"Chinese acting is all rooted in Stanislavski... the same as what I had studied."
In the 1996 film Primal Fear, Edward Norton's performance as the frightening schizophrenic – one part stuttering fool, one part swaggering genius – left viewers gape-mouthed. And somewhat puzzled. Yes, the performance was brilliant. But was it true to life? Put another way: Is Norton an actor's actor or someone who can capture our emotions?
The question seems unresolved. Norton's persona, onscreen and off, still produces a double take. At the press conference in Shanghai's Four Season's Hotel for his new film The Painted Veil, he enters the room with a scowl and gruffly answers a reporter's question. But mid-sentence he warms up, revealing a deeply-intelligent, passionate man. The transformation is disquieting. If there is a method to this madness, then it must be the Stanislavski method.
Norton's acting style can best be described as distinguished. A word favored by critics, though interpreted by the public to mean technically perfect, but somewhat cold. We, the audience, recognize his genius, but it leaves us unmoved and wondering who the man is and what he stands for.
Like all Method-trained actors, Norton's onscreen presence is remarkable for its attention to detail, based as it is on extensive research and study. His latest performance is no exception.
Based on the novel by Somerset Maugham, The Painted VeiI is the story of "relationships in reverse" to paraphrase director John Curran. Set in the 1920s, this love story centers on Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts: Mullholland Drive, The Ring), who after refusing a number of suitors, settles for Dr. Walter Fane (Norton, Fight Club, American History X, 25th Hour), a sturdy, if somewhat dull, bacteriologist. The newly married couple relocates to Hong Kong, and soon thereafter Kitty has an affair. Discovering her betrayal, Walter forces her to accompany him into China's interior to help fight a cholera epidemic. In the midst of this crisis, the couple finds their true value for each other.
"I think thematically what drew a lot of us to it the script, was the idea of people transcending their anger and the power of forgiveness," Norton told That's Shanghai.
Indeed, scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner may have changed some specifics of the novel, but the central theme of Maugham's classic tale – a woman's spiritual awakening – remains intact. One of the most popular (and highest paid) authors of his generation, a number of Maugham's most memorable works concern the lives of Western, mostly British, colonists in Asia. The stories typically deal with the tensions and passions accasioned by their isolation. In other words, the stuff of melodrama which may explain the more than 100 adaptations of his works for the screen, including, Being Julia (2004), The Razor's Edge (15, 43, 84), and Of Human Bondage (34). The Painted Veil has been filmed twice before, in 1934, starring Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall, and in 1957, retitled The Seventh Sin.
The latest version, however, is not billed as a remake which may be a wise marketing move given the lukewarm reception received by its predecessors. Garbo's film is remembered as a Garbo film; even the China footage was "borrowed" from 1937's The Good Earth. The 1957 adaptation, directed by Ronald Neame and starring Eleanor Parker, was also short on authenticity and criticized for its wooden acting.
In short, Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore, 04/Praise, 98) won't be criticized for tinkering with a masterpiece. Indeed, the material is solid; he's assembled an impressive cast, and his timing is good – China is a locale that currently draws foreign audiences like bees to honey.
Says Norton: "I think maybe the biggest change in the current production was that the Maugham novel was a very claustrophobic story about these people and their relationship. The book doesn't really explore how China affects the couple; it's more about how they affect each other."
Curran's focus, in contrast to previous versions, is clearly on authenticity, and, by extension, China. Despite the relative ease of shooting in the Philippines or Vietnam, the director chose to shoot the entire film on location here. A fact that Norton emphasizes: "We wanted to make it in China with a Chinese crew, Chinese locations and Chinese actors."
The cast includes Anthony Wong (Infernal Affairs, Golden Chicken and Initial D) and Xia Yu (Sean Xia, Electric Shadows, Waiting Alone and In the Heat of the Sun) both of whom are fluent in English. Though Norton is also multilingual (Japanese, Spanish), he was impressed with the cast's linguistic abilities. "It was sort of shocking to me how well these guys were able to slide over to performing in a second language."
Less shocking, perhaps, is their similar approach to acting. Chinese modern drama lacks indigenous roots; its methodology is based on the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski — known in Chinese as "Uncle Stan". Says Norton: "Xia Yu told me that Chinese acting is all rooted in Stanislavski, which was interesting because it was pretty much the same as what I had studied."
Stanislavski invented The System, later adapted by Lee Strasberg in the US, and the basis of Method acting. The System requires actors to research their role based on the script scenario, their character's motivations and their own experiences. Ideally, the actor motivations should be in sync with that of the character, thereby creating a sense of authenticity.
And authenticity is just what the cast and crew are aiming to provide. The film is set against the background of the May Fourth Movement. Also known as the "the Chinese Enlightenment", it marked a swelling of nationalist sentiment and aimed to unite patriotic Chinese, regardless of class. While the left and right were initially ideological partners, they soon fell out and the country became a battle field of opposing interests.
