financial markets have realised that the clean energy revolution and the overall clean tech is probably the largest investment opportunity of the next hundred years. I think that corporations are grasping that on a balance sheet basis they will be out performed by companies that work out carbon
neutrality. It’s not just because of the marketing optics but because water conservation, energy conservation, and so on are all going to be cheaper, it will produce superior economic results.

Many people who have been arguing for defence of the environment on the basis of the intrinsic value of nature may not like that the strongest lever might be the economic one. But I think it’s very positive that we have an accelerating sense that extractive business models that degrade the environment are going to be inferior business models.

What is the reality is of being a celebrity? On one hand, you’re a human being who cares about conservation and has a family. At the same you’re this huge movie star. How do these two truths come together?

It’s a strange thing that our culture has elevated people in the performing arts, in music and film and, of course, sports. I get it on one level because I certainly remember the experience of films in my youth; it had a big impact. There was a kind of totemic power in how they shaped your sense of the world. The magic trick of great actors had an impact on me too. But, I think that the idea that it has as much cultural collateral as we’ve put on it is still strange and in some ways unhealthy. You look at people who win the Nobel prize, who work their entire career for this one moment. On the other side, you’ll see twelve award shows for the same film in one year.

If I say ‘Andre Geim’, who won the Nobel Prize, people wouldn’t generally know who that is.

No, exactly and I think our cultural priorities are a little out of balance in that sense.

Linking that to film, you could say those working on movies behind the scenes don’t get lauded in the same way the actors do.

Precisely, and the truth of the matter is that working on films is a very technical process. The environment of it is mostly unions – everybody working on films is in unions. It’s a trade-craft: there’s electricians and lighting and makeup and everything. At it’s best it’s a very egalitarian experience because everybody relies on everybody else. The one who pulls focus is as important as anyone in front of the camera. You’re not done until they’re satisfied, you know what I mean? I think that’s really cool. The
experience doesn’t have that hype around it. The hype only comes in these really narrow moments.

Is it narrow though? Don’t you have this constant fame as a big celebrity?

I think being well known is a manageable disease. It’s just like having eczema: it’s not always pleasant, but it’s not gonna kill you and you learn to manage it. You learn the tricks for navigating it and at best you try to figure out how you can leverage it to do something positive. In a rational world, there would be an Oscars of science every year, there’d be a BAFTA for the best teachers and they’d get the same public celebration.

Image credit: Bridget Laudien via a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license

Image description: Edward Norton in 2010.