Q&A: Edward Norton on his new film Collateral Beauty and how funny Helen Mirren is

Edward Norton stars in a new film called Collateral Beauty, where Will Smith's character is having a bit of a hard time.

Collateral Beauty is the story of Howard (Will Smith) - a man who has suffered a great personal loss. In the wake of that, his life starts to unravel, culminating in the New York advertising executive writing letters to Love, Time and Death. The plot thickens when he starts to get responses.

Also starring Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, Michael Pena, Kate Winslet and Naomi Harris, the film comes from The Devil Wears Prada helmer David Frankel and Rock of Ages writer Allan Loeb.

Edward Norton is also in the cast as Howard's long time friend Whit and in this interview he talks about the project, his character and just how funny Dame Helen Mirren is!

Q: When did you first hear about Collateral Beauty?

EDWARD NORTON: Toby Emmerich, who runs New Line, called me and said that he was trying to put this movie together for the holidays. And I replied that he had reached out to the wrong guy, because I didn’t want to do one of those typical template holiday films. But he insisted I give it a look because he said it reminded him of movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a big thing to say…’

Q: So, what did you think of the script when you read it?

EN: Even though I went into the reading pretty ready to dismiss the idea of a holiday movie, I was really surprised because it touched me. I liked that it had some plot turns that elevate it above the purely realistic. I thought it would need a real tonal balance to pull something like that off, and I like challenges [laughs].

Q: How would you explain that tonal balance?

EN: The story is capable of being funny and light, as if it came from old Hollywood, and, at the same time, have these lovely touching moments. I thought it was a very clever script that had a Jimmy Stewart aspect to my role as Whit.

The movie is about a group of people who are all connected and have a deep history together, but who have all gotten stuck in different anxieties or problems and are kind of at a breaking point in some ways. For me, Collateral Beauty is about how you can lose sight of what’s most important when the problems of the world in all their forms come in on you and you need to boldly push through while keeping your focus on the right aspects of life.

Q: What is Whit’s particular version of that journey?

EN: My character’s particular version of that is his marriage falling apart; his kid being angry with him, and also being broke. Everybody in this story is sort of ping ponging around each other’s problems, and Whit leads a group of them into an idea that is a little crazy and manipulative, but with good intentions.

Q: Will Smith’s character, Howard Inlet, has cut himself off from his friends and his own life in many ways. Why do you think he becomes such a strong catalyst for all of them?

EN: The very first scene anchors you in the knowledge of Howard and Whit being best friends to the point of practically being like brothers. And even throughout the friction that occurs you can feel powerfully how they all love and respect Howard and want him back. I think the whole story is suffused with an awareness of the affection these characters have for each other.

Q: How was it working with Will Smith?

EN: He is great! Will is an incredibly open, available and free-willing collaborator. His level of enthusiasm for it all and his respect for other people’s ideas almost makes you think he is making his first or second movie. It’s just really refreshing. And the same can be said about Helen Mirren or Kate Winslet.

Q: In what sense?

EN: In the sense that even though both Helen and Kate have been doing this for even longer than I have, they still have a real love for the work that doesn’t feel diminished and really impresses me. I just love that spirit. It was great to have Michael Peña there too. He is really funny and a great improviser.

Q: Young talent Jacob Latimore is going to surprise many people with his performance as Raffi, who personifies Time.

EN: Jacob is terrific. One could imagine being in his shoes and feeling a little nervous in the company of this cast, but he wasn’t. He also had a great fluidity and ability to pivot around experimentations. Jacob Latimore is a natural.

Q: The film takes you on an emotional journey, but is really funny at the same time. How did all of you strike that balance?

EN: Well, it all starts with the writer, Allan Loeb, who is very funny. Even though his script was rooted with some deep ideas, as the film got going and [director] David Frankel gave permission for it to be funny, everyone started blooming into that, starting with Allan. And that humorous component of it evolved nicely as we made the movie.

Q: You have worked with many directors in your career. How did you find David Frankel as a director?

EN: David is very light-touched. He trusts the people around him a lot and is very appreciative of what they can do. This way, when he does say stuff it’s very measured and valuable. David Frankel has a very steady hand and a deft feeling for the balance of humor and emotion.

Q: Did any of the concepts or emotions at play in the story linger with you after wrap?

EN: The day in and day out of making movies obliges you to sometimes get into a craftsman mode, because you can’t be at the height of emotion all the time; but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect you.

Q: How about when you watched the finished film?

EN: It did affect me. I thought the film was very moving. Also, it struck me that New York’s chaos and density helps you believe that these things could be taking place.

Q: How so?

EN: New York has such a tumble to it, which helps you buy into the idea that something like this could be going on. There needs to be a lot of distraction to pull this off for Howard, like in a magic trick, when you get people to look somewhere else while someone gets on stage. That wouldn’t work in a small town because everyone would notice every piece of it all.

Q: Looking back now, what are your thoughts on the whole experience of being part of Collateral Beauty?

EN: Movies are a team effort, and they are like a jigsaw puzzle because they are made in such a fragmented way. That means that the experience of making them can be quite different from what they are about. But, to me, this was a very joyful experience because we had a terrific bunch of actors and crew that jelled well really quickly. And it was great fun too! There was a lot of laughter on set.

Q: Could you imagine that Dame Helen Mirren would be that funny?

EN: I could because I know her quite well. I think Helen has a great sense of humor, and I loved seeing her play a character that I believe is the funniest in the film.

In Irish cinemas from the 26th of December, 2016.

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