Why Edward Norton doesn't get many movie offers

Edward Norton was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 2015 Academy Awards for his performance in Birdman. The movie, and Norton's role, blur the lines between reality and fiction. Michael Keaton—a former Batman—plays an actor trying to escape the shadow of a string of superhero movies. Norton plays a selfish, pretentious actor nobody wants to work with because he's so difficult. At least Norton has a sense of humor about his reputation—he's reportedly not the most easy-going guy on movie sets.

Marvel didn't like him when he got angry

In 2008, Marvel Studios reacquired the rights to the Incredible Hulk from Universal, following the poorly reviewed 2003 Hulk. Marvel opted to reboot the franchise as The Incredible Hulk and hired Zak Penn (who'd co-written a couple of X-Men movies) to write the screenplay. The studio approached Norton to star, and he initially turned it down. But after meeting with director Louis Leterrier, Norton signed on, provided any suggestions he made to Penn's screenplay be incorporated into the shooting script.

Norton evidently did a substantial rewrite of the movie just weeks before filming started—far too late to change anything structural or major. But Leterrier shot as much of Norton's script as possible, along with Penn's, which resulted in a very messy, convoluted cut of The Incredible Hulk that apparently out-terrible'd even the Universal version. Marvel executives hated the edit and ordered a new one, with more action and less dialogue and character development—the latter two were largely Norton's focus. Understandably, the star was livid.

Marvel so resented Norton's meddling, in fact, that when it came time to bring the Hulk back to the big screen as part of The Avengers, Norton got the boot and the role was given to Mark Ruffalo. Studios almost never comment on why an actor is or isn't cast, but Marvel took the rare step of issuing a statement saying they wanted "an actor who embodies the creative and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members." In short: they were sick of him and didn't want to deal with his shenanigans again.

He said he's not really into doing sequels

In a since-deleted 2010 Facebook post (via The Hollywood Reporter), Norton addressed Marvel's decision to re-cast The Hulk in The Avengers. He wrote, in part, "It seems it won't work out for me…I sincerely hoped it could happen and be great for everyone, but it hasn't turned out as we all hoped."

Four years later, Norton had drastically changed his tune, as well as added a healthy dose of side-eye towards the entire concept of cinematic franchises. "I really, really enjoyed it," Norton said of The Incredible Hulk, adding, "And yet, I looked at the balance of time in life that one spends not only making those sorts of films but then especially putting them out, and the obligations that rightly come with that." Hold on, because here comes the shade.

"I think you can sort of do anything once, but if you do it too many times, it can become a suit that's hard to take off, in other peoples' eyes." It's true—just look at how becoming Iron Man just absolutely destroyed Robert Downey Jr.'s career, right? Anyway, with Hollywood's current trend of reboots, prequels, sequels, and spinoffs not likely to slow down anytime soon, Norton isn't doing himself any favors by eschewing the industry's most reliable profit model.

He tried to pull rank on the set of Red Dragon

During the filming of the Silence of the Lambs sequel, Red Dragon, Norton showed up on set to film his scenes as FBI profiler Will Graham. In his hand: brand-new (and totally unsolicited) script pages that Norton had taken it upon himself to write, and that he demanded to film. Director Brett Ratner and his producers didn't take kindly to that, and there was much arguing. You can't blame them, though—movie scenes have to be carefully planned out, budgeted, and storyboarded before filming … not to mention the basic chain of command that makes a movie set run smoothly. Norton disrespected all of that, so you can see why everyone else was angry with him.

Paramount had to force him to do The Italian Job

In 1995, Paramount Pictures gave Edward Norton his first starring role as the diabolical genius Aaron Stampler in Primal Fear. Along with the role came a three-picture contract, leaving Norton obligated to star in two more Paramount-produced films. However, according to The Observer, Norton's star took off so quickly that he started taking roles elsewhere, which led to protracted negotiations with Paramount over his contractual obligation.

By 1997, Norton haggled his agreement down to "one future movie for Paramount" with the understanding that both parties "had 18 months to find a project they both liked. If they couldn't come to an agreement, the studio got another 24 months to assign Mr. Norton a project of their choice." Paramount eventually exercised their option to make Norton star in The Italian Job in 2002, and he pushed back. Both Norton and Paramount kept up a positive public face over the collaboration, but his lawyer, Marty Singer, spilled the tea, claiming that Paramount threatened to sue Norton if he declined the role, and so "rather than get involved in extensive litigation, [Mr. Norton] agreed to do the movie."

Singer added, "He wasn't looking to shirk his responsibility. He never said, 'I'm not going to do it.' He's just the kind of actor who will not do movies unless he feels strongly about them." Not surprisingly, Norton has never worked with the studio since.

He called out the Writers Guild over his Frida script

In Frida, the 2002 biopic about legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, Norton played Nelson Rockefeller, the billionaire who commissioned Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera, to paint a mural in New York's Rockefeller Center. Norton's then-girlfriend, Salma Hayek, starred as Kahlo, and Frida was her passion project—she'd been trying to get the movie made for years. She obviously wanted to get every detail perfect, so even though the writers turned in a fine screenplay, Hayek wasn't satisfied. She asked Norton to conduct more research on Kahlo and use whatever information he found to extensively rewrite the Frida screenplay.

Norton did just that, and despite claiming that he wrote the movie, he was denied credit by the Writers Guild—an organization of which he was not a member at the time. An angered Norton trashed them in the press—while doing interviews for Red Dragon, Norton told a reporter, "I got shafted by the Writers Guild at the last minute, but I wrote the draft that got made."

