Mike Davies talks to actor Edward Norton.
Other than playing emotionally intense characters, you can hardly accuse two time Oscar nominee Edward Norton of being typecast.
In the last decade he’s played a neo Nazi (American History X), Nelson Rockefeller, (Frida) an FBI profiler (Red Dragon), a drug dealer contemplating his last day of freedom (25th Hour), a leprosy-ridden king (Kingdom of Heaven), a psychotic with cowboy delusions (Down In The Valley) and a magician (The Illusionist). And he’s just been announced as taking over the role of troubled scientist Bruce Banner in the sequel to The Hulk.
This week he rings the changes yet again, co-starring with Naomi Watts in The Painted Veil, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of a broken marriage set in 20s China against the backdrop of a cholera epidemic.
Although the 38 year-old Norton owns up to being a fan of period films, the fact this comes back to back with The Illusionist, set in 1900s Vienna, is pure coincidence.
Indeed, Norton, who also serves as producer, reveals he’d been waiting seven long years to get the project up and running.
"The longer I’ve worked in films the more I realise as an actor you tend to get handed things when they’re pretty much ready to go," he explains. "Sometimes you don’t even know how long things have been incubating. This one was particularly long, but it was for all the reasons you might imagine.
"We spent a good bit of time in the beginning just developing the script and finding the financing. Even when Naomi was interested in doing it, we had a hard time finding a slot in which she and I and any director we were interested in weren’t working on something else.
"It takes time for the pieces to click into place."
Inevitably, during that time the film changed shape considerably, significantly so with Norton’s own script input.
"I think the script went through three major evolutions," he recalls.
"Ron Nyswaner wrote an excellent adaptation that very directly reflected the book. But he and the original producer had a very difficult time finding support for that because while the book is brilliant, as a story it’s extremely claustrophobic.
"If you were just to film a rendition of the book you could film it at Shepperton, there was really no need to go to China.
"My contribution was that I said it had to be inspired by the themes and also the scope of it had to be expanded. Both emotionally, and even in terms of its view of China.
"There was really no point in going there otherwise."
The third major shift came when the original director, Germany’s Caroline Link, was replaced by We Don’t Live Here Anymore’s John Curran.
"John brought an enormous new inspiration to it," Norton declares.
"He anchored it in the specific history of mid 1920s China, with the enormous wave of anti-foreign resentment that swept the country. It was a really brilliant new take that led to a deepening of the script."
Norton and Curran both adamant that the story to be shot in China itself and the result is significant to the film’s power, the country proving very much a character in the film, affording striking landscapes as well as the political sub-text.
However, to help secure finance, the Chinese government’s film bureau was given approval over the script and the finished film.
Concerned about the depiction of the uprising during the Chinese Revolution as well as the cholera's victims, he asked for these elements to be reduced. Something with which both Norton and Curran disagreed.
"It was a pretty singular kind of an agreement to give a foreign government substantial approvals over a film," says Norton wearily.
"The vicissitudes of working with the Chinese government came to a head in some very unpleasant ways, but I think it’s a total testament to John that he dug his heels in resolutely and refused to let those things compromise the integrity of the film."
But, adds Norton, any headaches were more than compensated by the advantages, visually, atmospherically and financially, that filming in China brought.
"John and I were adamant we had to go to China, there was no other alternative really. As it turns out, that’s good on a financial level because you can stretch the money there. We made the film for just over $20 million, which is quite modest these days."