You get two Edward Nortons for the price of one in pot/philosophy comedy “Leaves of Grass,” written and directed by, as well as co-starring, Tim Blake Nelson. Norton plays identical twins — Bill, a buttoned-down Brown professor with a rising career, and Brady, a fast-talking pot farmer who never left the small Oklahoma town in which the pair grew up. When Brady gets into trouble, Bill finds himself trekking back home for the first time in years for what he’s been told is his brother’s funeral. The Kincaid boys exemplify the type of role that Norton seems to do best, showcasing his skill with the dialect and physical qualities of a character to make the twins two very believably distinct people. “Leaves of Grass” arrives in theaters after a roundabout route that started with a premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, followed by a screening at SXSW where it attracted enough attention that a new distributor came on board for a larger release. The deal ended up falling through, and now it’s returned to original handler First Look Studios. Back in March, I got a chance to talk with Norton about straddling genres, “Down and Dirty Pictures” and the current state of indie film.
“Leaves of Grass” lured you out of a sabbatical you’d been taking. What lead you to take a break, and what were the qualities of the script that drew you out?
In early 2007, I’d decided I was going to not act for a bit. Not in some big way, I was just trying to finish a script. Literally right when I was just starting to get a rhythm, I met with Tim, and he said “I wrote this with you in mind,” and all this stuff — “Read it. Read it. I think it’s going to tempt you.” And when I did, I was actually a little irritated because it was really original, and playing twins was something I felt like was going to be an unusual challenge.
Do you get that a lot? People saying “I wrote this for you”?
It does happen now and then. It’s a very nice compliment. There’s a certain number of people saying that just in the hopes that that’ll make you read it. But then there are people who really do seem to have taken a certain kind of inspiration… You can’t do something because of that — that’s not reason enough to do it. It’s a nice compliment, but someone might have you in mind for something that just doesn’t click for you. That’s just the way it is. It’s like chemistry.
Tim, in a way, knew me well enough to know that it did straddle things I was interested in. So it was great. I like the fact that Tim was thinking of me for it, and that it was funny. It wasn’t like oh, I wrote this for you and it’s a psychotic killer who wears a swastika on his chest and has a split personality.
He’s directed films before as well as having an established acting career. Is there a particular benefit to having someone direct you who’s had a lot of experience in front of the camera as well?
Absolutely. Actors make very good directors for other actors because they communicate in a vocabulary that actors understand. I’ve worked with some really good directors who had absolutely no idea how to talk to an actor to get the best out of them.
Tim was initially inclined not to play a role in the film. Me and my producing partner insisted that he should, because he was so right for the part. He’s such a funny, good actor that it just seemed wrong for him not to do it. He had not directed and acted, and he was nervous about it. I told him it would be fine, and it was. He was great.
You’re both Ivy Leaguers — was there any particular satisfaction in getting to play an academic at one of those school, in such a rarefied department?
The character [of Bill] was based more on Tim than anybody. He was a classical philosophy major at Brown and he had this professor that he was devoted to and thought was a hero. He’s way more of a classicist than I am. I tried to give him a lot of crap about setting it at Brown and how ugly the buildings were there. We had some fun. The thing that we both related to about it was that we both came from worlds and backgrounds that were very distant from the Ivy League, those intellectual temples that those places are.
He had roots in Oklahoma and I had roots in the South — [there was] that sense of having one foot in one world and then going to school at a place like that. The Oklahoma character was a lot like certain friends of mine in the ’70s.
The film is a pot comedy with some big philosophical ideas. Did you ever worry about having that balance?
No, to me, that’s what makes an interesting film. I laughed a lot at “Pineapple Express,” but I haven’t thought about it since then. A lot of my favorite films are ones that straddle tone — “Raising Arizona” or “Fargo” or any of the Coens’ best stuff, or Spike Lee, the way that “Do the Right Thing” is wild, madcap, with crazy comic sensibilities but a deep message as well about race and balance. It’s very difficult to make those films in the studio system. They want more clean lines.
As someone who’s bounced between doing big studio films and smaller films like this, do you ever feel like you have a one for me, one for them thing going?
No, with studio films, even early on I got very lucky coming off “Primal Fear.” I had opportunities to do more commercial films, but also things like “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” which was Milos Forman and was being made at Columbia Pictures at the time. I chose it over some other things, even very early on in my career, because he was one of my heroes. People don’t even think of Milos Forman’s films as independent films, but they were. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” they made completely independently, and no studios would buy it. They only got it bought at that absolute last minute because someone called in a personal favor. “Amadeus,” too, they financed independently with European money.
So he was, to me, one of the kings of independent art made at a grand scale. Even though that was a studio film, I thought it had more of an independent sensibility. Then things I wanted to do really badly, like “Fight Club” or “American History X” or “The 25th Hour,” those were all films I made inside studios. People think I’ve been in more independent films than I have. You know Peter Biskind? When he wrote that book — what was Peter’s book called?
“Down and Dirty Pictures”?
When Peter was working on that he called me and said, “I really need to get some time with you, to talk about those independent films in the ’90s.” I said, “I was never in any independent films in the ’90s.” He was like, “What! That’s crazy. You’re one of my fixtures.” He started listing though all these films, and I explained every one of those is a studio film. I think it rattled his theory a little.
Do you find that that’s changed? There’s a general assumption that the studios are going to be getting more conservative now.
Not going to be. It has gotten very, very different. There’s been a real compression, not just in the number of small labels and companies that are acquiring films or turning to filmmakers to make those kinds of films. The sensibilities have gotten very conservative in my view. A film like “Leaves of Grass,” even into 2004, the Fox Searchlights of the world would have been snatching it up based on the reaction of audiences.
Now it’s much harder to get a film like this even put out now by those labels. It’s almost like going back to when there was Miramax, and that was it. I don’t think ultimately [studios] are very good at it. They tried to model themselves on Miramax and threw up all these little arthouse labels, but the truth is they didn’t know how to do it efficiently like Miramax. They’ve overspent. They’ve chased Academy Awards and wasted millions and millions of dollars. So now they’re just making studio films again. The few that remain, have a small film feel but are actually fairly safe on the whole.
“Leaves of Grass” opens in New York and Tulsa on September 17th.