In The Painted Veil, adapted from the W. Somerset Maugham novel, Edward Norton plays a pent-up British doctor who attempts to stem a cholera outbreak in 1925 China—while struggling to punish the wife (Naomi Watts) he found in bed with Liev Schreiber. He’s the kind of guy who, like Norton, might find Oscar gift bags “disgusting and shameful.” Logan Hill spoke with Norton.
You shot the film in rural China. Did Chinese censors impact the production?
Definitely. It was built on the idea that we’d release the same film in China—that we wouldn’t make two versions. But, to be honest, John [Curran, the director] and I discovered that the government had more oversight than we’d imagined, uncomfortably late in the process, to put it mildly.
Did officials review scripts?
Yes. They made demands at all phases of it. And John stuck up very resolutely for things like the need to portray cholera viscerally, or to see people living in poverty. More pointedly, you’d get notes that involved their desire to cut all or most of a sequence in which crowds are protesting. They don’t want depictions of students putting up posters. But now the film is going to be released in China with no further edits.
But you still expanded the novel to address history more, right?
[My character] Walter embodies a kind of colonial narrow-mindedness, rationalism above politics, or even greed. He thinks he’s just trying to improve things through science, but of course he’s myopic about doing so while British cannons are pointing at the ports. For me, that became a kind of tragic personification about the wrongheadedness of Western arrogance.
It seems as if American films are grappling with these issues more than ever. But like Babel, The Painted Veil grounds politics in a romance.
Well, in The Painted Veil, the political drama is just the second level. First, it’s a story about a man and a woman struggling in a relationship to overcome the worst in themselves.
You had three films this year. Is it odd to see awards committees singling out one performance over another?
It’s impossible to ascribe anything meaningful to that process—you only have to taste it once to know it’s like politics. These things are gamed by the studios with so much money.
Well, you’ve been leading the charge against award-show gift baskets.
I—well, I should say, a lot of people who I would call our generation, really—just said, “I’m sick of this. It’s not who we are, it makes us look ridiculous and out of touch. If these evenings are going to be a celebration of our craft and what we express about what’s going on in the world, then picking through $35,000 gift baskets is disgusting and shameful.” My suggestion was to have the Academy commit to contributions in the name of the winners, but I don’t know what will come of that. Definitively, though, I got word the other night from the Academy’s producers that the gift baskets have been scrapped.