Whether it’s playing a Bond villain or a real-life serial killer, there’s one common refrain nearly every actor will use to explain how they were able to go about embodying a nefarious or morally repugnant character. It’s all about “finding their humanity,” they’ll tell you.
That challenge certainly stood before Edward Norton when it came to portraying Derek Vinyard, a former neo-Nazi leader fresh out of prison in the 1998 dramatic thriller American History X, released in theaters 25 years ago Monday.
"It's always better to be able to connect to the fact that a character in his own mind feels right,” Norton told us in a 2019 Role Recall interview (American History X talk begins at the 2:12 mark in the below video).
“Like if you're Ralph Fiennes and you're playing Voldemort in Harry Potter, that's a villain. He's a supernatural version of evil. But if you're playing a human character, they have a point of view, and by making him intelligent, it was like an avenue for me to come at it in a way that's unexpected."
Written by David McKenna and directed by Tony Kaye, the gritty crime drama certainly had its share of unexpected moments. None has been burned in our memories more than the infamous scene where Derek shoots a Black man to death and then “curb stomps” another.
But complexities abounded for Norton’s character. His father, a firefighter, was shot and killed by a Black drug dealer while on the job, the impetus for Derek becoming a white supremacist. After he attacks the two men for attempting to steal his truck, he’s sent to prison. There, he joins the Aryan Brotherhood but later becomes disillusioned with them, and when he abandons them, is beaten and raped.
Once released from prison, Derek finds his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) emulating his allegiance to white supremacy, and attempts to dissuade him from following his path. Danny, though, is ultimately attacked and killed in retaliation by a Black classmate.
"We viewed it as a modern-day Shakespearian tragedy,” Norton says. “We were approaching it from the point of view of like the skin of it is modern, but it's timeless. It's a classical approach to a tragedy, like Othello or Macbeth or anything like that.
“This is a guy with enormous potential, he's not a marginal figure, he's like a general. Let's let you see all the things, all the qualities he has that could've been applied in positive ways and show that rage, anger destroys him.”
American History X is currently streaming on Paramount+.