Edward Norton made his screen debut in 1996's Primal Fear, earning not only a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination but a certain Hollywood cachet as the Next Big Thing. However, unlike the fizzled up-and-comers who came before him, Edward delivered, scoring two Oscar nods after just six films.
But then that shouldn't come as a surprise: this is after all the actor who, aged eight, asked his drama teacher what his motivation should be in a scene from Annie Get Your Gun.
Edward James Norton was born on August 18, 1969, to Edward Norton Sr, an environmental attorney, and former teacher Robin, who succumbed to cancer in 1997. The actor, the eldest of three siblings, grew up in Columbia, Maryland, a town designed by his maternal grandfather, urban planner and creator of the shopping mall, James Rouse.
After studying history at Yale, during which time he visited Japan as a representative for his grandfather's non-profit-making Enterprise Foundation, Edward moved to New York, where he played the part of the starving artist before finding success with the Signature Theatre Company. He later beat 2000 hopefuls including Matt Damon for the crucial role in the Richard Gere thriller Primal Fear, and headed to Tinseltown to begin taking up the mantle of "greatest actor of his generation", bestowed upon him by critics.
Prodigiously talented, Edward re-creates himself from film to film. In Primal Fear, he was a cowering altar-boy with a speech impediment; two years later he transformed into a buff, neo-Nazi for American History X. He earned Oscar nominations for both. He has since put "a needle in the eye of everything that was wrong with the 20th century" alongside Brad Pitt in Fight Club and held his own opposite Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando in The Score. And in 2000 he made his directorial debut due in part to the urging of both Warren Beatty and Milos Forman with Keeping The Faith, Hollywood's first "$20 million rabbi/priest joke", as he describes it.
Edward once linked to his The People Vs Larry Flynt co-star Courtney Love remains reticent on his personal life. "There are higher-minded conversations to be had than talking about my fairly humdrum daily life," he says, though he found himself in the papers more than once during his four-year relationship with sultry star Salma Hayek, which ended in 2003.
"He's not comfortable with being famous," adds Yale classmate Stuart Blumberg, with whom he wrote Keeping The Faith. "He hasn't mastered the art of being a fake celebrity, but to his friends Edward's the quintessentially normal guy. He's funniest when he's just being a nerdy goofball."
However, Edward isn't always a nerdy goofball. In fact, he isn't always a dream to work with either, reports American History X director Tony Kaye, among others. But Blumberg puts Edward's supposed difficulty down to his distaste for mediocrity. "It's a function of being unable to hold back when he sees something that could be working at a different, higher level," he says.
"There's the part of Edward that taught himself Japanese at 16; but there's the part of Edward that tells you he taught himself Japanese at 16," offers another colleague. Considering he has the goods in spades its difficult to blame Master Norton for being a bit self-assured.