Edward Norton and I are in a cab on the way to the airport, where three Maasai warriors named Samson, Parashi, and Sunte are landing from Kenya. Norton’s invited them to run with him in the New York City Marathon in order to call attention to the plight of the African ecosystem.
In between Norton’s explaining, earnestly, how all of this came about, we’re contending with the driver, Hamdid, who’s quite excited that Norton is the fare. He’s singing “A movie star is in my cab, a movie star is in my cab!” and bragging over the phone to a friend, in Arabic, of his good luck. “Italian Job is my favorite movie,” Hamdid says, over his shoulder. “Yeah, it’s the best one I’ve ever made,” replies Norton, drily. “Can I have your picture? That’s all I want, a picture of me and the movie star in my cab!” Norton rolls his eyes. “Sure, as long as you get us to the airport alive,” he says.
Then he returns to telling how all this happened. The short story is that Norton is very involved in a charity called the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, which aims to protect the biodiversity of the Maasai lands in Eastern Africa. He’d exhausted his circle of upscale donors and wanted to try a grassroots approach to fund-raising, which is when he thought of the run. “A marathon is something the guys can come over to the U.S. and participate in,” Norton explains. “They run, they’re great runners, and they totally get the idea of a race—it’s very much a part of their culture, the idea of doing something bold and brave; that’s what their warrior culture is all about.”
Norton will tell you the longer version of the story if you ask (it involves water self-sufficiency, community integration, and the global conservation agenda), but the traffic is light, so he’s interrupted mid-explanation by Hamdid, asking what terminal to go to. At the curb, Norton is good to his word and takes a smiling cell-phone picture with Hamdid before we enter the airport.
The three warriors aren’t difficult to spot. They wander out of the baggage area, blinking in the harsh lights, red multipatterned cloth draped over their slender frames. They have on what look to be homemade sandals, form-fit to their soles. One carries a Jansport backpack. Neither Parashi nor Sunte has been outside Kenya before. Norton knows these men well: He first went to Kenya a decade ago, and trained with the three men there for the marathon this summer. One of them, Samson, has visited New York before, where he discovered he loved buffalo burgers and was an excellent natural bowler.
“Was this the first jet plane you have been in?” Norton asks the other two as we all pile into the SUV he’d ordered to take us back to the city. “I thought it would be more—” Parashi makes a violent bobbing movement with his body. Everyone laughs.
Traffic is much worse on the way back. “Now this is like Nairobi,” says Norton. Everyone again laughs as we inch toward Manhattan. The warriors and the actor compare running injuries—Samson is having tendon problems and Norton says he can take him to a good doctor who has run marathons himself. “He’s done a race called the Iron Man. Iron is the metal, so it means, like, hard man,” Norton explains.
Pointing out the window, Norton describes some of the sites to his guests. “This is the baseball stadium,” he says, passing Citi Field. Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, Norton gestures to the Empire State Building. “When this building was built, it was the tallest in the world. We can go to the top,” he promises. On the Manhattan side, the warriors notice the pigeons. “Those are actually in the dove family,” says Norton, following their gaze. The plan is for them to go shoe shopping the next day so they can train.
The warriors will be staying in Norton’s apartment in the Village for the week leading up to the race. “This doesn’t look like our village!” says Samson with a giggle.