BEVERLY HILLS, California — Edward Norton has been nominated for two Oscars, appeared in instant classics such as “American History X” and “Fight Club,” and has even provided a voice for “The Simpsons.”
All that stuff, however, pales in comparison to his favorite part about what he does for a living.
“[The best] part of the process is where you’re just absorbing a new set of experiences and getting to learn,” he said of making movies. “It’s like going to camp or going to school again.”
Now Norton is ready to school audiences, ending his self-imposed quasi-sabbatical with “The Illusionist,” a romantic mystery that hits theaters Friday. Co-starring Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel, the flick features Norton as Eisenheim, an enigmatic magician in 1900s Vienna. When the conjurer begins a secretive affair with a prince’s fiancee (Biel), the local police inspector (Giamatti) puts an uncomfortable focus on his hocus-pocus.
“It’s kind of in a genre of its own,” Biel said of the flick, which pulled some impressive buzz out of its hat at February’s Sundance Film Festival. “You can’t label it.”
While most people think Harry Houdini invented modern magic, Norton learned otherwise during his research.
“The magician who really started the era of the black-tie theater performance of the high-end magic presentation was this guy named [Jean Eugene] Robert-Houdin,” the 37-year-old actor explained.
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The character of Eisenheim is based on the local celebrities who bridged the gap between Robert-Houdin and Houdini. Norton underwent an intensive training program with an old friend to perfect his magical powers.
“When I was first out of college in New York, I used to volunteer as an usher at this one theater, and I saw that Ricky was doing his performances there,” he said of Ricky Jay, a respected sleight-of-hand artist who has appeared in “Magnolia” and “Heist”. “I saw it, like, 20 times. I was a huge fan of his.
“He ended up being our magic adviser on this film,” Norton added enthusiastically, “so I got to work with the master for a couple months. It was just such a thrill.”
Together, they revived many of the classic tricks that Robert-Houdin may have dazzled audiences with — and they still worked today.
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“A lot of the illusions in ‘The Illusionist’ are based on [Robert-Houdin] — like the orange tree that grew out of a pot, that was a real one that he did,” Norton said.
“They didn’t have ‘The Matrix’, they didn’t have things blowing their minds,” Norton said. “People weren’t as inside the world technologically … [but] there’s things in the movie that [a modern audience] might say, ‘Oh, that’s a computer trick,’ but every illusion in the film is a type of illusion that was being done then. People were doing really amazing ghosts at the turn of the century, things that you would put your hand through, and all that kind of stuff. So we tried to be pretty true to what was going on back then.”
While Norton and Jay were perfecting tricks that had crew members scratching their heads, his female lead was getting ready to make a startling reveal of her own.
“I guess I do feel it might be some of the best work I’ve done yet,” Biel admitted, acknowledging critics who’ve said that her role as dangerous beauty Sophie might be the breakthrough the former “7th Heaven” star has been waiting for. “It was scary every day to go to work with this accent and work with this new physicality. … I do remember just feeling positive and good about the work that I did.”
Working opposite Oscar favorites Norton and Giamatti, Biel quickly realized that the line readings and emotions she was getting off them made her performance seem all the more magical.
“That’s what it was every day, just taking it to the next level, and the next level,” she remembered. “And bringing your ‘A’ game, and being able to just throw away everything that you had planned, and listen, and go with it. And follow [Norton]. He just paved the way, and I just followed along.”
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