Edward Norton and Tim Blake Nelson met for the first time over coffee. Remembering the encounter, Nelson, an actor (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and director (O, The Grey Zone), says, “Edward is one of the few actors of his stature who will actually read the script you send him and sit down with you to discuss it.” Norton, the two-time Oscar-nominated star of Primal Fear, American History X and Fight Club, says, laughing, “People who write bad scripts have a very different experience.” Although they were eager to collaborate, “Edward very politely told me he didn’t think that it was going to work out,” says Nelson.
Eventually, Nelson conceived of a project that did work out. In this month’s Leaves of Grass, he directs and stars alongside Norton, who plays two wildly and hilariously divergent characters: Bill Kincaid, a revered classics professor at Brown University, and his deadbeat twin brother Brady, a pot dealer who, hoping to reunite with Bill in rural Oklahoma, fakes his own death. The film, which also features oddball performances by Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss and Keri Russell, reveals, despite Bill’s unwavering insistence to the contrary, the similarities shared by the Kincaid brothers. From their homes in New York, Nelson and Norton get on the phone. “Is this a 50/50 conversation?” Nelson asks, to which Norton, turning the tables on his director, explains, “No, Tim. I’m in the driver’s seat, buddy.” EDWARD NORTON: Why don’t you tell me what first made you start pecking the keyboard and hammering out this vision of crazy twins. TIM BLAKE NELSON: The writer P. G. Wodehouse talked or wrote about beginning a story with a single character. That’s what I always do. The first character in Leaves of Grass was Bill, the professor. I started with his monologue about a healthy, happy life as envisioned by Plato. I’m just going to jump in and note that Tim was a classical philosophy major at Brown. [Laughter.] Then I started to write the character of Bill, with his actual life reflecting what he was talking about and what would eventually become the opening monologue of the movie. His is a life of careful restraint and a kind of vaulting toward ideals, with the perpetual understanding that humans can never reach those ideals. Another impulse I have as a writer, because I’m also an actor, is to write great parts for actors. So I thought, How about if one person could embody wildly divergent characters, at least wildly divergent on the surface? That’s, by the way, when you came into my head. You checked and noted that Robert Downey, Jr. was locked up in Iron Man 2. Then I came into your head! What was happening in you that made you want to investigate this idea of balance? Although I admired Plato, the philosopher who struck me when I was studying philosophy was Epicurus. He is misinterpreted through the word “epicure,” because we think that an epicure is someone who eats a lot. But the kernel of Epicurus is actually a quote from Juvenal that says, “Mens sana in corpore sano,” which means “a sound mind and a sound body.” To achieve that, I think you must have balance, which can mean doing everything from constantly reading history and fiction and the newspaper to, you know, enjoying illegal substances and drinking a lot of wine. I did notice that for all of your loquacious, philosophical capabilities, you also know how to make a can of Budweiser explode up into a roasting chicken. Was the earlier part of your life made up of the textures of Oklahoma, the accents and the culture of rednecks? My wife likes to say that I grew up on the Upper West Side of Tulsa. I had a rigorous Jewish upbringing. I went to a private prep school in Tulsa and my parents ran a strict, intellectual household, in which we delivered reports at the dinner table that were then debated.
I see you as a child of [theologian] Reinhold Niebuhr and [rock guitarist] Duane Allman. I’ll put it this way: I had a Latin study group in high school and we would meet several times a week. But after the work was done, we did… other things.
Obviously, the title of this film is pulled from Walt Whitman’s book of poetry. Since this is BlackBook’s Brooklyn issue, I’d like to talk about Whitman, one of Brooklyn’s most famous sons. For me, Whitman marks the advent of free verse. That became a metaphor in the movie for how to establish your own meter in life. Keri Russell’s character, who quotes Whitman and is a poet herself, offers that to Bill. He says, “I really don’t believe in poetry without meter, because then you can simply write anything and you’re not responsible to a form, and there has to be form, otherwise how do you live a life?” And she essentially answers as Whitman offers in his poetry, “You create your own.”
I first read Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” when I moved to New York fresh out of college. It’s probably half the reason I still live here. He observes all the surging humanity in Brooklyn and New York—the dreams and aspirations and sufferings—and speaks directly to you across time: “All the same things that I’m feeling, I’m sure you’re feeling now.” It was one of the greatest poems I’d ever read because it made me feel instantly that people in all eras experience the same struggles no matter how the specifics of life change. That’s perfectly put. By the way, are you not making a film of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn?
I have been working for too long on adapting that into a script, which I am making some progress on, finally. I’m weaving into Jonathan’s narrative certain parts of the history of New York in the 1950s. It will someday see the light of day. Even though we are talking about poetry and philosophy, your movie is also full of crossbows and marijuana grow houses. Have you ever actually shot a crossbow? You can’t grow up in Oklahoma and not end up shooting something.
Did you ever shoot at small, living things? My experience with shooting small, living things is limited to the time I shot a squirrel with a pellet gun when I was about 13. I was so distraught over killing this animal for no purpose whatsoever that I never shot one after that.
In Leaves of Grass, the characters enter into a Quonset hut the size of a football field filled with sodium vapor lights and cannabis plants. Have you ever seen an amount of marijuana that would constitute trafficking? I saw bags full of marijuana in Jamaica in the ’70s, but not in Oklahoma. You’ve made your life in Manhattan for a while. With the franchising of culture in America making everything seem the same, do you still feel a sharp difference between where you live now and where you grew up? I do, because what makes Tulsa unique is that, as a character actually says in the movie, people generally don’t go to Oklahoma unless they have family there. It’s not a tourist attraction state, and so it does feel of another time.
Do you get a sensation of going home when you go back there? I do. I really do feel when I’m in Tulsa that I couldn’t be in any other city, and I deeply, deeply appreciate having grown up there. It’s left more of a mark on me, I think, than any other place I’ve lived.
Illustrations by Garrett Pruter.