‘Leaves of Grass’ is a mix of film director’s two worlds growing up, plus personality

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Walt Whitman, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Judaism, the Ivy League, backwoods Oklahoma and hydroponic pot are all a part of a new film.

Tim Blake Nelson’s film, “Leaves of Grass,” has all this and more, including not one, but two Edward Nortons.

The two-time Academy Award nominee plays identical twins Bill and Brady, an Ivy League professor and a pot dealer in Oklahoma, respectively.

The Daily Campus sat down with co-producer’s and co-star’s Norton and Nelson at the Crescent Hotel in Dallas to discuss their joint venture on the film.

Nelson said he had Norton in mind for both roles from the very beginning, although he went out on a limb showing the script.

Norton was not looking to start any new projects at the time, but he was immediately drawn to Nelson’s passion and to the originality of the script.

“I get to read a lot of things, and 98 percent of things I read are derivatives of things I’ve seen before…the bridge between little Dixie and Ivy League was so fresh and original,” Norton said.

As a Brown graduate from Oklahoma, Nelson’s personal influence in both twin characters is not difficult to imagine.

He describes the film as being about “a guy examining his life trying to live in all the right ways who gets completely sideswiped.”

In response to questions regarding whether the film is too ambitious in its content, Nelson said: “I’m proud because I think I’ve done a very daring movie. I was never interested in just making a pot comedy…Life certainly is not only funny. I tried to examine it all without pretension; it’s organic while being unpredictable and never preachy.”

Nelson’s experiences growing up in two very different worlds are sure to create an interesting mix in the film, as they do in his personality.

He makes profound statements with his extensive vocabulary, all in a distinct drawl and with a laid back, warm nature.

Despite his first-rate education and artistic brilliance, “he does some hokie things,” Norton said.

“He barbeques a chicken by opening a can of Budweiser and sticking the whole thing in the chicken on the grill. I had to explain to him aluminum and what it does to the brain,” he said.

Norton playing both lead roles brought about challenges both for acting and filming. Nelson cited “Avatar” as an example of how far special effects have come, and said they used every technique from rotoscopy to what he calls “poor man’s process” filming a double wearing a wig.

Although the advancements in technology made filming easier, Nelson said, “it would all be meaningless without the soul of Edward’s performance.”

Although Norton discussed the difficulty of keeping in mind the unconscious queues that two people are in the same space–like bumping into each other and overlapping sentences–he had a lot of fun with both roles.

“It’s like being both Abbott and Costello. The funny guy and the straight guy,” Norton said.
Norton also discussed what attracts him to roles that deal with the complexities of personality and duality and said he’s interested in characters that are “struggling that they don’t feel like they’re expressing a part of who they are.”

Nelson can also relate to the dichotomy concept, fulfilling his roles as a husband and father (his wife and two of his sons appear in the movie), while also being an actor, writer and producer.

“We have family dinner together every night, but then I lead this peripatetic life and go off and make movies. We all have forces and conflicts within ourselves,” he said.

Both Nelson and Norton’s advice for students aspiring to follow careers in the entertainment industry is to seek as much control of your career as possible.

“I’ve never really enjoyed what comes with being an actor. A lack of autonomy…it’s up to everyone else,” Norton said. 

Both also stressed the value of creating your own work in the industry.

“What has changed everything for me is being able to write my own material,” Nelson said.

“Without Edward, I never would have been able to get this movie made. But without the script, there would have been no Edward.” .

Instead of doing the regular New York and Los Angeles movie premiere circuit, the film previewed in South and Southwestern states.

It is doing its opening press tours in Dallas and Austin. “We wanted to let the movie prove itself here, first,” Nelson said.

Though concerned with how audiences would respond to the films mishmash of intellectualism and humor, SXSW proved to be the perfect audience.

“SXSW was a dream. It was heaven. They laughed at both epistemology and noodeling jokes,” Norton said.

“Leaves of Grass” will open nationwide on April 2.

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