Edward Norton Debuts 'Motherless Brooklyn' in L.A., Asks Audience to "Suspend Disbelief"

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton -special screening Motherless Brooklyn - Getty-H 2019
VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Norton — who wrote, directed and starred in the film —joined co-stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Ethan Suplee at the Hollywood American Legion Post 43 for a crowded special screening of the film Monday night.

Edward Norton had one request before introducing his latest film, Motherless Brooklyn. Norton — who wrote, directed, and starred in the film — joined co-stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Ethan Suplee at the Hollywood American Legion Post 43 for a crowded special screening of the film Monday night.

While introducing the film at a special screening in Los Angeles, Norton told the audience that, as both the star and director, he’s conflicted. “As a director it’s gratifying to introduce your film,” he said. “As an actor, it’s an absolute nightmare to stand up here in a suit right before I ask you to suspend disbelief and go into the '50s.”

So, he had a request for all in attendance.

“Only semi-facetiously, in fact totally seriously, I’m going to ask you: When I leave, will everyone close their eyes, take a deep breath, and do like one 'Om' together? Eradicate from your mental memory everything that you see and hear here.”

Norton directs for the first time since 2000 and makes his screenwriting debut with Motherless Brooklyn, a project he has worked on for nearly two decades. His words onstage were filled with gratitude, as well as a few jokes.

“My producing team, they’re like the Justice League,” he told the audience. “This is a Warner film, so they’re not the other guys. They’re the Justice League.”

Motherless Brooklyn is set in the 1950s and follows a detective with Tourette’s syndrome (Norton) who is trying to solve the murder of his mentor (Bruce Willis). Based on a novel of the same name, Norton’s adaptation takes the characters, set in the 1990s, and transports them 40 years earlier. 

“[The characters] sort of feel like people living in a pocket of Brooklyn that never left the '50s,” Norton told The Hollywood Reporter before the screening. “So, it was a little bit of a choice of, ‘Are we going to make this feel ironic? Or, are we going to play it straight?’ The character is so emotionally sympathetic that we didn’t really want him to become totally comic by being jokey about the whole thing.”

The book’s author, Jonathan Lethem, supported the adaptation from the moment Norton first contacted him. “It’s always felt, from that moment, it was his artwork," Lethem said. "He had something he wanted to make, and I was like ‘Great, take my character and run with it.’”

Lethem continued: “I grew up in New York, and the stuff that he’s brought in from the historical elements of the 1950s ... gentrification, urban renewal as a euphemism for destroying integrated neighborhoods — this is stuff that matters a lot to me. It was really thrilling that he was going to find a way to unite that to my characters.”

Gugu Mbatha-Raw told THR that she hopes the characters are what resonates most with the audience. "It’s such an inspiring story of an underdog. Edward’s character has Tourette’s syndrome. He’s overlooked by society. People don’t really know what to make of him," she said. "I think my character is also somebody who is overlooked by society. In the '50s as a trained lawyer, she experiences a lot of racial discrimination. I think, for me, I hope people are inspired by whatever battles you have in life, that shouldn’t stop you from fighting."

Motherless Brooklyn will be in theaters Nov. 1.