The Real Edward Norton Revealed

Edward Norton on CBS News Sunday Morning With Charles Osgood.
You may know Edward Norton as the disturbed — and disturbing — defendant in the movie "Primal Fear," or the equally memorable skinhead from "American History X."

Norton earned Oscar nominations for both.

He's been called the Man of Many Faces but, reports CBS News correspondent Erin Moriarty, at a recent screening of his latest film in Baltimore, Norton was just a familiar face, the hometown boy back among old friends.

He grew up in nearby Columbia, Md., one local told Moriarty, and, "Howard County is sort of his old stomping ground. And he hasn't forgotten where he came from. He continues to give back to our community in various ways."

"I know probably half the people (at the screening), at least," Norton noted to Moriarty on CBS News Sunday Morning "and this is the theater I grew up going to movies in. And I saw 'Star Wars' here, you know? And it's still one of the best screens on the East Coast."

Norton seems sweet, thoughtful and warm, Moriarty observes, in short, nothing like the characters he plays.

"I find myself more drawn towards things that seem extremely exotic to me or foreign to me, because it's much more interesting to me," he says.

Norton's first role in a major film was that of a young man with multiple personalities in "Primal Fear." He got the part after the Ivy League-educated Northerner convinced the casting director that he was really a poor kid from Kentucky.

"What I did was effective enough that it sorta spooked out the casting director," Norton recalls. "I realized that she was sorta buying it at that level, and then figured I'd just keep it up for awhile."

As for the Southern accent, Norton says, "Well, it's like anything else. I think you gotta immerse yourself in it one way or the other. But I think I actually just watched 'Coal Miner's Daughter' over and over again. I figured Sissy Spacek had it pretty good. So I just modeled mine after hers."

His riveting performance, Moriarty points out, won him his first Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actor.

His second nomination, this time for Best Actor, was for his role in "American History X."

"Again," Norton says, "it was one that I felt incredibly passionate about. ... because I saw things in it that I felt I recognized in people my age, you know ... like anger, anger without direction, anger being aimed at the wrong things. ... It's about somebody who could have been anything, who takes himself down and everybody around him, because he can't control one aspect of his personality."

Norton's character in his latest film, which he also helped produce, is a bit of a departure for him, He still plays a complex and troubled man but, for the first time, Norton is the romantic lead, opposite Naomi Watts.

"We've been getting a wonderful response to the film," Norton says.

"The Painted Veil," based on a book by W. Somerset Maugham, is set in the 1920s. It's the story of Dr. Walter Fane and his wife, Kitty, of an unhappily married English couple living in China. When Kitty cheats on him, Walter takes a job in a remote village in the grip of a cholera epidemic, and forces Kitty to come along.

"The thing I liked about Walter," Norton points out, "is the thing I liked about most of the characters I get drawn toward, which is ... he's a character who, on initial presentation, seems limited in a lot of ways, and in many ways un-likeable. But through continual peeling back of the onion, in a way, he just keeps revealing these layers you don't expect from him."

Initially, Norton had some trouble raising money for the film, because "The Painted Veil" had already been made into a film twice. One adaptation starred Greta Garbo. Neither version did well at the box office.

So, the screenplay for this version goes beyond Maugham's novel and, to the delight of movie critics, was actually filmed where the story takes place, in a small Chinese village.

"You must have been gratified then when the Times actually said this was one of those rare times when Hollywood did a better movie than the original book," Moriarty remarked.

"Yeah, well, you know, it's always nice to improve upon a classic!" Norton responded.