'Stone,' on its surface, is a classic story about a correctional officer and a prisoner; underneath, however, are swirling currents about religion, convention, and spiritual rebirth -- can someone who's sinned be redeemed? Can someone who's never sinned recover from just one sin? Brought home via Norton's (and De Niro's) super-raw performance, the messages of the film are driven hard and deep.
Moviefone caught up with Norton at the Toronto Film Festival, where he chatted about his cornrows, the abandonment of Detroit and playing a prisoner on the verge of a spiritual awakening.
You have no cornrows now. I have to say I'm disappointed. Were those painful to get?
[Laughs] I had this wonderful woman from downtown Detroit, Crystal. She treated me kindly.
So 'Stone' was filmed in Detroit. How did that affect your character or the film at large?
I started nosing around in Detroit to really figure out who my character was -- like, "Who is this guy?" Detroit is ... man. That is one of the most incredible landscapes I've ever seen in my life. It's like a city going back to nature. It's so feral. I've never seen abandonment like that.
Yes, exactly. That was so compelling. John [Curran, the director] had this urgency to really try to locate this in the landscape of corrosion, abandonment and decay. He was interested in the idea of superficial structures of morality and marriage, and how Detroit kind of represented that.
And how did that change the way you approached your role?
John had said that when the audience first meets Stone, they should feel like he's the least likely person to have a spiritual transformation. These kinds of guys were everywhere -- these southwest Detroit white guys -- living in the Crips or in black gangs. It was really interesting. In the prisons we met some of these guys too, and that's where I really formed my character.
Well, you portrayed him convincingly.
I think that John's basic idea of challenging the audience to distinguish between authentic spiritual transformation and morality as applied by one person on another ... or rather, that whole idea of what makes one person fit to judge another's position on the spiritual curve, was really, really cool. He kept saying, "I want the two guys who face each other across the desk [Norton and De Niro], by the end of the movie, to have inverted."
Stone becomes almost obsessed with the religion Zukangor. Is it real? Fake? How did you come across it?
[Laughs] No. The truth is I really can't say what it is. It's a real thing that we found, but we had to rename it so we didn't offend anybody. It has the same syllables, the same consonants, but it's a different name. It was like Scientology, a trademarked religion. There was nothing we could do.
Do you find you're attracted to dichotomous roles?
It's all semantics, but I've done things that were overtly dichotomous, like 'Stone' or 'American History X' or 'The Painted Veil.' I would say that this movie appealed to me more because it was complex. This character kept revealing more and more layers as he unfolded.
In some scenes you don't say a word, but it's clear what Stone is thinking.
We saw a documentary about a prison and this particular gang. There was an event in it that was caught on a security camera, where two people are murdering another person. You could see in the video, right next to where this murder was happening, that there was somebody in a holding cell who could see the whole thing going down. In the actual video, you see the person against the bars, then dropping to the floor, and then reaching at the guy getting killed. It was the wildest thing.
John said to me: "People have epiphanies for so many different reasons, and they're so often not in synagogues or churches. They have moments of insight and revelation everywhere." And that really hit home for me that all of the characters in the movie have these moments of revelation, where this sound is coming in on them, and then the volume just dials down on everything, and there's clarity.
This was your second time working with De Niro. Your rapport was evident.
People project a lot of things onto him, mainly because of their relationships with his roles. In truth, he's a very thoughtful and committed guy. It's very bracing to do scenes with him; he resists the idea that it should end up in a particular place just because it's scripted that way. You really have to earn it with him, and it's very... uh, healthy. [Laughs]
And what about working with Milla Jovovich?
Milla reminds me of another actress, Karen Black. She's beautiful, but she's got such an odd, unsettling rhythm. Milla brings that rhythm to things... it's a very bold performance from her. Milla's got the ghetto thing down, that's for sure.
'Stone' opens in theaters on October 8.