Edward Norton’s seven-year itch

Edward Norton has been called the greatest actor of his generation, and though he has little use for such superlatives, his intense performances and admitted preference for unconventional roles — “fun, and by that I mean challenging,” he calls them — lend the hyperbolic label some weight.

It was love of a challenge, he says, that initially drew him to “The Painted Veil,” an adaptation of the 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham in which he plays a doctor trapped in an ill-conceived marriage while fighting a cholera epidemic in China. For the 37-year-old Yale graduate, who pushed the project for seven years as its tireless producer, it is the most time-consuming undertaking of his career and a perfect example of the kind of movie he believes rarely gets made.

“If you’re looking for stories to tell, you keep your eyes open, and you begin to recognize certain patterns,” he says. “You see people telling the same stories a lot, and this story was very different. It’s the kind I only see once in a while, an `Out of Africa’ or an ‘English Patient.’ I couldn’t get it out of my brain. Selfishly, I was very tempted by the prospect of going to China and making a movie there because it sounded like a great adventure. If you look around the landscape of movies getting made, you never see these places — I’ve never seen these places.

“Beyond that, there is a timeless quality to the story that anyone who’s ever been in a relationship can relate to, that feeling of falling in love with the ideas you’re projecting onto someone. At some point, you have to confront the reality of who they are and grapple with that. This movie deals in a grown-up way with the things that men and women struggle with, and that is what [co-producer and star] Naomi Watts and I aimed for.”

Norton acknowledges that emotional honesty is not often evident in the most lucrative Hollywood romances, and that “The Painted Veil” would never have been made without persistent prodding from its stars. As his resume attests, he is more concerned with fulfilling an artistic vision than cashing an eight-figure paycheck.

“For me, personally, I’m not that big on spoon-fed romances — you know, a guy and a girl meet because they both love dogs. I don’t care about that,” he says with a grin. “I don’t look at that and see anything I recognize in my own life. Maybe I don’t live in a whimsical world that many other people do, but those things are confections to me. There is no truth in that kind of storytelling.

“For me, it was an easy decision to make ‘American History X,’ ‘Fight Club,’ ‘Down In the Valley’ and ‘25th Hour,’ becausethey land right in the dead-center of my impulse to make movies that reflect my generation’s psychic experience. People can watch those movies and instantly connect — they know those feelings. If I’ve done less of these period romances, it’s because I look at them without recognizing the feelings that inspired them. So it’s a higher standard that a film like this has to aspire to, because if I’m going to relate to a story set in China in the 1920s, there has to be emotional honesty. It has to resonate. And I’m incredibly happy, because ‘The Painted Veil’ achieves that.”

Edward Norton produced and stars in the period romance “The Painted Veil,” a depature for the actor, who’s best known for his work in contemporary dramas.

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