Edward Norton discusses new film ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

The flick hits theaters Nov. 1
Alec Baldwin and Edward Norton in “Motherless Brooklyn.” Norton directed, wrote, produced and starred in the film. Photo: Warner Bros.

Alec Baldwin and Edward Norton in “Motherless Brooklyn.” Norton directed, wrote, produced and starred in the film. Photo: Warner Bros.

Actor and filmmaker Edward Norton admits greed persuaded him to turn the 1999 novel “Motherless Brooklyn” into a movie. He thought the protagonist, Lionel Essrog, was too irresistible not to portray on the big screen.

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“My initial reaction to the book was honestly an actor’s greedy interest in the character,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He’s so memorable and paradoxical. He’s just this rich mess.”

In the story, Essrog, a Brooklyn private detective with Tourette’s Syndrome, ventures to solve the murder of his only friend and mentor. Despite his affliction and few clues, he stops at nothing to ensure justice is served.

After diving deeper into the tale, Norton’s vision for a film began to expand, so the Oscar-nominee eventually took the reins as writer, director, producer and star.

The biggest differences between the movie and book versions?

Norton’s reimagining features a cast that includes Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michael K. Williams. And the drama takes place in the 1950s — instead of the 1990s.

Despite slight revisions, the themes of racism, gentrification and power remain. Norton said “Motherless Brooklyn” is timely, and it feels more necessary to share now more than ever.

We recently chatted with of the artist the project, which hits theaters Nov. 1.

Q: What were your first thoughts after reading “Motherless Brooklyn” for the first time?

A: I love the wonderful way the book makes you sympathize with the main character. He’s an underdog. The book takes you through this plot, but that’s almost secondary to rooting for him.

Q: You’ve mentioned directing, writing, producing and starring in this film gave you anxiety. How did you ease your angst?

A: It’s the people all around you that make you look like you know what you’re doing. I had one of the greatest living cinematographers as well as a brilliant production designer. I had musical geniuses come together and create this wonderful mash-up of jazz with modernist music. When people are bringing that, suddenly all the ideas you have come to fruition, and you find yourself looking around like, ‘My god, this looks great!’

Most fundamentally, on the set, the thing that anchored me were these actors. It’s a roster of actors that’s like an American All-Star team. Many are people I have pretty deep history with. When I would look around, I felt like I couldn’t mess up in some ways because they were bringing such fantastic performances.

Q: At a certain point in the writing process, you put the script down. Was it easier or harder to pick it back up?

A: It was writer’s block. I got to this place with it, and I just got boxed. I couldn’t work my way through a knot. The problem is when you’re a lucky person and you have other good projects come at you as an actor, it becomes very easy to avoid that problem in the drawer. You think you’re going to get back to work on it, and someone like Alejandro Iñárritu goes, ‘Do you want to do ‘Birdman.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh! That sounds good. Let’s do that!’ It’s harder to go back.

Q: Some of the themes of the film include racism, gentrification and power. Although the movie is set in the 1950s, the themes that were relevant 60 years ago are still applicable today.

A: I will say I felt after 2016 that suddenly these conversations got very white-hot again. Suddenly a lot of what we had been gestating in this project felt more necessary and resonant. A number of us involved in it felt like there was a reason we waited on this. Somehow it felt like the right time.

Q: Are there any other scripts you’re holding on to?

A: I have some things rattling around in my head. I think I will be able to get to them quicker. This was very complex. This was big movie in the ’50s in New York. Figuring out how to do those kinds of movies is a real puzzle. I think I will keep things very much in the modern world on the next one to make things a little easier on myself. But it was worth it.

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“Motherless Brooklyn”

Starring Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Michael K. Williams. Directed by Edward Norton.

Rated ‘R’ for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence.