Edward Norton’s Breakthrough Role Made Possible by a Fax Machine

March 7, 2020

Presented annually by the Casting Society of America, the Artios Awards celebrate excellence in casting film, television, and theater. This year at the 35th Artios ceremony,  Casting Director Deborah Aquila (La La Land, Shawshank Redemption, Dexter, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape) was recognized for her myriad of achievements. In turn, one of the many actors she discovered along the way gave a speech honoring her work—Edward Norton. 

The 50-year-old star reflected on his breakthrough into the biz: portraying Aaron Stampler, an altar boy who’s charged with murdering a Roman Catholic Archbishop in the 1996 noir drama Primal Fear. Aquila selected the then-unknown Norton from a pool of two thousand other actors, but he only came onto her radar because he initially sent her a fax. That’s right—the cutting-edge technology of the time.

“I sent a fax to her at Paramount—dating myself—trying to desperately say … you saw me for this animated short in front of an independent at Sundance, or something like that, and I’d love to get in [for an audition],” Norton told the Artios crowd. “[Aquila] responded to it. I got that audition. She was seeing thousands and thousands of people for that part. What happened, happened, and then there were lots of stories about the way it could have gone down. It started to kind of focus on me.”

One actor who passed on the role was Leonardo DiCaprio who had his hands full with Titanic at the time. So Norton took the opportunity to show Aquila the best he had to offer. He continued:

“When I went in to audition for ‘Primal Fear,’ I asked if I could come into the room. Then, Deb came into the room, and I was sitting on the floor by the couch in the scene in the prison cell. Deb took a look at me and grasped that I didn’t want to chat, that I just wanted to get into it. She came over, pushed the table aside, and sat down on the floor with me. I looked at her and realized, ‘There is no assistant. She doesn’t have a script in her hand. She’s sitting down to do the scene with me. So, let’s go.’ And she did.”

Primal Fear went on to be Norton’s feature debut and earned him a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor as well as his first Academy Award nomination. On top of it, the film was a box-office hit, and it kicked off his prolific acting career. Norton’s subsequent films include Fight Club, American History X, Rounders, 25th Hour, The Score, FridaMotherless Brooklyn, and The Incredible Hulk. And over the years, he’s received a total of three Oscar nods—one for his performance in American History X, another for the black comedy Birdman, and of course, another for Primal Fear

Raised in Maryland, Norton discovered his intrigue with theatrical productions as a kindergartener after seeing a local musical production of Cinderella. At the age of eight, he made his professional debut in the musical Annie Get Your Gun at a local theater. And as a teen, he won the acting cup at an annual summer camp for boys in New Hampshire. After graduating from Yale College in 1991, Norton moved to New York with aspirations of becoming an actor, worked odd jobs and took acting lessons. 

Deborah Aquila not only has a keen and remarkable eye for talent, but she clearly has an open mind when it comes to new talent. And as Norton presented her with the Artios’ Hoyt Bowers Award, he let her know just how much he appreciates that.


Is Film at Its Worst?

July 20, 2015

Actor director Dustin Hoffman’s recent interview with The Independent has people debating whether cinema is currently at its worst. Best known for his roles in The Graduate, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Rain Man, as well as being nominated for an Academy Award seven times, Hoffman told the publication his beliefs on the subject, saying, “I think right now television is the best that it’s ever been, and I think that it’s the worst that film has ever been–in the 50 years that I’ve been  doing it, it’s the worst.”

What’s to blame? He asserts, “It’s hard to believe you can do good work for the little amount of money these days. We did ‘The Graduate’ and that film still sustains, it had a wonderful script that they spent three years on, and an exceptional director with an exceptional cast and crew, but it was a small movie, four walls and actors, that is all, and yet it was 100 days of shooting.” Compare that to many modern movies which can be made in a striking 20 to 30 days–of course besides the extravagant Hollywood films that feature comic strip themes or an ambitious movie like Jurassic World which was shot in 78 days. The reduced budgets associated with today’s dramas, skyrocketing marketing costs, along with the fact that digital technology empowers movies to be shot more quickly is arguably affecting the quality of cinema.

But consider in just the first half of 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fast & Furious 7, and Jurassic World have each surpassed billion-dollar profits across the globe. And some experts predict this year will become the most booming year to date when you take into account other lucrative hits like 50 Shades of Grey and American Sniper–and then add upcoming films like the Mission Impossible, Star Wars, and Hunger Games franchise movies which will be released the second half of this year. So clearly regardless of this debate, people are still willing to spend their hard-earned cash on what’s showing in theaters. Indeed, studios are largely focussing on franchises, adaptations, and remakes in recent years which come with built-in audiences; they’re less willing to take financial risks on original storylines.

However, some people disagree with Hoffman’s point about the overall state of today’s cinema. After all, films like Boyhood which was shot intermittently over eleven years and with a tiny budget of four million, and Birdman which was shot in just 30 days with a low budget of eighteen million prove that good quality movies can and do get made these days. Birdman star Edward Norton said in an interview with Indiewire last year, “I feel like people are always talking about the business and how hard it is. But [David] Fincher’s got a terrific movie. Alejandro’s [Gonzalez Inarritu] got this movie; Wes [Anderson] has made one of his best movies ever. Richard Linklater made another great movie. Paul Thomas Anderson has made another great movie. Bennet Miller’s movie is incredible. Do you know what I mean? I mean like, c’mon. You can’t get cynical … what more do you want? How many good movies do you expect there to be?”

So with whom do you tend to agree? Do you side with Dustin Hoffman and say today’s films are seriously lacking in quality? Or do you think Edward Norton’s point about people being too cynical is a more accurate description what’s going on these days?