- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

Edward Norton is a hands-on actor.

But the star of “The Illusionist” and “Fight Club” does more than just appear in films. Not only has he directed one — 2000’s “Keeping the Faith” — and co-produced a few more, he’s done uncredited script work on some of the movies in which he’s starred.

“Had I not liked him, it would have been a headache,” laughs John Curran, who directed Mr. Norton in “The Painted Veil,” which opens in theaters today.

The two recently visited the District to chat up the film, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about a bacteriologist working in China (Mr. Norton) who takes his wife (Naomi Watts) to a cholera-infested village after discovering her affair.

“I felt like I met a kindred spirit when I met Edward,” Mr. Curran says. “There’s no ego to the way that Edward works. It’s a passion. It’s your ego that gets challenged because from the moment he wakes up, he’s on it. I’d think, ‘I haven’t had my coffee yet but it doesn’t matter, it’s 6 o’clock and Edward’s up.’ ”

He adds, “I love that, it’s a great way to work. I’ve worked with actors who say, ‘I did my three takes, I got it on the first one. What more do you want from me?’ ”

Mr. Norton is quick to respond with the “flip side.” “It’s really hard to act for directors who aren’t looking to get surprised by what you’re doing. Because you do wonder, ‘What am I contributing?’ ” he says. He recalls “wigging out” before filming started on his third film, Milos Foreman’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996), because the screenplay wasn’t completed.

“I’m a theater actor, there’s got to be a script,” he recalls saying. “Milos says to me, ‘The script will never be more than 50 percent complete on the first day of filming, never ever,’ ” he adds, with a decent rendition of Mr. Foreman’s Czech accent. “The reason I work well with people like Milos, like John, like Spike Lee (2002’s “25th Hour”), is if the director has the presence of mind to celebrate the continuing — the continuing — unfolding of the thing in front of them in surprising ways, you’re off to the races. The creativity on a film never stops.”

Mr. Norton and Mr. Curran seem to have a special rapport. This reporter’s first question led them into a discussion (with the two playing off each other) that encompassed about half the allotted interview time. Their ease has made for a satisfying professional relationship.

“Ron [Nyswaner, screenwriter] and I had worked on the script for six years before any idea of the whole context of the shooting of the protesters leading to an environment of anti-foreign sentiment came into the film,” says Mr. Norton, a two-time Oscar nominee. “John really brought that idea into it. That opened up a whole second level of resonance in the movie because it was also a whole examination of how Western rationalists project onto a place like China — ‘This is a problem that can be fixed’ — without regard to what someone else’s culture is.”

“The Painted Veil” is one of the year’s best films. But that doesn’t mean it was easy to connect to this story of two people who must learn to respect each other.

“You get studio people going… ‘This character will be so unlikeable and you’ll never recover,’ ” Mr. Norton says of his role. “But love and hate can coexist. That’s one of the things that to me separates a great epic story and a great love story from a story about people who meet when their dogs’ leashes get tangled. Those are confections, but they’re made with primary colors. I’ve never met anyone that way. Primary colors can be entertaining, but I don’t think primary colors reflect anyone’s life.

“You don’t want to take the complexity out of people’s interactions with each other,” he adds.

That complexity is one reason neither Mr. Curran nor Mr. Norton felt they were making a period piece. “There was very little in this story about the nature of their relationships and what they were going through that felt dated to me,” Mr. Norton says, or that “many people can’t see reflected in their own relationships.”

The night before the interview, Mr. Norton held a benefit screening of the film at Baltimore’s historic Senator Theatre. The actor grew up in Columbia, Md., and still considers Charm City his hometown.

“Whenever I have a film that’s audience appropriate, I try to do a benefit,” Mr. Norton says. “It’s hard to pull people out for your skinhead routine,” he jokes, referring to his astonishing, Oscar-nominated portrayal in 1999’s “American History X.” “But when it’s about a doctor laboring against cholera in China and a feckless wife …” the actor says; his voice trailing off before responding to another question.

High (def) art

There’s more than movies playing at your local theater.

Tomorrow afternoon, area residents who were smart enough to snap up tickets will view a live telecast of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” at the AMC Hoffman Center in Alexandria. The sold-out event is the first in a series of high-definition broadcasts by New York’s Metropolitan Opera that will be shown throughout North America as well as parts of Europe and Japan.

Julie Borchard-Young, the Met’s acting marketing director, says she brought the idea to new general manager Peter Gelb, whom she worked with when he was president of Sony Classical. She had worked on a successful David Bowie concert telecast.

“We’re going to capture the magic of the Met, 100 percent live, with high quality sound and video,” she says via telephone. “It will be the next best thing to being here.”

“The technology plays an extraordinarily important role,” Miss Bochard-Young says.

Only theaters equipped with satellite-based HD projection systems can receive and play the broadcasts. The century-old Met may, in fact, help change the theater-going experience as we know it. “This provides some alternative programming to Hollywood blockbusters,” Miss Borchard-Young says. “Theaters now want to offer a full entertainment package.”

But the Met’s main goal is an even loftier one: “We want to keep the art form desirable,” says Miss Borchard-Young.

The Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center has just 4,000 seats— but, says Miss Borchard-Young, 15,000 seats are available in American theaters for concertgoers attending the “Flute” broadcast. That number will go up to 30,000 by the time the Met broadcasts the world premiere of Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor” starring celebrated tenor and Washington National Opera director Placido Domingo on Jan. 13. Before that, viewers will see Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in Bellini’s “I Puritani” on Jan. 6. There are six operas being broadcast in all.

Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for children. For more information, visit the Web site at www.metopera.org/hdlive.

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