Larry Flynt in Conversation With Edward Norton
Hustler’s Publisher Engages The Famed Actor Who Chronicled Obama’s White House Run.
Actor, conservationist and social activist Edward Norton portrayed the valiant lawyer defending HUSTLER’s mastermind in the 1996 biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt. Besides starring in a host of other hit films—Primal Fear, Rounders, American History X, Fight Club and The Incredible Hulk—Norton merits a forum as the producer of HBO’s heralded documentary By the People: The Election of Barack Obama.
LARRY FLYNT: Your documentary was set up before anyone knew Obama was going to run for President. How did that come about?
EDWARD NORTON: Everybody was struck by his speech during the 2004 [Democratic National] Convention. He was clearly a person of enormous potential. It seemed he was already carving a path toward this conciliatory middle. That speech didn’t launch him because it was a bold, new declaration of radical progressivism. That speech was notable because it denied the notion of trench warfare between blue and red. It sounded like a proto-Presidential speech. A lot of the credit for the documentary idea goes to one of our directors, Amy Rice.
FLYNT: How did you convince Obama and his people to let you shoot your documentary?
NORTON: I work on low-income housing issues. One of the organizations I work with is very effective at setting up meetings with new senators to help them set policy. So we went to D.C. to meet with Barack on housing issues in the winter of 2005/2006. I told Amy to come down with me in case we got some time to talk about this documentary idea, and that’s what happened. We wound up talking with Barack and Robert Gibbs, his communications director. They were very open to the idea. Barack understood what we were saying. I think he has always been very self-aware, and he recognized that, yeah, he was going to be a touchstone for a lot of things. They said, “Well, how would this begin?” And we said, “Maybe we just start slow. We’ll propose a few places that we’d like to film or people we’d like to interview.” They said, “That would be fine. Let’s just do it case by case.”
FLYNT: I was a little disappointed that more access wasn’t shown in the documentary. There weren’t a lot of conflict meetings with Obama and White House staffers like David Axelrod.
NORTON: When we started out with them, they weren’t restricting us at all. But when it became clear Barack was going to make a run for the Presidency, we knew the campaign staff would tell us, “You’re done.” And sure enough, David Axelrod basically told Robert Gibbs we wouldn’t be filming anymore. I called Axelrod to explain. I said, “We’re not the short-cycle news media.We’re not going to exploit this before the election.We’re archivists. We want this for the historical record. This will be an important piece of history.” After we talked, Axelrod was on the fence. Barack exhibited a certain amount of trust in us, and we slowly got back in the game. We did get to do some things nobody’s ever gotten to do during a Presidential campaign: actually interviewing the candidate and his family, shooting debate prep, things like that. We were hoping we could be inside the room when key arguments came up or decisions were being made, but they were careful about exposing themselves even though I think they trusted our intent.
FLYNT: When Obama learned he’d been elected President, there was no camera in his face. Nobody was there to catch his expression. I’m wondering how you guys missed it.
NORTON: It was pretty amazing that Amy was able to follow Axelrod and [chief campaign manager David] Plouffe upstairs into the room moments after Obama won. She didn’t have clearance to go with them up to his floor. As she’s following them in the stairwell, you can hear the Secret Service guy say, “Where’s your pin?” And Amy says, “I’m with them.” Then she just pushed on through. She got into the room to get that bit of Michelle [Obama] saying to Axelrod, “Don’t cry. If you cry, I’m going to cry.” You can see Obama in the background. You’ve seen The War Room, right? In that documentary it’s all about the strategists. We were able to get a little more of the candidate. We were also able to get the senior guys ruminating on what they were doing. But most of all, what the directors actually captured was a nice portrait of the rank and file. When people look back on this in 25 years, a big key to seeing how Obama built this movement will be the people who saw the candidate reflect their values and background. [Campaign staffer] Ronnie Cho is a perfect example. He said something like: “Here’s a guy—if he can be President, that means someone like me is included in this whole dynamic American experiment.” Politics is always identity and identification. What you see in Ronnie Cho and others in the film are contemporary American young people who are biracial and who identify with Obama. Obama succeeded because he built this movement of people who saw themselves as included in his vision of America.
FLYNT: Tell us your impression of Obama on the campaign trail.
NORTON: I don’t think I have any insights that other people haven’t had. I’ve met a lot of candidates or politicians in the last ten years, and there’s always a certain shellac, as I call it, like they’re on the make. There’s a certain desire on their part to impress. I never felt that with Barack. From the first time I met him, he seemed like one of your smarter friends from college. He was extremely attentive. He’d ask questions, and he would listen. He seemed sincerely inquisitive. He seemed like a person aware of his own potential, but measured. That’s the best word I can come up with. I think you see that in the film. Everybody would like to peek around the corner and see the melodramatics. But the reality of Obama’s team, for better or worse, was that when you got into the private spaces with them, they actually were very Zen. They weren’t very emotionally reactive people. The morning the Jeremiah Wright scandal hit, the Hillary Clinton campaign jumped on it. If there was ever a day you’d catch someone on edge, that was it. Alicia [Sams, a By the People filmmaker] caught David Axelrod coming out of his house, and she said, “Does it make you angry when you see that kind of tactical negativity being thrown at you?” She’s almost leading him into venting, and he just says, “Well, I never thought she [Hillary] would wave the white flag. That’s just not her gestalt.” They just don’t bite. I’m sure you felt the same way I did during the campaign. I was tearing my hair out. I was thinking, Punch back; be tougher.
