The Pershing Square Signature Center sits on a relatively quiet block of 42nd Street in Manhattan, on the westernmost edge of what could still conceivably be considered the Times Square Theater District. The ambitious new playhouse is all blond wood and glass. It is the kind of open space that inspires hushed tones from its inhabitants, which at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday in early May means all of six patrons. Seven if you add Edward Norton, distinguished alum of the Signature Theatre company and champion of its gleaming new space, who is sitting at a café table sipping a late-afternoon latte.
He’s got a two-day beard, and his black dress shirt is two buttons undone. He has the faintest of bags under his pale blue eyes, the ones that on-screen almost always seem to be somewhere between sad and intense but today just look a little tired.
It could be that he’s still recovering from his trip to the Met gala, and an ensuing late night, earlier in the week. “My girlfriend says I have a crush on Anna [Wintour],” he says with a laugh. “It’s possible.”
Or it could be that he handed in his years-in-the-works screen adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn the week previous and is still in the post-file daze. “Sometimes a deadline actually helps,” he says.
Or maybe it’s just the weight of the building around him.
Norton has spent the last several years leading the capital campaign to raise the nearly $70 million in funds needed for the center. With its three stages, subsidized ticket prices, public café and bookstore, and mission to keep theatergoing from becoming a “rarefied experience,” the Signature Center is a shiny new Frank Gehry-designed jewel of the New York arts world. It has also been central to Norton’s recent midcareer turn as New York City civic crusader.
“This,” he says, considering the space around him, “in the last three years, represented a much, much more thrilling and terrifying and vital and crushing personal challenge to me than a lot of creative work at this point.”
Norton is 42 now and almost 20 years out from his first big off-Broadway break, when Signature founder James Houghton cast him in a 1993 production of Edward Albee’s Fragments. Three years later, he earned an Academy Award nomination for his screen debut in Primal Fear, a performance that presaged an unrivaled run of late Nineties and early Aughts prestige pieces: The People vs. Larry Flynt, American History X (another Academy Award nomination), Fight Club, 25th Hour.
In the last 10 years, though, his work has come in more concentrated bursts as he’s taken the time to pursue his interests outside of acting. He got his pilot’s license. He’s been an activist for causes as varied as solar energy and the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. He earned an appointment to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Before he was selling donors on the Signature Center out of his downtown apartment, he was a very public advocate for Manhattan’s instantly beloved High Line park. In fact, Norton has had only two leading roles since 2008 and, before May’s Moonrise Kingdom, hadn’t been on-screen since 2010.
Sitting in the café, it's suggested to him that perhaps such spectacular success so early meant that he’s had to work harder to stay interested in moviemaking, that maybe his more careful role selection and involvement in New York civic projects is an outgrowth of some sort of creative ennui. Norton responds with a long and pretty persuasive discourse, excerpted only briefly here, on the economics of Nineties filmmaking and the import of realizing your historical moment.
“In the last few years, I’ve worked harder on things, on different sorts of things, than [what] I was working really hard on when I was 26, 27,” he says. “I really was willing to prioritize finding things that I thought had something to say that were particular to my generation, what people I knew felt like. You only get a certain amount of time to do that. In the late Nineties, there was an opportunity; there was something going on in the film business….You could get American History X made at a studio. You could
get Fight Club made at a studio.”