Edward Norton stars in the romantic drama The Illusionist where he plays Eisenheim, a renowned stage magician in turn of the 20th century Vienna, whose skills must be deployed to their fullest advantage if he is to win the hand of the girl he loves. Jessica Biel co-stars along with Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell who plays the jealous Crown Prince who will stop at nothing to retain the affection of Eisenheim’s sweetheart for himself.Norton has been in regular demand since his breakthrough role in Primal Fear in 1994. Since then his credits have included The People Vs Larry Flynt, Rounders, Everyone Says I Love You, American History X, Fight Club, The Score, Red Dragon and 25Th Hour. He recently played King Baldwin in Kingdom Of Heaven and starred in Down In The Valley. As a director he made Keeping The Faith.

What was the appeal of The Illusionist for you
Two friends of mine who wrote the film ROUNDERS had produced [director] Neil Burger’s first, very small indie film. He had come to them with this idea and they were producing it for him also. They brought it to me a couple of years before we made it. Neil’s script at that time was extremely faithful to the short story it was based on. Maybe I have a predilection for thinking I can improve on the classics or something, but Brian and David and I all thought that it didn’t quite work. I think over some conversations we convinced Neil that the basic conceit of the film ought to be that it’s a trick within a trick within a trick. That in the end the Illusionist is affecting his ultimate illusion in the service of his love.
Did you immediately get into the head of this singular character
I don’t really see myself as this guy. I had an idea of him in my head, but I don’t look in the mirror and see that guy. So I thought it would take some work to pull it off, and that was the initial appeal for me.You have to be especially convincing in the stage magic here, because cinema audiences are used to computer trickery, so they have to believe you’re really doing something fantastical, don’t they?Part of our thinking on that was to be very, very rigorous in only performing illusions that were being performed at the time. And to be fairly strict, as strict as we could be about performing them live as opposed to using camera trickery or CGI. The only thing that I didn’t do, or that we didn’t use the actual mechanisms that were available at the time, were the spirit manifestations. There’s a great book about the rage for spirit manifestations at the turn of the 20th century, they were apparently really effective and sophisticated, but the techniques they used required a very darkened theatre. So we couldn’t do it and at the same time get it on film. So we cheated those a little bit.
You’re rarely seen in period films, and here you are in two back to back with ‘The Illusionist’ and ‘The Painted Veil’: was that a conscious thing on your part
No, it’s pure coincidence because with The Painted Veil we’ve been ready to go at any moment in the last seven years. It just happened that it fell together on the heels of another period piece. I rarely step back and look at the relationship of any of these things to each other. I don’t tend to make decisions about things with regard to how it fits into a larger body. It’s almost exclusively execution dependent with me. I love period films, but I just don’t happen to have had ones laid in front of me that I thought were good, or that resonated with me. I’ve looked at many of them over the years, I just don’t happen to have been pulled in by them the way I was pulled in by these two.

Are you a fan of the romantic genre in general
I certainly am a fan of films like Out Of Africa or Brief Encounter Or Doctor Zhivago, sure. I tend to find something more meaningful in films that I think are real, that have some sort of universal quotient to them or that are really a study of the eternal dynamics between men and women. I think the reason Out Of Africa holds up as a ‘romantic film’ is that it’s really about loss. It’s not about romantic consummation, it’s about a woman confronted by the fact that she can’t hold on to things, not possessions nor property or even this man. The dynamics between those characters are ones that I think people can still relate to. So you get the romance of period and place, and the exoticism of it but I think there’s something in it that people can recognise themselves in. And I like that. I tend to respond to that. I don’t tend to respond to the people who meet through a wedding planner, or whose dogs get their leashes entangled.

Is there a single motivating factor that gets you interested in a project
I tend to prioritise work that I feel like on some level has something to say about the experience of people of my generation, or people that I know. Things that reflect what’s difficult, about the times we’re living in. Those films that have meant a lot to me over time – not my own but films generally – have been films that I would say were engaged in their times. That doesn’t mean that they were particularly commercial, those are just what I tend to gravitate towards. But it’s fun to mix in other experiences too.

The Illusionist is released on rental DVD on 25 June 2007 and retail DVD on 9 July 2007.

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