EXCL: Edward Norton and Tim Blake Nelson on Leaves of Grass


For many years, moviegoers knew Tim Blake Nelson as the comedic character actor who would show up in movies like the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl, usually playing the dumb guy. At the same time, Nelson was establishing himself as a fairly intelligent filmmaker with dramatic fare like O and The Grey Zone.

Now, Nelson is back with his new movie Leaves of Grass, a movie closer in tone to some of the comedies he’s appeared in and teaming him with actor Edward Norton in a rare dual role. Norton plays Northeastern college professor Bill Kincaid who learns his drug-dealing twin brother Brady, also played by Norton, has been shot in a deal gone wrong back in his former home of Oklahoma. Bill travels home only to discover not only is Brady still alive but that he’s been forced to relive his past under false pretenses to take part in one of Brady’s elaborate plots to get revenge on a local crime boss.

Although both Nelson and Norton had mostly been doing dramas in their respective careers as director and actor, Leaves of Grass allows them to play around with more comedic material, although it’s just as much a crime movie with a dramatic subplot dealing with Bill being forced to remember a past from which he thought he had escaped.

A few weeks ago at the 2010 South by Southwest Festival, Nelson’s new movie had its U.S. premiere, and ComingSoon.net was thrilled to have a chance to sit down with two of our favorite actors and talk about their movie, which is clearly a labor of love.

ComingSoon.net: Tim, when you came up with this idea, you must have known you needed an actor who could play these two very different parts. You had worked together on “The Incredible Hulk” so did this movie come about around that time?
Edward Norton: No, we met before “The Hulk.” Tim had written a movie called “Seasons of Dust,” it was like a Dust Bowl drama, and we had talked about it. I had read that and seen his film “Grey Zone” and we both live in New York and Tim asked me to read the script and I read it, that’s how we met. And then when he wrote “Leaves of Grass,” it was well before “Hulk.” (to Tim) Actually, you gave it to me the February that I went away that spring to write the script of “Hulk.” When he gave me the script I initially said to him, in a very resistant way, “I’m really settling down to do some writing of my own and I’m not really looking to do a film, but I’m happy to read it.” And he said, “I bet you’ll want to do this.”

CS: When you were writing this, did you have any idea which actor could play both these roles? Did you think about that at all?
Nelson: As soon as I wrote the first monologue… actually, I wrote the first monologue and I thought Edward would be fantastic for this, the scene with the lecture. And then as soon as I wrote Brady, I said, “There’s only one guy who can do this and it’s Edward.” And so he was in my head for the rest of the talk, and then I gave it to him. I didn’t say that I wrote this for him, because I didn’t want to be too sweaty or desperate (laughs), but I certainly was pretty desperate because had he said “no,” I had other people in mind who could’ve done it, but there was nobody even close to Edward in terms of being able to play both characters and get the tonal bandwidth. Because that’s what’s so great about Edward, he can play the comedy as well as the bass notes and the dramatic aspects of the movie. The movie is for better or worse extremely ambitious in its tonal pursuits, and I knew he could…
Norton: He had seen “American History X”… but he’d also seen “Death to Smoochy.”

CS: Had you ever done any sort of Oklahoma accent around Tim before?
Norton: Well, no, I hadn’t really investigated Oklahoma as a particular thing. I have Southern roots, so a lot of that is familiar to me in some sense. I had done Kentucky years ago when I did “Primal Fear,” but we didn’t really dig in on the Oklahomaisms of it until when we were out there really.
Nelson: I knew. I mean, there was no doubt in my mind, because again, what’s great about Edward, in my opinion, is that there’s a real soul there in his acting, so when he sources himself and comes up with the emotional needs for the characters, it’s all incredibly real and truthful, but he’s also a phenomenal actor technically, so I just knew, there was no doubt.

CS: Did you consciously go towards comedy for this? You’d been directing a lot of really dramatic films like “O” and “Grey Zone.” Was it very conscious to go in a different direction this time?
Nelson: Yeah, I did. It was a bit of an ugly time in my life professionally, because I had a movie fall apart. You spend your time alone writing something and you try to cheer yourself up, and so it was nice to laugh while I was writing, and I certainly wanted to try to write something more commercial. Of course, I completely failed in that regard. (Laughs) That’s a joke. I actually think it’s commercial, and also, because I’m an actor, I wanted to write something that would be exciting for a great actor to do, and also something that I couldn’t have pulled off as an actor.

CS: Out of curiosity, as an actor, have you ever done something where you had to turn off the Southern accent?
Nelson: Seldom do I do a role where I’m not doing it in dialect. I was actually told accurately by my speech teacher at acting school, “Tim, every role you do will probably have a dialect… even when you’re trying to be neutral.”
Norton: The truth is that I wrote you a part without a dialect.
Nelson: Oh, right, in “Hulk.”
Norton: Because we had already met and we were already talking about this, just in the early phase, but I had read the script and we had met, so when I was writing “The Hulk,” I wrote in the part of the mad scientist and I went to Louis Leterrier and said, “I’m telling you, I think I already know the right person for it.”

