Edward Norton talks Incredible Hulk

It was quite a surprise when you were cast as The Incredible Hulk... Was your involvement dependent on writing the script and really getting involved at every level?
To be honest that was the only way I was going to do it. Over the years I’ve had people come at me with comic-book franchise films or things like that and I felt they were just woefully under-realised as scripts. You always hear a lot of assurances and protestations about what’s going to make them great, but my better instincts have always prevailed and said, “I don’t really see that happening… and I don’t have the time to be the one to do it.” But this one fell at a moment where I actually didn’t have big plans and as I began to noodle on it and talked to Louis Leterrier [the director], who is great, I thought, “This is amazing, if we’re really being given the chance to take one of these things seriously on its own terms.”

Hulk spent ages revealing an origin story that was obvious within about three minutes. Your version is a reboot: are you covering the origins or is Bruce Banner trying to kill himself?
First off, it’s utterly unrelated to that film. This is in no way a response to it or a picking up from it. I think like what Chris Nolan and those guys did with Batman, we just said, “We’re going to start completely with our own version of this myth or this saga.”

So this is the start of a new franchise. Do you know where the story might go beyond this film?
Oh yeah. To me the whole thing was to envision it in multiple parts. We left a lot out on purpose. It’s definitely intended as a chapter one. You know, part of the problem with these films in general is they seem to feel the obligation to tell the origin story in a linear fashion, to deal with it first and then go on into the adventure. But a lot of great stories don’t start at the beginning and with this – especially given audiences know this story – if you’re going to deal with the origin you might as well deal with it artfully. My attitude was, “Let’s start with a mystery and slowly unpeel what the roots of it are, all the way through – like let’s have revelations even in the third act about what set this whole thing in motion.”

So the thrust of it, without revealing too much, is Bruce Banner is trying to deal with being Hulk and he comes up against Abomination…
Yeah, we committed early on to bringing some of the classic villains from the comic into it. Almost like a guest editor with a comic book we’ve done a total re-spin on the story of some of these characters and re-imagined them. But the Abomination is really awesome, it’s really a great story and when Tim Roth agreed to play that character you really had to write it up to someone as good as Tim; it needed to be someone in the story who really does have his own arc, so that it’s not just some creature that pops up.

Like in Bond movies, the villains are as important as Bond, or in Batman Begins, there’s a certain mirroring between what drives your villain and what drives your hero…
Yeah, I think even in the Marvel universe – where they have this consistent trope of gamma energy being a source-pool of hidden power – there’s a thing in Hulk of the Proteus myth: it’s tapping the story of stealing fire from the gods and being burned by it… being empowered but then being exiled because of having taken that forbidden energy.

So it’s almost like a classical thing?
Yeah, I don’t mean to get academic about it, but I think that’s part of why these things endure, because they’re kind of modern, pop revisitings of that myth of stealing power from the universe. There’s a lot of great stories of people reaching beyond what is permitted – like Icarus or Proteus – and paying a price for it.

When you think about Banner’s driving motivation, part of what was interesting to me was a sense of guilt, a sense of having monkeyed with nature. He’s applied a certain arrogance to his work and assumed that he can master forces that maybe aren’t meant to be tinkered with casually and he’s driven by guilt in a way, or driven by a sense of wanting to put the genie back in the bottle. I think that’s part of the theme of it, even with Abomination, that there’s a certain blowback to messing around with nature. I thought that was fun about it, too.

One of the problems with the first movie was it talked down to the material; like the people doing it were a little embarrassed to be doing Hulk. You’re a fan and you’re talking about it in very considered and serious terms, but the other criticism of Hulk was it took itself too seriously… Is your Incredible Hulk going to be more action-packed, more “Hulk kill, Hulk smash!”?
Oh yeah, for sure. But you can use the word ‘serious’ in a lot of different ways. The comic-books don’t not take Hulk seriously; they take it seriously on certain terms. I just think that what people felt about that one was it strayed far afield from a story that was familiar to people and that people respond to, which is a fugitive story really. You know, with The Lord Of The Rings, the films were what they were not because Peter Jackson didn’t take them seriously. The reason they’re great is because he took them deadly seriously. You could treat that stuff as popcorn fantasy and he didn’t at all and nor did the Wachowskis with The Matrix. They committed to the mythology totally and you have to, I think.

