In the new movie Stone, actor Edward Norton plays the kind of guy you don't take home to meet mom and dad. He's a convicted arsonist doing time, but he's up for parole -- which means he has to convince his parole officer, played by Robert De Niro, that he's ready for life at large.
Norton's character, named Stone Creeson, doesn't start out with much faith in the process; in fact when the men first meet, and the audience gets its first glimpse of Stone Creeson, he comes off not as a changed man, but as a disturbed -- and disturbing -- one. He's cunning, and manipulative, and Norton plays him with prison tattoos and cornrows and eyes so cold with malice it makes the hair on your neck stand up.
"He's so anxious about the review process and about his upcoming parole opportunity that ... his wife -- who loves him very much and is willing to do almost anything -- he literally sends her at De Niro's character to seduce him," Norton tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
And that, the actor says, is when things start to get interesting.
"Because even as he is scrambling to do whatever he thinks he needs to do and say, the interactions between the three of them start becoming increasingly complicated," Norton says. "Because what seems like it's, at first, just a plot, starts to become, in everybody's case, sort of an authentic inverting of their positions in the conversation."
Getting To Know The Script, But Not Each Other
It's not the first time Norton has worked with De Niro -- they co-starred in the 2001 heist thriller The Score -- but the younger man has a "deep appreciation" for the older man's craft.
"We sat down to talk about this, and I began to realize that that he was really invested in this -- that he was going to dig in really deep and go at it," Norton says. "I got a blooming sense of excitement because I knew it was going to be an opportunity, a very rare opportunity to really play out these scenes in which you're trying to create dramatic tension out of nothing more than two people talking."
Indeed, much of Stone is filmed in tight shots of the two men, squared off across a desk. Norton says he and De Niro talked a lot about the script in the months before shooting, but didn't do much in the way of actual rehearsal.
And then they went off on their own to create their characters.
"It's very allegorical in some ways," he says of the script. "It's very -- there's a lot of deep undercurrents in it, and so I think De Niro and I both wanted to sort of go away on our own and investigate the specifics of these characters. So then we weren't together for quite a while. ... De Niro really didn't want to see me; he didn't want to see this guy [Stone] or hear his voice. He didn't want to hear any of it until we sat down [for] the cameras."
Perspectives On Prison, From The Inside
The story, originally set in the South, ended up playing out in Detroit, a place Norton says director John Curran had a vivid metaphorical sense of -- " this notion of Detroit as a great landscape of a place that was a pillar of assumptions about America, and that is now in decay."
To get a sense of his character, Norton spent some time in a prison north of the city, interviewing men who'd come from the drug trade or the gangs of Southwest and Eastern Detroit.
"Once we pinned down a few guys that we thought really had a lot to offer, we asked them to read the whole script," he says. "It was very -- I have to admit, I found it very poignant. These guys I don't think have a lot of people talk to them about their own personal experiences in life. I don't think people express a lot of interest in them. I don't think in the routine of their day, they ... get asked to do much that's creative, to be honest."
So when Norton and Curran asked two of those men to help shape their script, the response was a strong one.
"They both came back the next day," Norton recalls. "They had not only read the script overnight, they had written reams and reams of notes and thoughts."
Norton and Curran didn't just use that feedback for background, either.
"John and I jettisoned 60 percent of the specific dialogue that was in the script, because what these guys brought back was so good in terms of the phrases and the vernacular and their insights," Norton says. "'Oh, you'd never say this, you'd say this.'"
In fact, one pivotal scene, in which Norton's Stone Creeson blows up at the De Niro character and threatens to leave the room "came out of one of these guys telling us that he had self-destructed in a parole interview and tried to walk out," Norton says.
'So Many Different Kinds Of Stories'
In the past few years, Edward Norton has made everything from crime capers and cop thrillers (The Italian Job and Pride and Glory) to period dramas (The Illusionist and The Painted Veil) to the big-budget superhero actioner The Incredible Hulk. It's been quite a range.
"Well, the great thing about films is how plastic they are," Norton laughs. "They encompass so many different kinds of stories and ideas, and I can be drawn into doing something just for the experience of making a different kind of film. ... I mean, a film with a lot of digital effects" -- his adventure as The Hulk, he means -- "was a very different experience for me. I learned a lot."
But there's a deeper thread that connects the projects Norton picks, he says.
"If I read it and feel like it's naming things that I've experienced but never had a name for, that's appealing to me," he says. " I think the experience of films like that can be special for people, because they're not always the ones that are entertaining. They're not always the ones that are commercial, but they're the ones that kind of linger in your brain." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.