This tumultuous historical setting adds depth to the film and another dimension to the classic love triangle. Shooting began on the carefully-crafted sets at the Beijing film studios, and later moved to Guangxi with its lush mountain scenery. In between, the cast and crew spent about a week in Shanghai, shooting at Tang Gong Guan (a villa in Hongkou), Moller Villa (Shanxi Lu) and at Shanghai Film Studio's Songjiang facilities (where The White Countess and numerous other Shanghai period films have been filmed).
Granted, shooting on location in China lends the project authenticity, but it is also a way to cut costs. Curran hopes to emulate Director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) in producing a sweeping epic film for a paltry US$ 34 million.
As such, Norton, who's something of a staple in the indie film industry (he's even appeared in commercials for the Independent Film Channel), jumped at the chance to be involved. "Personally, I'm not usually interested in the films that tend to have the biggest budget. I don't usually find that those films are psychologically or emotionally interesting to me."
Arguably, one of Norton's greatest strengths as an actor is his boundless curiosity and his ability to absorb everything around him. Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1969 to Edward Norton Senior, an attorney who works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Robin, an English teacher, he was instilled with a love of learning and an insatiable appetite for knowledge. He has a lifelong interest in acting (at 8, he reportedly asked his drama teacher what his motivation was for a scene), and later studied Japanese culture, photography, flying and literature. Like his parents, he shares a passion for social issues and has been a leading advocate for solar energy, working with British Petroleum to provide solar panels to low-income homes in the L.A. area.
With funding from The Nature Conservancy, a non-profit organization, he accompanied his brother and father to Yunnan to shoot The Yunnan Great Rivers Expedition (2003). The documentary was a family production spearheaded by his father, directed by his brother and narrated by Norton himself.
Norton has also worked as a waiter, proofreader, and a director's assistant. He plays guitar, professional-level poker and has taken a course in soap-making. Thanks to his grandfather, James Rouse, the inventor of the shopping mall, he developed an interest in architecture and worked briefly at the Osaka branch of his grandfather's company before pursuing an acting career.
While in Shanghai, he met with local architect and long-time friend, Christopher Choa; the pair embarked on an architectural tour of Shanghai, ending up at Xintiandi, looking for signs of James Rouse's design legacy. Says Choa, "Rouse was the man who invented the 'festival market' concept, which in many ways was the granddaddy of places like Xintiandi."
Later, Choa took Norton on a tour of his favorite lilongs and then on a shopping expedition at the city's cricket market. "We shambled around the market, hunting for some good-looking crickets and cricket boxes," recounts Choa. "We pushed into some groups to watch some matches – a Chinese-style Fight Club in a bowl. We got a little carried away and ended up buying some slow-motion DVDs of championship cricket fights."
The crickets later made their way to M on the Bund, where one was presented to Norton's co-star Naomi Watts for her birthday. The other escaped and is likely still to be found hobnobbing with other society crickets at M.
While perhaps not directly relevant to researching the role of Walter Fane in the Painted Veil, the cricket market adventure was just one of many experiences Norton used for the project. Indeed, he says that "You use anything that's available to you." An avid photographer, Norton began his research investigating visual resources, pouring over period photographs to gain insights into the texture of the society of the 1920s. "You can see people with the Manchu queue, people in Western dress, Sun Yat Sen in his military uniform and the warlords wearing their grand ceremonial outfits," he marvels. "It was a time where there were so many things overlapping."
In his student days at Yale, Norton attended a lecture by the renowned Sinologist Jonathan Spence. He revisited his class notes for the Painted Veil and studied Spence's history of Western advisors, To Change China (1980). The book documents the many foreign missionaries, soldiers, doctors, teachers, engineers, and revolutionaries, who for more than three hundred years attempted to impose their views on the country. Were Walter Fane not a fictional character, he might have been included amongst these foreigners who believed they could transform the country. "I think he [Fane] is a prototypical Westerner in that era in China, in that he is slightly arrogant in thinking that he can just come in and fix some things without a very broad view of Chinese culture," says Norton. Though underplayed in Maugham's novel, Fane's fatal flaw is his ignorance, and not just of women.
Indeed, Spence's book, like Maugham's, serves as a cautionary tale to modern day businessmen, journalists, politicians – foreign experts of all types – who are foolish enough to think they can change China. A theme that is carried through to the film. "Spence's book was very illuminating about people who fell into that trap in China," says Norton. "The US is still sending people in with this notion that we can fix other people's problems without really understanding the depth of the cultural forces that are there."
This is a topic on which Norton speaks with real passion. He's not acting, but like a good Method actor he will store these feelings and retrieve them when needed – when the lights are on and the camera is rolling.
(That’s Shanghai December 8, 2005)