An earnest, boyish quality has often been half of the Edward Norton screen persona. In films like Primal Fear, Fight Club, The Incredible Hulk and Leaves of Grass, a violent or even diabolical side coexists with his innocent protagonist. But in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom -- which had its world premiere as the Opening Night selection of the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday night -- his character is as wholly sweet-natured as the movie itself. He plays an upright Scout Master in 1965 whose life is upturned when a 12-year old scout in his charge runs away with a young teen sweetheart.
In an interview beside the beach of the Carlton Hotel, Norton spoke excitedly about working with the director of such films as Rushmore and Fantastic Mr. Fox: "Wes is the definition of everything Cannes celebrates -- a real auteur. He's achieved that rare status of a person who has created an authentic world of his own making: within 30 seconds of watching his films, moviegoers know they're back in his universe."
Moonrise Kingdom, a charming ensemble piece that balances richly stylized imagery with affection for quirky characters, certainly occupies the recognizable Wes Anderson universe. Norton's co-stars include Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as the parents of runaway Suzy (Kara Hayward); newcomer Jared Gilman as the bespectacled orphan Sam (who resourcefully navigates the wilderness around Rhode Island); Tilda Swinton as "Social Services," and Bruce Willis as the local police captain.
Norton acknowledged the paradox of incarnating Anderson's droll tone: "There's a humor in his films that people love, but playing it is the opposite. It's all about the seriousness of the character's intention. The humor is rooted in characters so serious that they are funny. All the humor is sourced in the depth of the sincerity and earnestness with which they pursue their interests -- like my character's value of boy scouting. They are lovable because they're so passionately committed to what we might call slightly Quixote-esque [pursuits]."
Is it as much fun playing the single note of sincerity as it is to strum the "chords" of films like The Illusionist or American History X (for which he received an Oscar nomination)? "Duality is not a story," Norton replied. "Duality is just a complexity. I tend to relate to a character in terms of the arc: what's interesting is where he starts versus where he ends up. The fun of it is getting from point A to point B."
He praised Anderson's "vocabulary" in talking to his cast, "the power of articulation to get the actor to tune in to his frequency. He's good with the 'verb.' The main thrill is to be in his little equivalent of the Mercury Theater players," he said, referring to Orson Welles's famous troupe.
Asked if it's more challenging to be directed by a visual stylist whose meticulous camera movements often dominate the scene, he replied, "No, the main puzzle of acting is intention. The essence is finding interesting ways to express someone's intent. The emotional life is what the actor brings out. The bigger challenge for the actor in Wes's films is to strike the balance between whimsy and melancholy."
While his character -- decked in Khaki scout uniform -- is straight-laced, he smokes many cigarettes. "Wes assembled a robust file of pictures of scout troops of the 1950s and '60s, plus old PR films and scout handbooks. It's shocking that eight out of ten photos had troop leaders with cigarettes," said the actor, who, for the record, does not smoke. "The cigarette has to find a place in the scene. My favorite one was with the kids pouring fire powder: I had the impulse to hold the cigarette as far away from the fireworks as possible."
While Norton and the rest of the cast attending the Cannes Fest were clearly enjoying the adulation of the international film community, Moonrise Kingdom is only one of his focal points. He founded and runs Class 5 Films, in partnership with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Stuart Blumberg and producer Bill Migliore. They are completing Thanks for Sharing -- Blumberg's directorial debut, starring Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim Robbins, about sex addiction -- and preparing Undaunted Courage, about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Who is his exec-producing partner on this mini-series for HBO? Another actor with a film in Cannes Competition this week: Norton's Fight Club co-star Brad Pitt, who is here with Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly.
Annette Insdorf, Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University, is the author of PHILIP KAUFMAN.