The Moment Edward Norton Fooled Us All

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The following is an excerpt from my memoir MAGIC TIME: MY LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD

My friend Gary Lucchesi, now with a deal to produce exclusively for Paramount, had optioned the rights to the book Primal Fear, by William Diehl. He asked me if I would produce the film with him. We were going to hire Greg Hoblit as the director. I had met Greg several years before. I knew he hadn’t directed a movie, but he had won eight Emmys for Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue.

Richard Gere had committed to play the lead, but we needed another star to play the young boy at the center of the film. We thought that Sherry Lansing wouldn’t make the film with only one star and an unknown actor for the second lead. We had already had several passes from well-known young stars and were holding our breath while waiting to hear from Leonardo DiCaprio.

Meanwhile, the head of Paramount’s casting, Deb Aquila, had been scouring the nation for a great kid to play Aaron. She saw 2,500 young actors in New York alone. There were several she liked, but only one who her keen eye told her might be the one.

While still holding out for Leo, we decided to test two young actors, one from England and another from West Virginia (the one Deb saw in New York), who we were told had a stutter. When we met the latter, we weren’t too concerned about his stutter because it seemed to come from nerves over the audition. Besides, his shyness seemed to fit the role of Aaron.

The character is arrested for allegedly murdering the monsignor in Chicago. As the story unfolds, we think that Aaron, a simple, stammering, sweet, and understated boy, suffers from split personality disorder. His other personality, Roy, is one tough mother who thinks Aaron is “a pussy” and is quite capable of murder.

Our young West Virginian actor was going to be the first of the two testing that day. Just before meeting him we’d gotten a disappointing call from Sherry that Leo had passed, so we were all a bit glum.

This kid walks on the stage and does several scenes with Richard. We liked what we saw, but we were especially eager to see the moment in the middle of the scene where Aaron changes into Roy. We were stunned by his transformation. He was so powerful he scared the crap out of all of us.

We looked at each other with a shared expression of “Holy shit, this kid can act!”

We showed the actor’s test to Sherry, and while she thought he was very good, she wanted to do another one. We called and told him the first test was great, but he had to do one more. We took him to Sherry’s office. She was sweet to him but said, “No pressure, honey, but the role is yours to lose.”

We put the young actor through the wringer one more time. After Sherry viewed it, she had no choice but to allow Edward Norton, a virtual unknown, to play Aaron.

Edward recently told me about the experience of his audition. He said, “I had done a lot of them, but I hadn’t gotten anything. When I went to meet with Deb Aquila, she actually got on the floor with me to read the scene. It changed everything because it was intimate and engaging in a way I’d never experienced before.”

By the time we had cast him, we had learned that Edward was not the stuttering kid from West Virginia he had presented himself to be, but was in fact a patrician young man who had gone to Yale drama school. He had brilliantly fooled us all.

Those screen tests made the rounds of Hollywood, and before we even turned the motor on for the camera to begin filming Primal Fear, everyone in town had eyes on Edward Norton.

For more, check out MAGIC TIME: MY LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD.