HIFF’s In Conversations with Holly Hunter and Edward Norton

One of the best features of the Hampton’s film festival is the opportunity to utilize its intimate setting, despite its close proximity to New York City. Often overlapping with the New York Film Festival (as it did this year), the festival has a quality of being a retreat. It invites a more leisurely, relaxed audience atmosphere than is typical of the larger, more urban festival experience. The close proximity to the city also allows performers to come out for the weekend, and participate in the Hampton’s signature “in conversations” series of talks. This year, Aaron Eckhart, Holly Hunter, and Edward Norton (a recipient of the career achievement award this year) were the participants. While I was unable to attend Eckhart’s conversation, I was delight to see Hunter and Norton on stage…two of my personal favorite actors working in films today.

Hunter was in attendance at this year’s festival with her new film Strange Weather, by Catherine Dieckmann. The film focuses on a mother whose son killed himself seven years earlier. Hunter was excited to play the difficult, grief-stricken role because “Grief is an unusual thing for people to grapple with. It’s a tough conversation for people to have with yourself or others. They don’t want to deal with the awkwardness and discomfort. But this movie was talking about it. And I loved the seven years later aspect of it, because she’s a character having a very difficult time confronting herself about what happened to her son. And I think it’s an imperative conversation that we need to have as a society.” Hunter described the challenges of taking on such a role as “driving through a mountain range” of emotions because of the many ups and downs she had to take along the way journey. To prepare, she listed to 32 hours of audio stories by people discussion the loss of their children.

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Holly Hunter in Strange Weather

Hunter was, as she so often is on-screen, a hilarious and warm presence to observe on stage, telling several wonderful stories about her career in film. One of the highlights was hearing her describe how she became associated with the Coen brothers on films such as Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou?. She first met future roommate and friend, actress Francis McDormand (Joel Coen’s wife and Oscar winner for Fargo) through an ex-boyfriend who was friends with McDormand’s then boyfriend. Despite breaking up with their perspective boyfriends, they remained friends while first pursuing their careers. Hunter was originally offered the female lead in Blood Simple, a role she had to turn down but suggest McDormand for the role. After that, the foursome, along with director Sam Rami, moved into a house together in Silver Lake…which was when she first read the script for Raising Arizona. On the famous brothers cinematic genius, Hunter claims to still be wonder of their medusa touch saying, “Sometimes there’s a real window for directors, a very narrow window, where they hit a personal stride. But then they pass through it and can’t retrieve that magic again. But the Coens just keep going.”

Now a beloved classic, the Raising Arizona’s lack of box-office success (she said it barely “registered” when released as it “wasn’t particularly well-received or well-attended”), which made her casting in James L. Brook’s sophomore effort, Broadcast News, an unexpected opportunity. The role would be her first box-office hit, and she would also receive multiple awards for her performance of producer Jane (and an Oscar nomination). “James was casting the film and is an obsessive perfectionist” said Hunter, “I heard about that movie, and six months later, heard it still hadn’t been cast. And he said, I want to see the masses flood in, so my agent said, let’s get Holly in there. And I flooded in.”

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Holly Hunter in Broadcast News

Broadcast News earned Hunter an Academy Award nomination, but she would go onto to win hers for the mute performance she gave in Jane Campion’s The Piano. Reflecting on that definition of Academy Award Winner now attached  to her name, she explain “there’s no downside to winning an academy award, but at the same time, it doesn’t make a career. A career is a giant, high maintenance engine. It’s not mass-produced. And the Academy award doesn’t sooth all things. There’s this saying that an academy award will buy you three years, but that’s not true at all. The gift of it is forever, your kids get the legacy. I was handed my award my Al Pacino, which was incredible because I have such reverence and respect for him. And your career goes on, but you have to take responsibility for the choices. Some jobs I’ve taken because I needed the money, sometimes I just really wanted to work and felt like, I just want to act. Or it’s some inspired project. But those are further and further between.”

Hunter also relished her experiences working on TV (on TNT’s Saving Grace and IFC’s Top of the Lake). On playing the title role of Grace, Hunter called it one of the turning points in her career because “it was a learning experience. I’d never worked that hard before, and I never want to work that hard again. But that was a particular kind of work that I wanted to do once. But that was turning point because it gave me a tremendous opportunity as an actress. To do stuff I’ve never done before.” However, Hunter noted that around the time of working in TV was also a change in her status in Hollywood, moving away from leading roles and into supporting roles, admitting “it was really hard for me to understand that this lead role (Grace) that I had played for years had ended. And I was back to playing the roles of moms and wives in supporting roles.”

