One of the most exciting actors of his generation, Edward Norton received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his very first role, in the 1996 thriller Primal Fear. Within four years, he had worked with Milos Foreman (The People Vs. Larry Flynt), Woody Allen (Everyone Says I Love You), John Dahl (Rounders) and David Fincher (Fight Club). He had also received the second Oscar nod of his career, this time in the Best Actor category for his neo-nazi in American History X, and made his directorial debut with comedy Keeping the Faith. All this, and he had just turned 30. Now 36, Norton has showed no signs of slowing down. The former Yale graduate – who reputedly asked his drama teacher when he was just eight what his motivation in a scene was – has since proved himself adept in the Hollywood blockbuster (The Italian Job) and a match for both Robert De Niro and the late Marlon Brando (The Score). With his latest film, David Jacobson’s Down in the Valley, the Boston-born Norton takes the lead as Harlan, a delusional figure who believes he is a cowboy in the modern-day San Fernando Valley. Falling in with a young rebellious teenager (Evan Rachel Wood), theirs is a tragic love story as potent as anything Norton has filmed.

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Do you believe in cowboy values?

I don’t. I’m not a cowboy. I think ‘cowboy values’, the idea of American Western values…David [Jacobson] and I talked a lot about that. And about the role that the American West still plays in people’s fantasies in America and in this sense of themselves. I think our whole country still has this deep mythic vision of ourselves. The whole American ethos of individualism and the idea of taking care of business and your family, and of guns and the purity of the Western landscape…all of that is still deeply embedded in America’s sense of itself and American people’s sense of themselves. It manifests itself in all kinds of weird ways. The rest of the world, they call our president a cowboy! They look at his behaviour as cowboy behaviour. And I think that the idea that David put forward right at the beginning, when we first talked…he said, ‘I’m really interested in fantasy and the role it can play in being a positive act that a person saves or creates themselves through. And then the way fantasy can become negative if a person can’t integrate it with reality.’ And he said, ‘I’m really interested in the Western, and the idea that we all have this Western fantasy and yet what good is making another Western?’ He said, ‘I keep thinking what if you made a Western today. What if you took a Western story about a drifter who comes into town?’ If Shane came into town today, and hooked up with a family who was in trouble and tried to help them, what would happen? If that cowboy tried to ride out across the San Fernando today, what would it look like, who would he run into? And I love that idea. Through it, we say this whole mythic vision of ourselves is based on something that’s gone. It hardly exists anymore. It exists in these little fragments.

Much of this myth is based on movies, right?

Absolutely. Certainly movies have pumped up into something that it probably never even was. We talked about whether Harlan’s vision of the West is one born of movies. To some degree it is. But we kind of ended up shifting it more toward the idea that Harlan has an historic sense of the West. Even when he talks about guns, he talks about Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. He fantasises himself in a line of descent from those men, peacemakers. I think Harlan thinks he’s a peaceful person.

How long did you practice with the horses and the guns?

I had a couple of months. I had ridden before, but I had a good rodeo trainer. A great Hollywood stunt guy whose also a rodeo champ. We worked a long time on roping and riding. There’s a very famous gun master, his name is Thell Reed, and he’s about 5ft 4in and built like a fire-plug. He won the quick-draw championship of America when he was 14 in the Fifties, then he toured with Gene Autry for years as part of his travelling cowboy show, doing fancy gun-handling stuff. He worked with me.

Talking of Harlan, guns and movies, there seems to be a very conscious reference to Taxi Driver, when you’re looking in the mirror…

It’s funny. People say different things. Some say he’s very much like the character in Midnight Cowboy. Someone brought that [the Taxi Driver reference] up later. You always have something in your head. But in our own heads, we were looking at movies like Lonely Are the Brave and Giant. Some old Steve McQueen movies – the cowboy anti-hero. My Darling Clementine and stuff like that. Harlan’s fantasies go from something that seem very benign and humourous to something that’s less so. In the beginning when he’s playing with guns with the first time, he’s practising his lines and he fucks them up, and then he tries them again. Our idea was that you could feel him refining his fantasy and his own role in it. So by the time he gets in front of the mirror, that fantasy has turned into something a little darker. Now the fantasy is directed at Wade. We were really just thinking about that – that he saw himself in that street gunning it out with Wade, in a way.

How different was David’s original script for Down in the Valley?

David’s first script was very different. It was like stream-of-consciousness that he poured out. Harlan killed Wade early on, then he and Lonnie went on a big killing spree and Lonnie killed people. It was very different. We worked on it for about seven months, saying ‘a lot of it is other movies’. So we built off those basic pillars, images and ideas – and let’s construct a story in a way that makes it consistent to who these people are.

Harlan’s background is very vague. Was that deliberate?

