Quick: Name Edward Norton’s highest-grossing film. In a two-decade career that’s earned him plenty of accolades and three Oscar nominations, the 47-year-old actor has still never had a movie make more money than 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, which brought in about $135 million domestically. It’s also the movie that encapsulated the perception problem that’s plagued Norton for much of his career. Sure, he’s a star — you know his name, his face and his work — but he’s not necessarily someone whom most audiences will rush out to see in whatever he does. The Incredible Hulk was the first, and only, time in which his career trajectory would be so directly connected to the box office performance of a blockbuster. And because that movie was considered a huge disappointment relative to its budget ($150 million) and because of rabid fan expectations, the experience supposedly hurt his reputation and cemented his legacy as a famously “difficult” actor.
But that legacy misunderstands Norton, The Incredible Hulk and what he’s done since.
Norton was born in Boston and raised in Columbia, Maryland, a planned community created by his grandfather James Rouse, an urban planner and philanthropist who believed in the importance of integrating races and economic classes within neighborhoods. He played a big role in shaping Norton’s seriousness of purpose: “He would say, ‘Go at the hardest things because no problem is insoluble,’” Norton said of Rouse in 2010.
After graduating from Yale — and a short stint working for his grandfather’s company — Norton got his first big acting break when he decided to reach out to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? playwright Edward Albee. (“I looked him up in the phone book and he was listed,” Norton later recalled to Entertainment Weekly.) Norton tried selling the Pulitzer Prize winner on letting him stage a one-act Albee play that had never been produced. Albee declined, but he let Norton audition for a new work, Fragments. The young actor landed the part. “I was 24, and it was the first check I ever got for acting,” he said in the same EW interview. “It was one of those experiences you just don’t forget. It was my first experience working with a great, great playwright.”
Soon after, Norton got his first film role in 1996’s Primal Fear, in which he played an altar boy accused of murder. The thriller was ostensibly a Richard Gere vehicle, but Norton stole the movie and snagged an Oscar nomination in the process. It was a mesmerizing turn, but he resisted Hollywood’s allure, prompting someone close to him to tell the L.A. Times, “I’ve seen [red-hot actors] turn into Brad Pitt or I’ve also seen them have their moment and fade away. Edward wants to let his work speak for himself. His view of it is, the less you know about an actor, the more you can enjoy their performance.”
So while Norton kept a low public and personal profile, he appeared in front of the camera as much as possible — co-starring in a romantic-comedy musical (Everyone Says I Love You), a political biopic (The People vs. Larry Flynt) and a cult-classic indie drama (Rounders) in quick succession. By the end of the decade, he had established himself as an actor’s actor by playing a violent neo-Nazi in American History X (scoring his second Oscar nomination) and co-starring with Pitt in the zeitgeist-y toxic-masculinity primer Fight Club.
Along the way, however, Norton began to establish a pattern of clashing with his directors. Stories started circulating that he and American History X filmmaker Tony Kaye fought in the editing room, and Kaye later called his star “a narcissistic dilettante” who had butchered the finished product. (In a sign of Norton’s growing influence, he got final cut on American History X — a privilege usually guaranteed to the director.)
The early aughts saw Norton flirting with stardom in so-so mainstream projects (The Score) while simultaneously making more challenging films, like Spike Lee’s superb post-9/11 drama 25th Hour. He could play intense figures, like American History X’s racist Derek Vinyard, but as the drug-dealing Monty in 25th Hour, he proved just as capable of portraying a regular guy who discovers he’s got a pretty great life only after he’s going to lose it all thanks to a long prison sentence.
Norton also appeared in relatively big hits like Red Dragon and The Italian Job, but he was always the other guy in the film. He wasn’t a star like Anthony Hopkins or Mark Wahlberg who drew you to the theater, but he was certainly somebody you were happy to have in the movie’s ensemble. Even in Fight Club, he was the meeker version of Pitt’s more outrageous character. But that seemed to speak to Norton’s own reluctance to go full Hollywood. “I always felt that that [celebrity] stuff is very corrosive, not just to your quality of life, but to what people see on screen,” Norton said in 2012. “To me, all that is baggage that gets between the audience and the character that you’re trying to make come to life. There shouldn’t be all this pollution in between.”
He directed his first feature with 2000’s underrated romantic comedy-drama Keeping the Faith — about longtime friends, a rabbi (Norton) and a priest (Ben Stiller), who fall in love with the same woman (Jenna Elfman). But his auteur-esque instincts were perhaps even more in evidence after he initially resisted starring in a comic book movie about an infamous scientist who turns into a giant green monster whenever he’s angry.