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Unfortunately, Hunter’s talk felt short-changed by poor moderation of the event. One of the benefits of these talks is to witness intimate, intellegent conversations focused on the art of acting from a veteran (almost like a masters class). Hunter’s career has been long and varied, but the moderator frequently circled her comments back to questions (and her own personal thoughts) singularly focused on Hunter’s perspective on women in Hollywood. Her thoughts were of course interesting, but to box Hunter’s conversation about her career into the topic of feminism (and a very narrow definition defined by the moderator) was frustrating as a member of the audience. It was a disappointment, but also reminder that too often women are asked to speak almost exclusively on representing their gender within the industry, while men are permitted to speak on a variety of topics and representing only their personal opinion.

Ironically, when Norton addressed his thoughts on gender in Hollywood, his comments were also profound but emerged in a far more organic manner, when asked by critic David Edelstein (that morning’s moderator) to explain similarities found among the characters he’s played. Norton shared a story of going to China with a movie and having his films presented in a repertory style under the banner of “the search for the spiritual center in the new youth generation,” a definition of his work Norton embraced saying ““I think that’s actually pretty good. Sometimes when I read things, I think, that’s something at the core of what my generation’s feeling. And a lot of times I’ve wanted to do something because it has in it that tension of what does it mean to be a man in a postmodern world. Do we need violence to access some sense of yourself in a world that’s just turning you into a carbon copy of things? Taxi Driver and The Graduate are the same movie, for their generations. I don’t think there’s any big difference between The Graduate and Fight Club. They’re unintended carbon copies of each other. Because they’re basically about a young person coming into the world and thinking, I don’t like the way what I’m expected to do makes me feel. So I’m going to go a little bit crazy, do some stuff that’s a little nihilistic, to break myself out of this rut.”

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Edward Norton in Fight Club

Norton spent a considerable amount of his time discussing the work of Marlon Brando, another actor often asked to represent masculinity for his generation, a fact Norton found curious about Brando’s legacy because “Brando gets reduced to this version of the Stanley Kowalski male. And I know for a certain generation he came and landed like a bomb. But I never watch him and think he’s so in touch with that agro-male side. In fact, I see that vulnerable side. He brought this almost feminine approach, an infantile quality, to his work. I’m never struck by that tough guy stuff. It’s much more about his little sensitivities.”

Norton worked with Brando on the film The Score, alongside DeNiro, a film better known for the controversies Brando faced regarding his behavior on set than his performance. By that point Brando had taken to using an earpiece (so he wouldn’t have to memorize lines), something in retrospect Norton found an interesting learning experience as a young actor who took the film just to work with those two. “I thought that was fascinating because there are a lot of people who take a long time to get to that sweet spot with a piece of text, either because they’re having trouble memorizing or constantly working it out in their head. He had a tiny receiver in his ears and had someone off camera, and he would start saying the line while you were saying  your line. And there would be an odd little pause, that wasn’t quite natural, of him taking in the line before saying it. But there’s a kind of veteran wisdom in that, because that pause doesn’t matter in a film. They can come out in an edit. And the lines would come out of him extemporaneously. And then after three or four takes, he would tell the person in his ear, I’ve got it. And then just do it. I know a lot of actors who don’t know the lines after three or four takes, so it didn’t really matter.”

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Edward Norton in The Score

Norton also spoke of Brando’s experience later in his life on the film Last Tango in Paris, when he felt exposed by Bernardo Bertolucci who used personal information about Brando’s life to manipulate his performance, something Norton felt changed Brando’s career and his approach towards acting for the rest of his life “If you read some of those interviews with Brando, its fascinating to hear what he said late in his life, to hear his relation to the very iconic roles. The only time he felt someone pulled out of him a naked performance was Last Tango in Paris, in which almost everything he says is pulled from his own life. The stuff in that movie about his father and milking the cows. There’s no difference between Marlon’s biography and that character. And he ultimately felt, at times, like Bertolucci used him. And I don’t think he ever wanted to take another role seriously. And I say that just to say, self exposure isn’t the only way, it’s about finding deep empathy, studied empathy, for the imagined character’s emotional experience. that’s the reason I find really great actors are often better when they’re listen and not saying anything. When you see, sense, their thinking. It’s the reason I love watching Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins. Actors with this incredible capacity to convey a thought and emotion without saying a thing.”

Norton himself is not a method actor, nor does he see it as the giant step forward others feel the acting style ushered in. Describing why he doesn’t believe it to be an effective way to work, he said “This gets a little academic, but I think the phrase the method got badly misused. It came to get prescribed to just Lee Strasberg, and his notion of the value of sense memory. He had a very specific idea that your own emotional memories were really valuable, because if you could get down into those memories of emotions and sensations, you could open up the conduits to access a whole array of emotions. And what was very valuable about that was the idea that an actor should have open access to a wide range of emotions. That’s a completely fascinating and useful thing, in the context of a classroom, developing as an actor. My personal feeling, from working with actors who I think got way too hung up on the cult of Lee Strasberg, is when you’re doing the actual work, working with someone whose not using the circumstances of the text but their own shit, its like acting opposite someone looking in a mirror. dredging stuff up as a proxy to reacting to their fellow actor. And I think the cult that came up believing in that became crippling.”

