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Why Edward Norton was never the same after American History X

Edward Norton may shy away from the spotlight, but despite his discomfort with fame and attention, he's one of the most important actors of his generation. He's appeared in films like Fight Club, Birdman, The Italian Job, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, and he's also worked behind the camera, directing the films Keeping the Faith and Motherless Brooklyn

In 1996, Norton's performance in Primal Fear established him as one to watch, but it was his 1998 starring role as a former neo-Nazi trying to turn his life around in American History X that truly showcased the range of his talents. In American History X, Norton played Derek Vinyard, a white supremacist who abandons his ideology after spending time in prison, and then tries to prevent his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), from following in his footsteps. 

After starring in such a powerful film — and having to deal with some unexpected obstacles in the process — Norton was deeply affected by the experience. Here's why Edward Norton was never the same after American History X and how working on the film changed him as an artist and a human being.

Drama behind the scenes of American History X

It's rare that an actor has to step in and edit a film that they star in, but that's exactly what happened to Norton. Why? Well, the making of American History X was almost as controversial as the film itself. 

In the midst of the editing process, director Tony Kaye got into serious disagreements with the production company, New Line Cinema, over his ideas for the final cut of the film. Kaye had previously worked as an advertising director, and his experience in that industry was affecting his editing decisions. The film's screenwriter, David McKenna, said that Kaye was making the movie look "like a commercial." In order to salvage the film, Norton stepped in and began working with Kaye, but the two butted heads constantly. However, many of Norton's cuts did make the final version of the movie. It was a new experience for Norton, but since then, he's only officially worked on editing one of his films, Down in the Valley

The film gave Edward Norton a tough reputation

After filming wrapped on American History X, director Tony Kaye was very bitter towards Norton, and he wasn't shy about letting the media know. Norton's creative decisions infuriated Kaye, who tried to completely dissociate himself from the movie and called Norton a "buffoon." Even after the film was released, Kaye never let the editing debacle blow over. His backlash to Norton's final cut of the film gave the actor a reputation as a "difficult" actor to work with — an artist who cared more about his own screen time than the quality of the film or cooperating with the cast and crew.

But Norton objects to that characterization. He's aware that some people think he's tough to work with, but he would just say that he's exceptionally dedicated to his art. "Difficult is really a question of semantics. You can use that word or you can say rigorous, committed, you can put it other ways," Norton told The Telegraph. "And I'll tell you a very true thing. None of what I would call the genuine talents I've worked with — directors — have ever called me difficult."

American History X was a major challenge for Norton

Norton works hard, but he also finds joy in his work. In fact, he often discusses how much fun he's had on the sets of his most famous films, even if the subject matter was serious. But American History X pushed him like none of his other roles had before. 

"Making American History X was really hard," Norton said in an interview with Dan Rather. "It was — it was a guerrilla kind of experience." 

This was partially because Norton had to go through a pronounced physical transformation. He had to put in some serious hours at the gym in order to play Derek convincingly. He also had to play a character who could make anyone's skin crawl in a way that would eventually prompt audiences to empathize with him. And, of course, even when filming was over, he unexpectedly had to take the helm during the editing process. It all added up to a bigger challenge than he was anticipating. 

He had to become more vulnerable

Edward Norton brought a certain vulnerability to a character who could've been viewed as entirely unsympathetic. He didn't want to play Derek as a caricature of evil. Instead, he wanted to reveal his flaws and weaknesses. And he didn't want the most important moments of the film to be violent scenes (although they were undeniably jarring). Instead, he hoped that viewers would also remember the moments when Derek had to face himself and who he'd become before making the decision to change.

"The capacity to hit vulnerable moments defines really good actors, for me," Norton told The Guardian. "Some parts you do from the outside in. ... But sometimes you have to go more in the other direction. Get inside someone's head." In real life, Norton would find someone like Derek abhorrent. But for this role, he had to step into his shoes and get out of his comfort zone as an artist. 

He wanted to teach some lessons about anger

By the time the film was finished, Edward Norton was satisfied with Derek's storyline in the film. He wanted audiences to see the consequences of giving into anger and allowing it to take over. Anger and rage have the power to blind someone to the real impact of their actions, and this was a lesson that Derek had to learn. It wasn't until he was the target of violence and abuse in prison that he could really begin to see how his hatred had led him astray. 

"For me, it gives a pretty unequivocal message about letting rage control your life," Norton told The Guardian. "I would have been much less comfortable if on any level he had got away with it." If Derek had managed to avoid dealing with his own karma, Norton felt that the film would not be as powerful. Instead, Derek had to accept that he had inflicted pain and suffering on others, and then make a conscious choice to help his brother avoid going down the same path. 

