Two-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton once said the key to capturing his characters’ core is their shoes.
In his latest movie, Moonrise Kingdom, it seems he’s made an exception to the rule, sporting a fetching pair of knee-length shorts as Scoutmaster Ward.
“You have to start with what Ward thinks and he loves the uniform. To him, it’s all a part of something he believes in, almost like a religion,” says the rather serious 42-year-old American actor.
Moonrise Kingdom is the latest offering from Wes Anderson, the film-maker behind The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr Fox.
As you’d expect from an Anderson film, it’s oddball and includes an impressive roll call of actors including Bruce Willis, Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton.
Norton, however, spends most of his screen time with a vast entourage of children in tow.
“I’ve worked with very well-known actors who were much more difficult than those kids were,” he says.
Though he describes Ward as “funny”, he notes it would have been a mistake to set out to do a comedic performance.
“The trick to Wes’s characters is that they’re incredibly serious and sincere about what they’re doing and there’s humour in that,” he explains. “The way Wes makes movies is more like making a drama. You have to play it straight.”
Melancholic and wistful, Anderson has suggested the film depicts a summer that many people wish they’d experienced while growing up, and the actor agrees.
“I don’t think most of us were brave enough to actually run away with the girl we had a crush on and I don’t think any of the ones I knew would have come away with me,” says Norton, who grew up in Maryland with an attorney father and English teacher mother.
He enrolled in his first acting class at the age of five after watching his babysitter appear in a musical version of Cinderella.
“I remember badgering my parents all the way home. I think I had a notion that if I joined quick enough, I could get into that play,” he says.
He acted in local productions throughout school but went on to study history and Japanese at Yale University before moving to Japan “for a long summer”.
On his return, he moved to New York and acted in off-Broadway productions while studying under the tutelage of theatre director Terry Schreiber.
His big break was beating more than 2,000 hopefuls to the role of an altar boy accused of murdering a priest in 1996’s Primal Fear.
The role earned him a Golden Globe and his first Oscar nomination, while the audition tape of the screen test he’d done created a buzz among many influential casting agents. “It was like a great rock band’s demo,” says Norton.
As a result he was cast in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You and The People Vs Larry Flynt opposite Woody Harrelson.
Professionally it was an amazing period but he endured heartbreak when his mother passed away in 1997 after being diagnosed with cancer.
“My whole grounding in theatre and Shakespeare was through an ongoing conversation with my mother, so it was bittersweet for her not to be able to share in all of this. I don’t know one single person on the planet who would have more pleasure from me doing this work.”
But he believes her death saved him from the worst excesses of the business.
“I’ve never felt a day of stress over work-related issues since then because, placed against those types of experiences, it’s utterly irrelevant,” he says.
Shortly after her death, Norton turned down the relative safety of a big budget Hollywood movie and “an enormous amount of money” to appear as a neo-Nazi skinhead in American History X, earning him a second Oscar nomination.
“I remember thinking I may never see a part like this again. I thought that was worth taking a stab at,” he says.
The same year he starred as an insomniac in David Fincher’s Fight Club opposite Brad Pitt, which was vilified on its release but is now considered generation defining.
“It’s a stunningly brilliant piece of cinema,” says Norton. “We thought it was going to be a big needle right in the eye of a lot of other people and knew they were going to hate it. But we made it anyway and that was exciting.”
In 2000 he made his directorial debut with Keeping The Faith, starring opposite Ben Stiller. Norton dedicated the film to his mum.
He worked consistently throughout the Noughties appearing in such films as Frida, Red Dragon, The Italian Job, The Illusionist and The Incredible Hulk and then appeared to take a break. The truth is he’s been busy overseeing the construction of a new theatre in New York and writing a new mini-series for HBO based on Stephen Ambrose’s acclaimed book Undaunted Courage, a co-production between his and Brad Pitt’s companies about the famous American explorers Lewis and Clarke.
This summer, he’s also starring in Tony Gilroy’s hugely anticipated The Bourne Legacy, alongside Jeremy Renner.
“Doing a variety of things is the only thing that keeps it interesting,” he says.
“If I felt like I was just exercising the same muscles over and over again it wouldn’t be worth doing.”