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Norton explores life behind bars in 'Stone'

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Edward Norton came to the Stephen F. Austin Hotel to promote 'Stone' last month. On making the movie and talking to people behind bars, he says, 'It's an amazing opportunity.'

Next time you're frustrated with work or a project around the house, just remember that sometimes even the pros get stumped.

Just a week before shooting his new movie, "Stone," two-time Academy Award nominee Edward Norton didn't have a grasp on the physicality of the title character, he said during last month's Fantastic Fest.

Then he visited a prison in Jackson, Mich., and had a breakthrough. Norton engaged in a revealing conversation with the man who started the Crips gang in Detroit. After hearing an explanation of the film's script and themes, the former gang leader said he knew a fellow inmate who would be the perfect inspiration for the actor.

"They brought this other guy in, and he came into the room and he started talking, and I was done. He had the cornrows, and he had that sandpaper-and-glass, kind of shattered voice, and he was fascinating," Norton said. "He was like a doppelgänger for Stone in the script in my view. He really was a guy who, from his early, early days had been marginalized into the drug culture by a boyfriend of his mother's who was a dealer. And yet, by being institutionalized for a long, long time, he had cobbled together a sense of how to build himself into a spiritual person, because he really wanted to get out. (Director) John (Curran) and I walked out together and he was like, 'Done. If you can get anything like half of that into it, we're great.' So these guys were enormously helpful. I channeled that guy pretty much."

So much for being stumped.

In "Stone," Norton plays a convicted arsonist who is set to face yet another in a string of fruitless parole hearings. Sitting between him and his freedom is stoic correctional officer Jack Mabry (Robert De Niro), who is just weeks from retirement from a life served as judge and jury of other men's lives.

Though the script suffers at times from heavy-handed treatment of philosophical and religious themes, the movie is a raw pleasure for moviegoers who are offered the rare pleasure of getting to see two heavyweights trade feints and jabs.

Despite external appearances of a life of order and justice, a flashback at the beginning of the movie paints De Niro's Mabry as a deeply tortured soul whose darkness is slowly revealed.

"I think the film is about Jack. I think it's about a person who is a stone — who has all the props and surfaces of a real life but has no emotion and has no spiritual life. And it's killing him," Norton said of De Niro's character. "The denial of his emptiness catches up with him where he can't sit in a chair and judge other people; he can't fob it off onto others. And you see Stone thrown up against the rock of him. That's why I so admire Bob's performance in it, because he holds for such a long time. The forming of the cracks in him is so nuanced, and when he busts, you get this sensation of decades of repressed emptiness coming out. I felt like he was really getting at things relevant to the place he is in life. ... It's so rare actors who have that level of discipline that he does, to not make everything telegraphed, to let it boil that slow. To me, the thing with him is the sense of this deep, inner turning going on. And it's what makes so many of (his) characters great to me."

Norton wasn't the only person on the set who admired the man who has been devastating audiences for more than 40 years. Filming inside the claustrophobic confines of a functioning prison meant the actors and crew were within close proximity of inmates, who let their presence and appreciation for De Niro be known.

"At one point, Bob's out on the phone ... and I was like, 'What is that guy saying?'\u2009" Norton said of an inmate yelling at his co-star from across the yard. "And I realized he was doing that line from 'Raging Bull,' 'I've got no choice!' ... and 'Don't overcook it. It defeats the purpose.' "

With two of the best actors of their respective generations mesmerizingly chewing so much scenery, it would seem the role of having to step in between them as the third piece of a twisted love triangle would be daunting.

In an inspired bit of casting, Milla Jovovich (best known for her recurring role in the "Resident Evil" franchise) plays Stone's wife, Lucetta, who attempts to seduce Jack in an effort to hasten Stone's release from prison. While De Niro and Norton deliver spectacular performances, Jovovich's nuanced portrayal turns out be the movie's revelation.

"I thought she was just tremendous," Norton said. "(Director) John (Curran) put that thing in that you start as a stone, you become an insect, you have to go through being an animal, all the way up to being human. His whole thing was that these ... characters are all at points along this thing. And his whole thing about Lucetta was that she is an animal ... not that she's an 'animal,' but that she's not yet to the place of super-consciousness. She doesn't have existential anxiety. She doesn't have problems the way we have problems. And I think that Milla pulled off this remarkable thing in that she is a manipulator, she is manipulating, and yet she's not ... And I think it's very, very hard to pull off paradox in a character, and she was dangerous but also very innocent, very guileless. ... I love it when you see someone beautiful but there's a weirdness to it."

As has become a bit of a trademark for him, Norton wrestles with the idea of opposites as Stone — a character who feels like the least likely candidate for a spiritual transformation — evolves and transcends his imprisoned world. The inspiration for his latest complex character is not the only thing Norton took away from his time behind bars.

"I mean, what would ever take me inside a Michigan prison for two weeks to talk to guys?" Norton said. "Just a couple of weeks of talking to people who are incarcerated about how their mother was a prostitute ... and how they came up through the system and what it was like. ... It cultivates an expanded view and perspective on your own life. It's an amazing opportunity."

modam@statesman.com