Edward Norton’s odd career trajectory has established him as a guy who can play offbeat leading men or memorable bit parts, anything from the reformed skinhead of “American History X” to the cartoonishly no-nonsense scoutmaster in “Moonrise Kingdom.”
Since he shot to prominence in 1996 with his first film role, as a hick sociopath in “Primal Fear,” which snagged him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, he remains best known for playing a mousy office drone turned brawler in “Fight Club.”
The newest notch in Norton’s meandering resume, a conceited stage actor in “Birdman,” showcases his knack for being annoying in a really engaging way. The movie, which opens Friday in Kansas City, tracks a fraught few days in the life of has-been Hollywood action hero Riggan (Michael Keaton), who is gambling on a shot at career redemption by directing and starring in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story.
When a co-star gets beaned by a floodlight during rehearsal, the talented but exasperating Mike Shiner (Norton) is brought in as a last-minute replacement and wastes no time ruffling feathers, onstage and off.
For Norton, saying yes to a role in “Birdman” was “a foregone conclusion” based on writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s previous work, including 2006 best-picture nominee “Babel” and the 2010 drama “Biutiful,” starring Javier Bardem as a dying man attempting to right some wrongs.
“I told him anything he ever wanted to do with me, I don’t need to read it first,” Norton said. When he did read the script, “each scene was more dynamic and strange than the last.”
By phone, Norton sounds far too genial to be included in a list of “10 celebrities no one wants to work with” making the rounds online.
Though he has had past dust-ups with directors, and his own turn at playing superhero “The Incredible Hulk” was replaced by Mark Ruffalo in “The Avengers,” he comes across as completely on board with Inarritu’s vision for “Birdman.”
“He gave us this common emotional core to work from,” Norton said, with an intent for that effect to spill over onto the audience as well.
“This is a story about a person in crisis, a very emotionally and spiritually desperate moment, so these long takes keep everyone in that bubble, where there’s no relief, no escape. You can’t remember how you got from the beginning to the end.”
One of the most buzzed-about aspects of the film is how it seems to be shot in just a few long takes, and many of them were just that.
“We’re trained to expect visual stories to unfold along certain lines, following certain conventions,” he said.
“Inarritu says, and I agree, that life flows seamlessly like dreams. You transition from place to place not with crisp scene cuts, but non sequiturs. It was a bold, unusual thing to attempt and could so easily have not worked, but watching it unfold, it’s magical.”
While Keaton is still best known for playing “Batman” a couple of times long before the Dark Knight rose, this is no case of life imitating art, Norton said: Keaton is “the opposite of that ego-tortured, trapped Riggan, and that’s part of what makes him so great in the role.”
“He has the most fantastic, insouciant, tossed-off quality about him that makes you think his life is a lot bigger and more interesting than just his career.”
Norton next plans to direct and star in a film adaptation of the 1999 Jonathan Lethem novel “Motherless Brooklyn.” Set in the 1950s, the hard-boiled but brainy whodunit features a central character tailor-made for Norton’s talents, a detective with Tourette syndrome trying to find out who stabbed his boss. Norton was vague and tight-lipped about the status of the project.
“We’re working hard to assemble the resources in the window of time that we have,” he said firmly, repeating the phrase verbatim when pressed for details.
Sounds like the way the bland Narrator of “Fight Club” might put it.
“Birdman,” starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone, opens Friday in Kansas City.