- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2000

Edward Norton, the young actor who began a remarkable career ascent while playing a seemingly schizophrenic murder suspect in "Primal Fear" six years ago, sits in a hotel breakfast nook at Baltimore's Inner Harbor on a recent afternoon.

He is the only "customer" during this off-hours interlude, reserved for meeting the press on behalf of his seventh feature, "Keeping the Faith," a romantic farce that opens today and also marks his debut as a director.

Mr. Norton, 30, has a view of the harbor outside an open terrace door. To some extent, he is gazing at his family's handiwork. His maternal grandfather, the late real estate developer James Rouse, was instrumental in building Baltimore's Harborplace.

Mr. Norton has booked rooms at the hotel to put himself and a few friends within walking distance of key destinations during a weekend of movie-premiere hosting and nostalgic sightseeing. A benefit showing of his movie at the city's Senator Theatre is scheduled for one evening. He plans to catch an Orioles game the next day.

"Every time I've done a film that isn't too severe, I've come back to the Senator," Mr. Norton says. "It's the last big art-deco movie palace still standing around here. I associate it with a lot of movies I saw while growing up in Columbia [Md.]. If you're going to have film premieres, I like to try to leverage something else out of it. We usually do benefits for one or another of my family's Baltimore causes."

The beneficiaries on this occasion are St. Francis Academy and the Living Classroom Foundation, both dear to the heart of Mr. Norton's mother, Robin, who died three years ago. The movie mentions her in a dedication card during the closing credits.

"She was the director of educational grants at the Abel Foundation," Mr. Norton says. "It's based in Baltimore and has a kind of multifaceted mission. She went all over the country studying experimental social and educational programs. St. Francis is a very good private school, run by the St. Francis nuns, that takes a lot of at-risk kids into the student body. Among many educational things that Living Classrooms does is take kids from an inner-city environment out on the Bay and teach them about ecology and conservation. In the past, we had benefits for the research labs at Johns Hopkins run by my mother's oncologist, and for different components of the hospital."

Evidently, the "severity" of movies doesn't always govern their suitability for benefit functions. Mr. Norton recalls a premiere of "Primal Fear" for his grandfather's principal charitable organization, the Enterprise Foundation, which also employed the actor for a time between his undergraduate years at Yale and his emergence as a movie phenom. Indeed, most of the Norton credits to date have favored the severe side: "Primal Fear" was followed by "Everyone Says I Love You," "The People vs. Larry Flynt," "American History X," "Rounders" and "The Fight Club."

Nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor of "Fear" and then as best actor in "History," he would have been a very deserving two-time winner before the age of 30.

"Keeping the Faith," an unmitigated trifle, comes closer to being a complete change of pace for Mr. Norton. Written by a close friend and former Yale classmate, Stuart Blumberg, who also has a supporting role, the movie is predicated on a triangle situation of precarious cuteness. Mr. Norton and Ben Stiller play friends from boyhood, Brian and Jake, who grow up to be a priest and rabbi on New York City's Upper West Side. A third playmate, Anna, whose family moved to the West Coast years earlier, returns in the person of Jenna Elfman, feminine perfection disguised as a corporate executive.

While reuniting with the heavenly Anna, Father Brian and Rabbi Jake are stirred romantically by her. Mr. Norton's character is a bit slow to realize that he has grown lovesick. Mr. Stiller's character begins a torrid love affair, desperately concealed from a congregation teeming with solicitous mothers and daughters who hope to promote a match with the bachelor rabbi, whose resemblance to a stand-up comedian or talk-show host supposedly has revitalized the temple.

Mr. Norton describes his own religious upbringing as "loose Episcopalian." Familiarizing himself with Roman Catholicism was "all an education," entrusted to an Upper West Side priest named John Duffell. "I had a lot of Jewish friends when I was growing up," the actor recalls, "so I began with more informal knowledge of Jewish traditions. I felt much more like an honorary Jew, but perhaps Father Duffell helped prepare me as an honorary Catholic… . We tried to get [the film] right while still having fun with it. We want people in real congregations to be laughing with us, not feeling that they're being poked fun at."

Mr. Norton originally thought he would be producing a script originated by a good friend. The directing and acting commitments emerged out of an extended period of rewriting with Mr. Blumberg. "Stuart brought the script to me," he says, "and I offered some editorial comment. Then it got to the point where I decided to produce it, so I took the script around to the studios. Once it was actually sold [to the Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures], we spent about a year together rewriting it. Only at that point did Stuart say to me, 'Why don't you direct it?' To which I replied, 'You think?' He answered, 'Well, everyone else we talk about makes me a little nervous. They might not get all our jokes.' "

Some of this cherished facetiousness reflected a mutual fondness for New York City. Mr. Norton has lived there since 1991, usually in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side. "We knew New York physically better than any other place," he says. "There are nods to a lot of places we liked or hung out at. The little side characters like the Indian but part-Irish bartender played by Brian George and the karaoke salesman who's actually a third-generation New Yorker, played by Ken Leung, were a part of the world we lived in. Father Duffell put me in touch with an incredibly diverse church population."

Rather late in the day, Mr. Norton decided to play Father Brian. He insists the role evolved without him specifically in mind, "although once I had agreed to do it, we made some adjustments to tailor it to me."

The assurance that he would play a principal role might have clinched a production deal. "It was never a hard sell with the studio," he says, "but the total commitment may have put us over the hump. I had a window of opportunity right after finishing 'Fight Club,' so we jumped in and took advantage of it."

Mr. Norton regarded a few of the directors he had worked for as models for his own first effort. One of them, Milos Forman, has a supporting role in "Faith" as the senior pastor at Father Brian's church.

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