When Marvel approached Norton to play Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk, the company was hoping to relaunch the property after being unhappy with director Ang Lee’s risk-taking but ill-conceived and commercially underwhelming 2003 iteration Hulk. Norton was reluctant until he was promised a certain amount of creative control over conceiving the character. In fact, he ended up doing a pretty substantial rewrite to the existing script, trying to deepen Banner’s backstory and motivations. Not unlike the situation that occurred on American History X, Norton butted heads during post-production — except this time it was with Marvel, not his director, Louis Leterrier. The studio wanted a streamlined action movie; Norton wanted the character-driven piece he’d envisioned.
When Marvel won that battle, the disagreement spilled out into the entertainment press, with outlets like Entertainment Weekly reporting on the feud months before The Incredible Hulk’s release. (In EW’s article, a producer who had worked with Norton in the past, commented, “You have to be prepared. You are not dealing with an actor who’s not going to have an opinion.”) Journalists began to spin the story as part of a larger pattern of Norton being demanding — sometimes seemingly ridiculously so. The L.A. Times published a rundown of Norton’s history of clashing with filmmakers — including a report of Norton rejecting his wardrobe for the forgettable 2002 dark comedy Death to Smoochy in favor of “a suit made of hemp from Armani.” “Preparation is very important,” Norton said in 2012 about his general approach to getting into a character. “I start by looking at many things, from clothes to music to voice. I know it sounds weird, but sometimes figuring out the clothes can really start to help you inhabit a character.”
The Incredible Hulk’s behind-the-scenes drama, ironically, was exactly the sort of thing Norton had sought to avoid in his career: Before the movie came out, the “baggage that gets between the audience and the character” was all anyone could see. Reviews for Norton’s Hulk movie were only slightly better than for Ang Lee’s, and the box office was comparable as well. As a result, The Incredible Hulk was branded a disaster. Marvel was once again forced to shelve the idea of making the Hulk a major film property, just as Iron Man was about to kick-start the company’s slate of blockbuster movies. It would be another four years until Marvel could bring the Hulk back, this time casting Mark Ruffalo as the big green monster in The Avengers.
The fallout from The Incredible Hulk undoubtedly damaged Norton’s public persona and probably permanently quashed the idea of him being the kind of A-list superstar that, for some actors, is the pinnacle of success. But if it bothered Norton, it didn’t seem to show. He simply went back to work, appearing alongside his Score costar Robert De Niro in the low-budget drama Stone. Crucially, he also hooked up with acclaimed filmmaker Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, playing funnier characters than his normal. (He’ll be involved in his third collaboration with Anderson on the just-announced stop-motion animated film Isle of Dogs.) And he earned his third Oscar nomination for Birdman, in which he played an egotistical Broadway actor looking to capsize Michael Keaton’s has-been star’s attempt at a comeback.
Much was made of the fact that, in Birdman, Keaton was playing a washed-up actor who used to be the hero in comic-book movies — a riff on the fact that Keaton used to play Batman. But the joke applied to Norton and The Incredible Hulk, too; he seemed to love sending up his image as the demanding, difficult diva actor.
At the time of Birdman’s release, Norton admitted to The Independent that he had softened in the years since The Incredible Hulk and gained a healthier perspective. “You start to think at the beginning, when you are younger, you think that it’s more empowering to be able to communicate on a public forum,” he explained. “And I think that as you get older, you realize that what you are trying to do is protect the authenticity of what you are doing, rather than trying to project things onto the world.” It was his way of acknowledging his more impassioned younger self while also affirming the importance of fighting for what you believe in.
He also didn’t see his past — or the underwhelming response to The Incredible Hulk — as a bad thing. “I really, really enjoyed it,” he said on Fresh Air in 2014, of playing the Hulk. “And yet I looked at the balance of time in life that one spends not only making those sorts of films, but then especially putting them out and obligations that rightly come with that. … I think you can sort of do anything once, but if you do it too many times it can become a suit that’s hard to take off in other people’s eyes. And if I had continued on with it, I wouldn’t have made Moonrise Kingdom or Grand Budapest or Birdman because those all overlapped with [playing the Hulk] — and those were more the priority for me.”
This is the dilemma actors face when they land a big role: Do I stick with this sure thing, or do I keep moving around and see what happens? Partly because The Incredible Hulk ended up not working, Norton got the opportunity to choose the latter and readjust his priorities. It made all the difference.