Edward Norton's prodigious acting ability on full display in 'Pride and Glory'

Ed Symkus

Edward Norton has been a film actor for audiences to marvel at in the dozen years since he made his debut in “Primal Fear” as a soft-spoken murder suspect with two wildly different personalities. He crooned in “Everyone Says I Love You,” played a chilling neo-Nazi in “American History X,” darkly but comically beat the hell out of himself in “Fight Club” and displayed a physical gracefulness in “The Illusionist.”

His two performances this year – as Bruce Banner and his big green alter ego in “The Incredible Hulk,” and as Ray Tierney, a good cop lost in a swirl of bad cops in “Pride and Glory” – come across as two distinct master classes in acting. It’s hard to believe it’s the same guy in both films.

The Boston native spoke at the Toronto Film Festival about the questions going through his mind while playing a character who had to worry, simultaneously, about solving a grisly crime and protecting his own family, as well as what he gets out of his own moviegoing experiences. He also shared a moment of watching another actor’s work really knock him out.

“It’s a very American thing to do,” Norton says of audiences rooting for his character, who is forced to go up against almost impossible odds in the film. “We’ve always made heroes out of guys who put the badge on and are the insulation between chaos and everybody else.”

Yet during his research for the part, when he went around speaking to a number of New York police officers about the way they do their job, and how they would handle the problems his character encounters, he was surprised at some of their answers.

“The cops we talked to said they would let a lot slide before they would step up and actually voice in a public way their protests about something,” he says. “I got the sense in talking to some of them that they almost resented being put into that kind of position. I thought the idea of someone being at war between opposing instincts within himself was interesting.”

In the film’s tragic storyline, Norton’s character finds himself confronting his brother-in-law (Colin Farrell), a cop that has gone to the dark side as far as taking money and killing those who would try to stop him.

“I found that the script was also a conversation about what happens when those badges have become institutional, when they become institutions to protect us,” he says. “We’ve been going through this huge crucible of scandals in recent years of how far do you support going in the name of protecting ourselves.”

Speaking very slowly, carefully thinking through each answer, sometimes laboring to make his thoughts clear, he mentions that one of the most fascinating components of the film was that all of the characters seemed to have a much easier time telling the truth outside of their families.

“The idea that the most difficult places to talk about things was within your family was a very true observation,” he says. “It was [my character’s] most difficult area to be forthcoming in.”

And he’s not the least bit concerned that not everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end

“One of the strengths of the story is [the writers] laid out characters who span a spectrum of responses to the job – people making proactive choices, people in the middle, people making all kinds of different decisions,” he explains. “If you can leave viewers walking away with a lot of questions about their responses to these issues, that’s more important than what it was about.

“If you walk out of a film being unresolved about something, to me, that’s a successful film. My favorite films leave a lot of questions in your lap so you have to chew over the way they balance within you.”

But seemingly even more important for Norton is what can happen on the set, what another actor can do that bumps everyone and everything up to another level. He specifically mentions the performance by Jon Voight, who plays his character’s father, a veteran cop with a drinking problem who puts the importance of family above everything else.

“You have funny moments working on a movie,” he says. “I had ideas about Ray’s relationship to his dad, and how invested he is, or not, in his dad’s view of things. When we did the family holiday dinner scene, Jon did this stuff that wasn’t scripted in any way. It wasn’t scripted that he was a few drinks past the legal limit throughout that sequence. I thought it was a funny choice at first, but then we got down on the scene and all of a sudden all of this emotion starts coming off of Jon, of him having a profound reaction when he was saying these things to his family at the table. And that changed the whole movie – in the best way. All of a sudden all of the stakes of the movie were really clear to me. At the end of the scene the stakes in the whole movie just tripled – everything that’s gonna happen is destroyed by what Jon just laid out. It was one of the most notable experiences of making movies for me.”

“Pride and Glory” opens Oct. 24.

Ed Symkus can be reached