But The Incredible Hulk will still be fun?
Well, committing to the myth isn’t mutually exclusive with it being fun or being action-packed. The whole fun of Hulk is the ass-kicking of it, that’s the whole point – the thrill of it is knowing that if you push this guy, this quiet moral person, his bite-back is going to be legendary! And that is the entire fun of it – in fact it’s an important part of it. The whole point of the comics, in a way, is that what Banner’s terrified of is what Hulk does to the world and to people around him. We wanted the action to be a lot bigger in scale, to be the things that are really thrilling about the comic, which is Hulk going up against a lot of hardware, a lot of people and a really formidable enemy. We wanted a much thicker portfolio of different types of smashing in it! It’s a lot more high octane in that sense, but it’s a total fallacy to think that fans don’t want you to take Hulk seriously. Like, you go to a thing like Comic Con and you realise they’re breathlessly hoping that you take it seriously, because they take it seriously. You have to be careful, it’s like what do you mean when you say that? I think what they mean is they want you to take it seriously but they want you to take it seriously on the terms that they’ve already invested in it.

Because Hulk means a lot to people, doesn’t he?
For sure... I had a Senegalese cab driver in Toronto who was telling me how much he loved the Hulk, and how much people in Senegal love the Hulk, and you can’t sneeze at that… You have to take in the fact that something in that story is connecting with people in an enduring way. I said to Louis, “I think the challenge is figuring out what it is exactly that people love about it and focusing on that.”

There’s the idea of men, in particular, being split between a civilised side and another side governed by baser urges, which Hulk taps into. You could say Tyler Durden was a kind of Hulk to The Narrator’s Bruce Banner – that sense of a ‘self’ that can do anything, that is just unleashed…
Yeah, I definitely agree. Hulk isn’t so much about desires or baser desires, but I do think it’s about primal emotion. There’s that part of your brain, the Amygdala, which is like the fear centre, that’s very, very primal, that’s like been in use since long before we were human in a way. And I think that idea of like latent primal rage in everybody, that idea of hidden power and of unleashing... that is great. The story isn’t really ultimately about the Hulk, it’s about Bruce Banner. It’s anchored in that character, because the thing that people loved, even in the television show I think, is the story of a maligned and oppressed and persecuted and hunted man who is moral, who is trying to contain this thing, to protect other people from it, who in a lot of senses is an exile, who has this righteous kind of bite-back when you push him too hard… And I think that when you’re young that taps a lot of feelings, that feeling of being alienated or exiled or out in the cold. There’s a great fantasy that you have when you don’t feel empowered, that you have this lurking monster within you that’s going to come out to defend you if people hassle you… It’s a fantasy a lot of teenagers can relate to! Not just teenagers…

You’ve got a really busy year, working on The Incredible Hulk, producing and starring in Leaves Of Grass. You had to step out of State Of Play…
Yeah that was unfortunate. That was nothing to do with anything but schedule. There was a whole variety of things that ended up delaying the intended start and I had a very narrow window in which I was trying to squeeze it in and ultimately I got crunched out of that narrow window. The deeper I’ve gotten into this [The Incredible Hulk] the more I realise I may have been deluded to think I could do it even when I had a bigger window! It was too bad. I would have loved it.

And you’ve got the Serpico-style cop corruption flick Pride And Glory…
I think Gavin [O’Connor, the director] really pulled off most of the things he told me he wanted to do. His dad was a cop and it really meant a lot to Gavin. He told me, “More than anything I’d like for cops to watch it and say ‘That’s exactly what it’s like to be a cop in New York City…’” At moments in the film there’s an amazing kind of cinema vérité feel to it. It really feels like you’re strolling into bodegas with these guys. The language is in some places so arcane and specific that people sound like they’re talking a kind of code. I like that about it I think he did a really nice job with that.

It’s good to be in a movie where they don’t explain everything…
I say that all the time. It’s probably one of my most consistent arguments with studio people… People are always, always panicked about “Will people understand?” And I say, “The real fallacy is you’re assuming people want to understand! They don’t want to understand, they don’t want to be ahead of the movie…” That’s what pulls people in, the feeling that they’re inside something. You don’t care if you understand what people are saying up to a certain point, you just need to believe that they know what they’re saying.

