"I think it's one of the top repeat films of people my generation." Shockingly, the actor Edward Norton was only a couple of minutes into our interview when he broke the cardinal rule of Fight Club: Don't talk about Fight Club. Once we got past that, though, the 47-year-old star talked with The Globe and Mail about Mark Wahlberg's assertion that actors shouldn't be political, offered a glowing review of the new Bruce Springsteen memoir, and chatted about the thoughtfulness of his latest movie, Collateral Beauty, a holiday drama starring Will Smith as a grief-stricken advertising executive.
It's not exactly the biggest role of your career, but what attracted you to Collateral Beauty?
When I read the script, I thought the wisdoms were actual wisdoms. I didn't think they were saccharine. People tend to get reflective at the end of the year. A year has passed. You think, "What do I want to get right in the new year?" Also, I think the film has an old Hollywood stab. It's fantastical. So, I thought it would be a fun thing to take on.
It could be compared to something such as It's a Wonderful Life. As an actor, when you decide to take part in a holiday film, do you think about the possibility of it becoming a seasonal standard?
I've learned over time that it's really hard to tell what's going to catch on. A film like Fight Club didn't do well at the box office when it first came out. But it became something that I think people my age watch as many times as any film. It takes time for that to emerge, to reveal itself.
To change topics, actor Mark Wahlberg made a statement recently, saying that celebrities live in a bubble, and, because of that, shouldn't talk politics publicly. As an actor and an activist, what's your response?
There's truth to that. I think people should always have the humility to not comment glibly. Having a public forum tends to make people offer too casual a commentary.
I'm sensing a "but" coming here.
Well, yes. The fact of being well known for something doesn't in any way automatically mean it's impossible to have a serious grounding in another subject. America's a place that subsists on civic participation, and I don't think that people who have public profiles should step back from participation.
But, it's a balance. And it's also possible to participate quietly.
Given your participation in environmental issues, what are your thoughts on the incoming presidential administration?
I have really grave concerns. The people coming into leadership now seem deeply antagonistic toward the idea that the United States should participate in global leadership when it comes to protecting the ecological framework of the planet. That, to me, is very, very frightening.
In 2010, you interviewed Bruce Springsteen on stage at the Toronto International Film Festival. Have you read his memoir?
I have, and it's terrific. I think it's one of the best reflections of an artist on his or her own life as I've ever read.
It's such a deep investigation of an artist's own work and experiences.
We get the context, right? Where Springsteen's coming from, or, as the song goes, running from.
Right. I mean, the first half of the book, the description of his youth and his family and his life in working-class New Jersey, was almost Steinbeckian. It was so evocative of that time. I just loved it.
Wow, Steinbeckian. Maybe Bruce should have had you contribute the book blurb.
I mean it. That detail of life on the Jersey Shore and all the characters reminded me of Cannery Row or something like that.
It makes you feel like you're there, in a pre-Internet and prewired time, contained in a provincial bubble. That time already seems very distant to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Collateral Beauty opens Dec. 16.