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Edward Norton in Moonlight Kingdom

It also affects the way an actor works with their directors, some of whom require specific acting styles from actors. The Coens, Wes Anderson, and Woody Allen all have styles of acting needed to deliver their very specific dialogue in the proper rhythm for their movies. Norton claims to have known several actors who were unable to work with such directors because ““If you can’t dial yourself into the frequencies of an artist whose got a very definitive sense of style, you can get lost. The people I’ve always really admired have an enormous facility to move between the different demands of the text.” Norton, who has worked with Allen on Everyone Says I Love You and become one of Anderson’s best ensemble members relishes those chances to give himself over to such directors.

The value of working with confident, visionary directors seems to have been an experience Norton relishes an actor, mentioning the pleasure of working with his Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu and Milos Foreman. With experienced directors he respects he finds giving himself over completely to their vision to be invaluable, a lesson he learned from the late Mike Nichols, who told Norton ““even if I have the worst idea in the world, Jeremy Irons will give it a try. And then I know it’s a bad idea if even Jeremy Irons can’t make it work. Now I can get off of that idea and make something else work.” With directors of such vision and experience as Inruetu or Anderson, Norton wants to be such a muse and says when he works with them he respond to directions with, “whatever you want to do, what ever you need to do to get to these terrific films you make, lets just do it. If you say paint it blue, we’ll paint it blue, If you tell me to paint it red, we’ll paint it red. They could tell me to do the exact opposite, I’ll give them what they need. And that’s what’s really fun.”

His work on Birdman earned him his third Oscar nomination, as an actor with massive narcisistic tendencies but truly brilliant at his craft. Norton found the character one of the easier ones to get in the proper wavelength with, saying ““there are more of these in the profession than you might think. I can’t give enough credit to Iñárritu and his writing partners, because so much of a what is in that film was fully realized in the script. It’s hard to explain how extraordinary it is to read a script which is so close to the vision of the filmmaker. And that character was so fully realized and well-defined, it’s a rare gift…There were people, not even in my own crowd, that were around when I was coming up in New York theater. Of an earlier generation, who were legend for their combination of brilliance and bad behavior. Philip Hoffman was a friend of mine and we would ask ourselves, are we more square than they were? because they all seemed so colorful compared to us. I felt like I hardly knew anyone with that kind of reputation. And there was one in particular who, if you are looking really closely to certain inflections in the film they’ll figure it out. One of my partners got it really quickly.”

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Edward Norton in Birman

But what may surpise casual viewers is Norton’s clear appreciation for the old-fashioned movie stars, and subtle brilliance such actors can bring to their roles. Norton, perhaps not even aware of his understanding of “star theory” said “I always thought there were some actors who were just ironically larger than life, and there are other actors who seem to be hiding and not even using their own essence. And I’ve always been compelled by the ones who seemed naturally iconic. And that’s not to say they’re not a good actor, this is a qualitative statement. But those actors can seem like Greek gods, people we just go to again and again to portray a certain human characteristic. You take a person like Harrison Ford, who I think is a great actor but also happens to be one of the great iconic actors. There aren’t many people the that can do that. It’s not easy to have that quality people want to return to again and again…You take an actor like Cary Grant, who was a great actor. But it’s very hard to watch an actor like Cary Grant and try to imitate what he’s doing on-screen. It’s impossible to imitate Cary grant, what he’s doing is specific. And who’s more iconic than Cary Grant, but he was also a great, great actor. It’s just that he’s always recognizable on screen. He isn’t an actor that has to transform himself in every movie. I don’t think he ever had a different haircut.”

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Edward Norton in The Illusionist

While Norton rarely spoke of his own work on stage (nor does he rewatch his films), preferring to note what he admired and respected about fellow actors, he did share a story about why he loves movies (and the magic of making movies) from the set of one of his less iconic films, The Illusionist. As a magician, he wanted to perform a trick without the use of CG and work with magicians like Ricky Jay to perform it with stage effects. On stage, for the audience, he could perform the trick with the trick apparatus hidden behind backstage. But on camera the apparatus needed to be moved closer. Yet due to his performance and commitment to the trick, he found even with it in full view seduced the audiences. Norton laughed while saying “I literally thought, that’s impossible. It’s impossible that people are that focused on what’s happening with me, that they wouldn’t see the apparatus in full view. There’s something really truthful about that in film. We’ve made many films, and thought while making them, while cutting them, there’s no way we’re going to get away with this. This is going to hitch people or just won’t work. And you sprinkle a little music on it, like fairy dust on a film, and watch people and think, I’ll be damned, nobody’s seeing any of that stuff. When you start realizing the degree that people will invest, you know movies are very much a case of innocent until proven guilty. We went in, took the lights away, and people will be with you until you really screw it up. You have to really mess up to get people to punch out of a movie. Everything is working in your favor to get people to go with you, it’s amazing to see that collaboration between the audience and the people who make a film work. That blows my mind.”

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