The movie helped Norton make an impact

Norton was never too concerned about outperforming other films at the box office. He wasn't in it for the awards or the money. Instead, he wanted to be a part of films that made a real cultural impact. For Norton, American History X is an important part of his legacy. He'd already established himself as an exceptionally talented actor with his role as Aaron Stampler in Primal Fear (which earned him his first Academy Award nomination), but he feels that American History X was the first movie he appeared in that offered serious cultural commentary. 

"A lot of films are more successful financially than Fight Club or American History X, but those films meant more to people and continue to," Norton told Slash Film. "To me, if I can make a couple of films that, looking back, people say, 'Yeah, that's what our generation felt like at that moment. That's a good document,' then I'm content."

It helped him focus on movies outside the mainstream

When it first hit theaters, American History X only made about $6.7 million at the domestic box office (for a worldwide total of about $24 million). That didn't seems like much to the cast and crew at the time, but shortly after it was released on video, the film became one of the most popular rentals at Blockbuster. And today, Norton is a huge fan of Netflix because he knows that it can be hard for a film to succeed through mainstream avenues. He wants filmmakers to have new platforms for distribution so that they can reach wider audiences and promote films that might not rake in huge profits at the box office. 

"I think there's more ways to get a movie made today than ever in the history of the entertainment industry," he told The A.V. Club, adding, "You can't stake your sense of creative success on this whole box-office-performance matrix." He believes that the gatekeepers of the industry aren't always right about which films will make a real impact, and his experience with American History X taught him to look beyond the money. 

American History X changed how people perceived him

To play Derek, Norton had to bulk up. Before filming began, Norton committed to an intense workout regimen and started incorporating more protein into his diet to build muscle and tone. And after the film was released, he was surprised by how it affected his self image. People suddenly viewed him as much bigger and stronger than he was in real life, and he realized just how much the camera could warp perspectives. 

"Doing that film created the strangest distortion of perception on me," Norton said during an interview on The Tim Ferris Show. He explained, "It's unbelievable, the degree to which that film and the magic of camera and art and black and white photography and all these things made a lot of people think that I was a larger and tougher person than I am." Norton had to process the fact that after American History X came out, people were seeing him very differently than he saw himself. After all, he definitely didn't picture himself as intimidating as his character.  

The film helped him learn more about prejudice

While working on the film, Norton had to engage with the history of racism in America and understand why some people still turned to white supremacist groups, even though the major civil rights battles had already been won decades before. It's a complex topic, and Norton learned about the economic, social, and political factors that might push someone down this path.

At the time the film was released, Norton viewed it as a specifically American story, reflecting on why young, white men in particular were attracted to these extremist groups. However, he did acknowledge that many of the themes explored in the film would be relevant in other cultures, as well. "In America, racism is much more a gang phenomenon, growing out of a need for a sense of belonging. It does not have the political underpinnings it seems to have in Europe. So I felt like it was an American tragedy," Norton told The Guardian. "But within that particular setting, it is universal." 

The movie gave Norton nuanced perspective

In American History X, Derek goes through a dramatic change as the narrative progresses. "That's the challenge of a role like that, or the appeal of it for me, is not even so much just the one very extreme manifestation of this guy, but more the emotional distance that he travels," Norton said. 

Norton explained that it was already very difficult to understand the mindset of a deeply prejudiced skinhead, but his real achievement was conveying the inner journey of the character and his gradual shift in perspective. He wasn't just responsible for conveying Derek's hatred — he also had to express his eventual willingness to be open-minded, his compassion for his brother, and his pain at the film's somber conclusion. 

"In this film you're forced to confront the complexity of the character and his tragedy," Norton told The Guardian. The character of Derek pushed audiences to think critically, and playing him forced Norton to do the same. 

American History X and looking within

Edward Norton knew that audiences would probably react to Derek with disgust. But Norton didn't want viewers to criticize Derek without taking a hard look at themselves, too. 

One of the messages he hoped that people would take home from American History X was the fact that anyone can harbor prejudice, and patting ourselves on the back for being open-minded wasn't enough to tackle bigotry. Norton aimed to show viewers that with the right circumstances, anyone can give in to this mindset, and we all have a responsibility to ask ourselves how can contribute to positive change. After all, Derek wasn't born a white supremacist. This behavior was learned, and his brother followed in his footsteps.

"An all-too-common reaction to something like racism is to hate the act so much you dismiss the person," said Norton, adding, "People don't want to recognize, that someone like him can come out of a normal middle-class home."