Edward Norton stuck with The Painted Veil through thick and through thin, determined to bring the W Somerset Maugham novel to the big screen. Norton was so interested in the idea of a film based on Maugham's work that he came onboard the project as a producer to help get the movie off the ground.
The Appeal of The Painted Veil: [Ive been with it for] seven years. I guess, simply put, I think that like anybody who loves movies, when you watch David Lean films or a movie like Out of Africa or something like that, you cannot help, as an actor, but think how fun it must be to have one of those kinds of experiences, and what a challenge it must be to make films with that kind of scope. I dont think many of those films get made. I think a lot of times, when they get made, they dont get sent to me. So when I saw one that I thought had that potential in it, it was very hard to stop ruminating on it.
On a specific level I thought, as an actor, it was such complicated [story]. I dont tend to see my life reflected in movies about people who meet when their dogs tangle up. Im not being specific. Im just saying I thought that it was the kind of romance that touched me. I felt like it was a story about the long struggle of men and women to actually understand each other in a forgiving way. I found that very touching because its challenging. Its a challenge to say, Am I capable of that?, or Have I done that? Have I been forgiving, myself? Have I had the courage to forgive somebody ever? And so when you have that kind of response to a piece of material, to me, its a good place to start because you already see what you can offer through it and what it might give back to people watching it. All of that, to me, is rare. Those things dont bang across my desk every week, or every year, so all of that made me very persistent about it.
The Experience of Filming in China: I only missed the air conditioning one time, the entire time. Mostly, we had air conditioning. Id spent some time in China because my father lived in China for a long time. But I had not been to the big cities, Beijing and Shanghai, and I had not been where we filmed, in South Central China, in the mountains there. The experience of all the places we worked was new and fresh to me, and really wonderful. Its wonderful to work with Chinese colleagues and initially feel like youre struggling to communicate across the language barrier, and then, in a fairly short time, find that you have much more in common with these people who also do what you do. Theyre your brothers in filmmaking, and they know the same things you know. You find the little quirks of the way they work that is different from the way you work, but on the whole, I liked it much more than just being a tourist. I liked it much more than just traveling through a place. To work in a place and know the people is much more rewarding.
Working with Naomi Watts: Did he discover anything surprising about the Oscar-nominated actress? Just one observation among many, but when Naomi showed up in Beijing, she was very tired, said Norton. She was coming off King Kong and the first week of the filming, we had to do a lot of those scenes in the house in China, which are some of the heaviest scenes in the movie. That was, literally, the first week of filming. It was very, very, very challenging to do that without reference points of what the scenes are before. She was very tired, and I almost saw her take a deep breath and do that thing that I think really, really good actors do, which is, instead of combating the state that she was in, she just took it and put it right into the work. She just embraced the way she was feeling in that moment and said, Well, thats what this is. Im not going to try to layer something over it.
The thing that was beautiful about it was that it was perfect for the state Kitty is in. I think any actor whos worth anything fights the eternal struggle between what goes on [in their head], and the releasing of that and just getting into it. Its great when youre working with someone and you watch them make themselves available to the moment, as it is. Its beautiful. Its great. I really cant say enough good [things] about her. It was almost certainly the most intimate interaction Ive had with another actor. I havent done a film where the two roles were that inextricably intertwined with each other. I just could not have asked for a better tango partner.
The Love Scene: Norton didnt find it difficult at all. Not when youve worked with the people for a long time. Not if its embedded appropriately deep in the process, so that theres trust and comfortability. I think by the time we worked on that in this film - and its a modest scene with nothing too difficult about it - we wanted them to be together. Its nice. And its also very technical. A lot of it is akin to dancing and choreography. It needs to be choreographed.
Getting His Aggression Out Through the Characters Viciousness: I dont think theres any of us who cant relate to the desire to poison our loved ones, joked Norton. No, I dont know. I dont think I use acting as an outlet for things I dont get to express in life. I dont know. And yet, theres some sort of funny satisfaction in that. Maybe its a way of venting off things inside you. I dont know.
I sound highfalutin but I always gravitated myself to Stella Adler, whos one of the really great thinkers about acting. She was always saying that, fundamentally, she considered it an imaginative process. I kind of agree with that. Other people Im sure have completely different attitudes toward it. Im just saying that, for me, personally, I enjoy the imaginative part of it.