CS: Very cool, I never realized that. How easy was it for you to turn on and off the accent? Were you shooting both characters on the same day a lot of times? You had to for locations, right?
Norton: Yeah, obviously any scene that was only one of them, that was it for the day. We never had to change between them for discreet scenes, but if it was a scene that they were both in together, it had to be on the same day because of the technical demands of how you do that, so pretty early on–our instinct proved correct–which was to always do Brady first. There were some technical reasons for that, just in terms of it was quicker to change from Brady to Bill than from Bill to Brady, physically, but fortunately, it was also right for the scenes. Brady is like a freight train and he’s like a firehose, there’s stuff just pouring out of him, so it was better to make sure that you… it’s hard to explain, but if you’re going to take a guess at one of the two characters and what the rhythm of the scene was going to be for them, it was better to imagine silently the professor’s side of things, since he tends to be a little more reactive than Brady, and then make sure you lay down Brady first. Because once you did one half, you were somewhat constrained, so it was better to let Brady have his rope and have everything pour out of him that might improvisationally pour out of him, then let Bill react.

CS: Were you able to do any improvisation due to the technical aspects of doing a dual role?
Norton: Oh, yeah, yeah. Improvisation certainly and then also a lot of collaborative improvisation, “Try this line, try that line.” “Guzzled your custard” was Tim’s on-the-fly…
Nelson: Also, just specifically what’s really remarkable about what Edward did is that I would write a line, an interchange between the two characters, and he would figure out how to attenuate it in a way that was truly conversational. My favorite achievement in that regard is actually my favorite scene in the movie is such a scene in which the dialogue as I wrote it was… it’s an interchange about analytic philosophy and epistemology, and it’s a two-shot with Brady and Bill. He says, “There was a word in there… episte… episte…” “Epistemology.” “Epistewhat?” “Epistemology.” “Epistemology… bingo.” And what I wrote was: “There was a word in there…” “Epistemology.” “Epistemology, bingo.” The little simple interchanges like that, that I wrote in a more direct and less conversational way, Edward was able to just stretch out in a more casual conversational off-hand real way.
Norton: It’s weird, it’s like Mark Twain’s famous line about “the best extemporaneous speech is the one that’s meticulously rehearsed,” but you do realize that to avoid the sensation of there being a split-screen ping-pong going back and forth, the thing you have to create is the appearance of overlap. Conversations are messy like we’re all having conversation, it’s messy…

CS: Right…
Norton: Like you just overlapped me right there. I felt that if you designed just a few of those things, those would be the things that would buff out the seams. We did it in a couple ways that were kind of unexpected and fun, little on-the-fly things we discovered like right at the end of their first scene together, when he realizes he’s been fooled, and the one goes to kick the other one and he flinches. What was great was that since the seam between them can kind of shift, he was actually able to come across closer, further across the 50-50 line then you would have thought, and really go into the other guy’s face and make him flinch. Or one guy leaning in on the other. I think if you create just a few little moments, it helps people start to think that they’re inhabiting the same space.

CS: Absolutely, and it definitely worked. I talked with Sam Rockwell when he did “Moon” and how they managed that.
Norton: But also Tim and Roberto (Schaefer, the cinematographer) also did things that helped it like instead of just doing static locked-offs by doing some of these things with a computer motion-controlled camera, we were able to do moving shots where they’re walking and one moving in front of the other. I think it’s also subtle, like camera movement also buff away that sensation that this is just a split screen.

CS: You’re both writers and actors and you go back and forth. I talk to a lot of screenwriters, who spend time writing things that never get made. Do you avoid the frustrations most writers have to deal with by just throwing yourself into acting after writing something?
Norton: To me, well, some of it doesn’t have to do with the right brain, “Well, what am I going to do with my time?” Some of it is… I certainly think with Tim, some of us are writing because that’s organic to who you are and you want to say things, but sure, I definitely find in my life that the vicissitudes of being an actor in the sense that you’re always waiting to some degree as an actor. If you’re of a certain temperament, that’s no fun, and so you write to have control. Not to have control, that’s not the right word, but to have autonomy, to create something for yourself without waiting on someone else.

CS: But you also have to direct to have full control as I’m sure you know.
Norton: Well, yeah exactly.
Nelson: I’ve been lucky in that other than “Seasons of Dust,” which will get made as well, everything I’ve written I’ve been able to get made. I think that has a lot to do with my relationships with actors, because I think in the current financing models, you still need to attract actors to be able to get financing, and I know people (chuckles) because I get to work with them. The reason this movie got made is because Edward agreed to do it, and I just love writing. I couldn’t live without it. I do it every day. It’s like water seeping into cracks in the sidewalk. If that sidewalk is time and the cracks are the spare time I have, the water just goes to them… it’s essential to my life.

Leaves of Grass opens exclusively in New York and Dallas at the Angelika Film Center on Friday April 2, then opens in Austin on April 9 and in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 16.