He ticked off the wardrobe department on Death to Smoochy

It's not just studio bigwigs, producers, writers, and directors that Norton will go toe-to-toe with: he'll even clash with the costume department if he has to. During production of the 2002 dark comedy Death to Smoochy, the film's costume designer, Jane Ruhm, presented Norton with a wide variety of clothes for his character, a laid-back children's show host. Ruhm's selections befitted that of the hippie described by the film's script, but without Ruhm's knowledge, or anyone else really, Norton commissioned Armani to design him the ultimate in hippie chic: a suit made of actual hemp. Then, to top it all off, he apparently forced Ruhm to deal with all the paperwork and negotiations associated with getting such a suit made and sent to set.

The battle over the final cut of American History X

Norton was nominated for an Oscar for starring in the searing 1998 skinhead drama American History X, but that's not all he did on the movie: he also edited it, not that anybody had asked him to beforehand. During the shoot, Norton and director Tony Kaye clashed often about character motivation and dialogue, but nothing major. Things got really bad during the editing phase, however—Kaye worked with film editors to create a tight, economical, 95-minute cut of the film. When he saw it, Norton thought Kaye had cut way too much of what they'd filmed, consequently ruining the movie.

Not wanting to upset their bankable star, the production company relented to Norton's demand that he make his own (longer, and more Norton-centric) cut. That new edit, which clocked in at well over two hours, made it to film festivals and theaters. That really made Kaye mad—He even asked the Directors Guild to remove his name from the film's credits and replace it with "Humpty Dumpty," but his request was denied. (His $200 million lawsuit against the production didn't fly, either.)

Despite the film's obvious success, Kaye and Norton have not worked together since—it probably has something to do with the 40 ads Kaye took out in trade papers eviscerating Norton, and that time he told a reporter the actor was "a narcissistic dilettante who raped the film."

He's working behind the scenes a lot

One of Norton's most recent roles came in Seth Rogen's deliriously profane animated movie Sausage Party, in which Norton voiced Sammy Bagel Jr., a bagel with a voice that sounded a lot like Woody Allen. The character—and his familiar-sounding voice—were actually Norton's idea.

As Rogen told Deadline, when he and collaborator Evan Goldberg came up with the idea for Sausage Party, Norton was one of the first people he told. Beyond playing a part in Sammy's characterization, Norton was instrumental in helping Sausage Party get produced, encouraging Rogen and Goldberg to proceed when the going got tough and convincing other big stars to voice characters in the movie, particularly Kristen Wiig and Salma Hayek.

He's also a producer

He's receded from the spotlight, but Norton has stayed busy on the production side. He's a producer on Lewis & Clark, a long-gestating HBO miniseries about the explorers who trudged through the Louisiana Purchase at the dawn of the 19th century.

Based on historian Stephen Ambrose's landmark book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, filming on the project began in June 2015, before abruptly shutting down just two months later. Among the other problems facing the miniseries: director and co-writer John Curran quit, and there were script issues. As Norton has done on previous troubled projects, he took a pass at the script; his version was abandoned in favor of one written by Master of Sex creator Michelle Ashford. The six-part series, which stars Casey Affleck and Matthias Schoenaerts as Lewis and Clark, respectively, still doesn't have a release date.

His last big movie was a major bomb

Norton's most recent major live-action role came in the 2016 drama Collateral Beauty. A quirky film with spiritual themes, it's about an advertising executive named Howard Inlet (Will Smith) who, after suffering a devastating personal loss, writes letters to the concepts of Love, Time, and Death. Norton portrayed a business associate of Howard's in the star-studded film, which also featured Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, Naomie Harris, and Helen Mirren.

After attracting some pre-release Oscar buzz, Collateral Beauty flopped hard, earning a mere $31 million, and had the misfortune of opening the same weekend as mega-smash Rogue One. Critics liked it even less than audiences—it amassed just 13 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Although Norton wasn't singled out by critics as one of the movie's major problems, Collateral Beauty definitely wasn't a comeback vehicle for him.

He intentionally slowed down to focus on family

Though he's normally cagey about discussing his personal life with the press—He even declined to issue a statement confirming his son's birth in March 2013—Norton opened up to the Independent about his conscious decision to take a step back from acting.

In discussing why he's become "more choosy about the choice of roles," Norton cited "personal life, family life," and the desire to strike a balance between acting and "other things that are really compelling or interesting or challenging to a different part of your brain or your personality."

Of course, the conversation also turned into a classic Norton critique of the film industry as a whole, which he unsurprisingly views as something of a conquest at this point. "I just think that I'm less interested than I used to be in, like, exploring genre for the sake of it," Norton said, adding, "I think I've had lots of fun working on what I would call genre pictures, heist pictures, cop thrillers and maybe you're exercising your muscles in a certain way and trying to challenge yourself, but more and more I think I've just gotten more willing to wait for things that feel really strong as an attempt to make an original piece, or are expressing something that is really unique, or [are from] a film-maker that I really admire like Wes Anderson, or Alejandro Inarritu or Spike Lee."

In other words: don't call him, Hollywood, he'll call you.

What's next for Edward Norton

Even actors who may not be as visible as they once were still usually have at least a couple of projects in the pipeline. But Norton doesn't seem to have much planned for the immediate future. The Internet Movie Database doesn't list any upcoming acting credits for Norton in 2017, and his sole acting project for 2018 release is currently a voice credit in stop-motion animated effort Isle of Dogs, directed by Wes Anderson, with whom Norton previously worked on Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Here's hoping we'll see, and not just hear, Norton a little more in the years to come.