FLYNT: While having dinner with Jesse Jackson Jr., I said, “Jesse, Obama’s got to get angry.” He said, “No, Larry, you don’t understand. America has a vision of an angry black man. That isn’t what we need.”
NORTON: I think Barack knows that, but I don’t even think it’s an image thing. It’s who he is. He and Axelrod, in particular, are extremely adept at playing the long game. I remember trying to text some of those campaign guys. I was trying to script responses like everybody else, but they proved over and over again that they had a better sense of the long game. They were looking further down the field. When the Jeremiah Wright thing broke, Barack could have punched back at Hillary a lot harder. She said something like, “I can’t see how a person could maintain a relationship with someone who says things like that.” I’m thinking Barack should say, “Why do Catholics keep their faith in the Catholic Church despite rampant abuse of young people by the clergy? They do it because it’s more complex than that. They do it because they have a deep faith and relationship with something, despite its flaws.” Or he could have turned to her and said, “Why does a woman stay with a man who cheats on her and flushes the mandate of his entire political party when he has an affair in the Oval Office?” What would Hillary have said? She would have been flat on her heels. Obama has more sense than that.
FLYNT: I talked to Dennis Kucinich when he was running for President during the Democratic primaries. I said, “Unless you do something, you’re going nowhere.” He said, “Can you suggest anything?” I said, “When you have an opportunity, say to Hillary that Carville and Begala controlled the bimbo eruption when your husband was President. Who’s going to control it when you’re President?” That would have been the most outrageous thing Kucinich could say. That would have been the news for the night.
NORTON: There’s a reason, I think, Obama couldn’t go that route. Those guys knew they had the delegate math. They knew they were going to win the key primaries and that when they won, they needed to convert all of Hillary’s supporters to their side. If they indulged the emotional satisfaction of knifing her, they would just piss those people off.
FLYNT: What do you think about what Obama is doing now?
NORTON: In a way I find myself doing the same thing I did during the campaign. I have these reactions where I say, “Don’t do that or do this.” But if the campaign revealed anything, it’s that those guys have been smarter than the rest of us. Do I wish they had been tougher about TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program]? Yeah, I do. But I’ve actually heard them say that it’s healthcare first, climate second and then Wall Street regulation. Maybe they’re kicking bank regulation down the road and keeping goodwill with the bankers until we get through this healthcare thing.
FLYNT: You’ve dated many beautiful girls in show business. My favorite of all is Salma Hayek. She is one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever met. Why would you ever let her get away?
NORTON: Things like that are complicated. We didn’t even have ten minutes where we weren’t friends. Sometimes your lives are going in different directions or you want different things on a different schedule. Timing is a lot of it.
FLYNT: Salma told me a story that revealed a lot about her as a person. A lot of people come to Hollywood and expect things to just happen, and it doesn’t just happen. Someone told Salma when she first came here, “You’ve got to have an agent.” So she called the William Morris Agency. She said, “I’d like to speak to William Morris.” The receptionist said, “He’s dead,” and hung up on her. So she called back ten minutes later and said, “Can I speak to his son?” I just thought that was really funny because it shows she’s full of determination. I imagine Salma puts that same determination into her acting and her relationships.
NORTON: I like girls who are confident. I think that my girlfriend, Shauna Robertson, is the same way. She came here from Canada with nothing when she was 17 and lied about her age to get a job at Disney. By the time she was 33, she had produced $1 billion worth of comedies. She and Judd Apatow started Apatow Films. She produced Elf, Anchorman, The 40- Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.
FLYNT: Someone told me your own body of work consists of over 25 movies. I didn’t know you’ve made that many.
NORTON: I didn’t either. I think it’s more like low- 20-something unless you count the documentaries.
FLYNT: I do count them. Which of your movies do you like the best?
NORTON: I think The People vs. Larry Flynt really holds up.
FLYNT: I still get royalty checks off of video sales.
NORTON: Someone said they use that film in civics classes in Slovenia.
FLYNT: All of the law students watch it in this country. Before they’d study New York Times v. Sullivan, a 1964 case. Now they use Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, and they always show the movie.
NORTON: The film is a great portrait of the messiness of a true democratic society. My dad’s an attorney, and he said that one of the real truths of American law is that a principle never gets tested in the comfortable middle. It only gets tested at the extreme end of the spectrum, like when you wrote in HUSTLER about Falwell in that outhouse with his mother.
FLYNT: With Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, I thought we were going to lose at the Supreme Court. I couldn’t believe it when we won by a unanimous decision. I also couldn’t believe that Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the decision himself. More or less, he said things are often done under the name of those men with less than admirable intentions, but that does not give the government the right to suppress free speech. Those kids in law school really get wrapped up in that. I speak at Robert Scheer’s class at USC every once in a while. His students are shown The People vs. Larry Flynt, then they ask me questions. Scheer told me the students voted me the best speaker by far. He’s had Oliver Stone there and Lawrence O’Donnell—
NORTON: I’d vote for you over Oliver too.
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