We decided that our measuring stick was going to be when we showed it to groups of people. That if we said to people, ‘What’s Harlan’s true story? What really happened to Harlan? Where’s he from? Whose his father?’ if we got three different versions then that was what we wanted. We never wanted complete certainty about who he is. In our thinking about it, he’s trying to understand what his father did and why he left. David felt Harlan’s father left him as a young boy, and gone and started this second life. He escaped in his own way. So Harlan is an orphan; someone who has been left behind by a father for reasons he didn’t understand at the time, but now he has found need to escape from the world himself understands his father’s choice a little more, to some degree. David’s original script was a lot different in some ways, but there were these little things in it that we anchored it around. One of them was this idea of a cowboy standing in the street, high on drugs, and this feeling that to make the distance between what he’s trying to recreate himself as and what he was as great as possible.

So really it’s a story about forgiveness?

In some sense he’s in there trying to forgive his father. Harlan thinks he’s a man of peace but he never reconciles that with his own actions. He’s saying these gentle things while he’s smashing into someone’s house. I think he’s very sad. Shane is the same way. When he comes into town, you know intuitively that he’s not going to stay there. I think it’s the same idea.

Are you drawn to characters like Harlan, ones that are doomed from the beginning?

Not necessarily exclusively. I talked about this with [Spike Lee’s] The 25th Hour, and I felt it on American History X very consciously…I think the modern version of tragedy is Steel Magnolias. I don’t know what you call those movies, but tragedy in the true sense is something that has a foretold doom. In the classical sense, the idea of it is that it has value as a type of story because you’re going to watch somebody go down, because they can’t control a certain excess. In that you’re going to see something of yourself and you empathise. In American History X, we wrote the script specifically along those lines. The idea of a person who has great potential who goes down because of his rage and takes his entire family down with him. But with Harlan, he’s very poetic and has a very beautiful sense of some things. A lot of what he says is right, and you relate to it, but he just can’t make it work.

Did you the sex scenes with a very young actress make you uncomfortable?

It’s something that you have to handle professionally and creatively right away, and you have to be very sensitive to the person you’re working with. But Evan’s an incredibly sophisticated girl, and I don’t mean just mature beyond her years. She’s very serious and very sober and as an actor she has a lot of technique and understanding of what’s she doing. We talked to her about the script for a long time; we talked to her and her mother. And she understood it and was very committed to the big ideas in it. She grew up in the Valley too, and she really knew that world. We talked about young people in the Valley with no sense of themselves and no way of connecting to nature or anything, and she was very into all that. She made an observation early on that knocked me out, and I thought it was so true. It informed a lot of decisions we made when we were editing the film. She said, ‘I think she seduces him and she’s got to lead the relationship’. And it’s true. She’s older than he is, in a lot of ways. She pulls him into it and he, because he’s emotionally stunted, takes it so literally and gets so overwhelmed by her, he can’t see it for what it is at all.

Did your own upbringing mirror the characters in any way? Are you from the Valley?

No, no. This was not one I related to. But in the sense of fantasy, I think everybody relates to that. I worked on that tub scene, and put that line in about him saying ‘you can do anything you want, be anybody you want to be, you just have to make up your mind and do it’. I think everybody does that. And he’s just doing it to an extreme degree. In a lot of ways, that’s all acting is. It’s just the commitment to the idea that you are this thing. Then if you act it well enough then you are – and that’s all he’s doing.

As the producer of Down in the Valley, what does that mean to you? More money?

No, no – there’s no money in this film. The costume budget for Kingdom of Heaven was bigger than the whole budget for Down in the Valley. Too many people put their names on as producers for doing really nothing. But for me, producing movies is the process of taking it, developing something creatively, which is what I did. In this case, it was about me and Holly [Wiersma], my partner, finding the money and getting the film budget bankrolled in part by showing these guys that we could pre-sell to foreign on me being in it for a certain amount of money. Really getting into the mechanisms of how we were going to finance the film, or find someone to cover the amount of the budget that we couldn’t sell via foreign sales. Then shepherding and defending in some ways the process, making sure David and me had as much time and room as we needed. You can’t edit this film in eight weeks. In some sense I think producing is like protecting.

Did you have much to do with the editing process?

David and I edited the film. David is an editor and I have done a lot of editing, and we worked briefly with someone. We spent a year-and-a-half writing and then making the film. David wrote the script and then we spent six months working on it. We just got to the point where we were working with someone and we said, ‘We just can’t explain what this is about. We’ve been in it for too long’. So we were cutting it on FinalCutPro on our Apple Computers anyway. David asked me to come in and be the editor, so I did. I would rank him among the people I would call authentic filmmakers – Spike Lee, Milos Foreman, David Fincher, John Dahl – who have original, personal vision. He has that quality that I really admire – he doesn’t like answering questions in films. He prefers dumping something into people’s laps and saying ‘What are you going to do with this? I’m not going to spoon-feed it to you and I’m not going to answer all these questions and wrap it up in a neat little bow so you can feel good walking away from it.’ He’s very committed to leaving people shaken up. And there are very few filmmakers that have an ounce of that in their work. They compulsively answer every fucking question, and whose version of intelligence in a film is explain it and make all the subtext text!

Are you working on anything now?

It’s called The Illusionist. It’s about a 19th Century stage illusionist. It’s hard to explain – a romantic mystery.