Why make a movie about cop corruption?
To do a cop corruption film that resonates for people our age now, that’s really a vehicle for talking about something else. Because nobody needs to see another cop corruption film unless there’s a point, you know what I mean? I think if you look at the ones that hold up, like Serpico, that’s a terrific film but the reason Serpico is Serpico is it’s really the cop corruption film for the counterculture generation, because Serpico was a hippy – he lived in the village, he was a bohemian. He was the perfect stand-in for that generation in a cop corruption film. And I think the thing that Gavin and Noah Emmerich and Colin Farrell and all of those guys got talking about on this one, apart from Gavin’s determination to make a very believable film, was “Why are we doing this?” And for me it was really generational, it was really about young men serving an institution which they come to understand is lying or is corrupt. What do you do at that point?

Do you think the film reflects recent events globally?
Well, if you think about Abu Ghraib or those kind of things, somewhere, some guy who was probably very loyal to his unit and his army and his country and everything hit some sort of threshold where he went, “This is not what this is supposed to be about” and he put those pictures on a disc and sent them off to somebody. That’s a very interesting moment psychologically, the moment when a person’s loyalty to the thing that they serve and believe in gets outweighed by sort of a conviction that there’s a higher value. So when I was talking to Gavin about it I said, “If we’re going to do a cop corruption thing it should be a cop corruption thing that’s hitting in and around what’s going on in the United States right now – we’re going through this crucible, what’s the definition of these words like patriotism and loyalty and democracy?” I think that’s why I thought Gavin’s title, Pride And Glory, was kind of genius, because they’re always words that get used to co-opt people like us into serving something and then you find they’re just using the words to bring you in…

It’s our Hot 100 Issue – who would you suggest we should be looking out for?
I’m really interested in seeing [Julian Schnabel’s new film] The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. I thought Before Night Falls was such a beautiful movie. The way the business of film has become incredibly huge, you see fewer and fewer people in anything that resembles an impressionistic way or a way that you would call genuinely bold. It’s not often that you have an experience in film where it’s almost impressionistic, where it’s operating outside of literalism or familiar language in a way. I thought that about The New World: Malick is like an impressionist master in a room full of photographers. It’s just so different and when you see something that different you realise we’re almost not using those muscles anymore. So everything everyone is telling me about The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, I really want to see it. It sounds impressionistic to me. I really admire anybody who is figuring out a way to work that way.

It’s important to take risks – to put yourself out there…
Yeah, I remember when I heard they were making The Lord Of The Rings, I was like, “God, if they cheese those out I’m going to be so disappointed.” And it was so terrific to see… those films were inspiring to me, in terms of deciding to take The Incredible Hulk on. I wondered what Peter Jackson thought when he took on The Lord Of The Rings. He was probably thrilled but it’s incredibly daunting… I figure at a certain point he must have anchored himself just in saying, “Wait a minute, I love these things and what I love about them is this!” He must have decided, like you said, “I’m not embarrassed by this”. You have to commit to it, commit to the idea that you love it and you’re going to completely take it seriously. And there’s a lot of that in this. Because there’s no question, when the phone rings and someone says, “Hey would you be interested in the big green guy?”, there’s that part of all of us that doesn’t want to look like an idiot – there’s the wince factor or the defensive part of you that recoils at the idea of what the bad version of that would be… And I did that basically, I actually said no to it a couple of times and it was only over a few conversations with Louis and with the Marvel guys – and realising they were in a frame of mind where they were ready to sort of wipe the slate and genuinely start from scratch – it was only then I really started to trust they were at the stage of not just looking for an actor, but really looking for an author in a way – and a vision for it. I thought it was a rare opportunity.

You have to take a punt sometimes. Just generally it’s better to regret the things you’ve done, rather than the things you haven’t…
I think that’s a nice way of looking at it. Also, I find that when I’m winding towards a film going “OK, I know what we’ll do here”, I start to check out a little bit… I start missing that feeling of fear! Or of being in an uncertain place. The feeling of uncertainty is a really nice place to be creatively, I think. And, I mean, you could put a picture of Hulk in literally any country in the world and people will know what it is, so trying to work on something that people really love… I just felt like I was in the right place to do it. I figured we’d take a crack at it.

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