He's just been called a "Sinologist."
"Of sorts, yeah," he says, breaking into his trademark nice-guy smile. (The term was used to describe him in the press notes of his new film, The Painted Veil.)
He then reminisces about how much the miniseries Shogun -- about Japan, actually, but of Asian subject matter -- excited him as a boy and how his respected faculty advisor at Yale University was China scholar Jonathan Spence, whose books include The Search for Modern China and Mao.
One of Spence's books that Norton didn't read in college was 1969's To Change China: Western Advisors in China, which chronicles how China was influenced -- not always willingly -- by the West from 1620 to 1960. But he read it soon after starting to film The Painted Veil, in which he plays a newlywed British biologist, Walter Fane, who travels to China in the 1920s with wife Kitty (Naomi Watts) to improve the "backward" nation's public health.
Although Walter is committed to his cause, he has an imperious and distant manner that bothers both the Chinese and his wife. That leads to her infidelity in Shanghai. He punishes Kitty by bringing her to a smaller village hit by a cholera epidemic. The film, directed by John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore) and written by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), is adapted from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham.
Norton committed to the film in 1999 and stayed with it as a producer and actor while funding and casting issues were finally settled.
With his encouragement, the initial story has been broadened to look at how the Chinese felt about the Western presence in the restive 1920s. In the early 20th century, Western nations sought to establish, sometimes forcefully, spheres of influence in China.
"That book was a terrific insight into the mindset of some of the people who came over there as part of the colonial wave," Norton says of Spence's To Change China. "As an actor, it really deepens your sense of who a character might be. Sometimes something very academic can really give you an insight into the psychology."
By now, Norton has become animated. Talking about a subject he likes does that. He is leaning forward and motioning with his hands, including one holding a pair of sunglasses. Slightly unshaven, his brown hair short and unpretentiously styled, he's dressed like he came directly from giving a college lecture with his striped blue blazer, white dress shirt and jeans.
"I remember reading (in Spence's book) about this hydrologist, an engineer who worked on flood-control projects in that period," Norton says. "It quotes him as saying, 'We were scientists doing work to bring rationality into an irrational world.' Spence writes an astute comment: 'This was of course achieved under the shadow of guns.'
"I remember thinking that is a brilliant encapsulation of Walter. And it ended up manifesting itself in the script. We added things like Walter saying 'I'm a scientist; I don't need to have an opinion about the rest of it.' It's that sort of haughty sense of being above it all. That's part of what the movie is about. Walter has a very arrogant rationalist Western conviction."
This is a short interview because Norton is a busy man; he's soon to be off to a television talk show. As a result, there isn't time to get into such subjects as his campaign against swag at awards shows, his success with The Illusionist, his involvement in trying to convert Manhattan's abandoned High Line railroad track into an above-ground, and his membership on the board of the Enterprise Foundation, which supports low-income housing and was started by his grandfather, shopping-mall and planned-community developer James Rouse. (Norton's father was a federal prosecutor.)
There isn't even much time to discuss the challenges of filming The Painted Veil in China, which was a production partner. But Norton did have time to reveal an upcoming film being sponsored by his Class 5 production company. It's a documentary about Illinois senator and possible Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama being made by filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams. They have already started following him around.
"The intention is to try to investigate what happens when a politician of great prominence enters the political system," Norton says. "Obviously he's an enormously exciting person. With a couple filmmakers we know, we came up with this idea and pitched it to his team for a long-term documentary relationship with no specific time horizon. We found some people to back it, so we intend to do it for a couple years at least."
It's pretty clear from this conversation as well as from his activities that Norton is interested in politics. To some extent, he was attracted to The Painted Veil because of the opportunity to provide a political dimension to a fundamentally romantic story. But that doesn't explain why Nyswaner's original adapted screenplay of Maugham's novel interested him in the first place.
"I've never been particularly inclined toward what they call romantic confections -- people who meet through a wedding planner or whatever," says Norton, who is single but in the past has dated Salma Hayek and Courtney Love. "I don't see myself reflected in that. There are lots of movies that are 'romantic' but are about the artifice of the charming way people meet.
"But this seemed to me from the get-go about the way men and women sometimes fall in love with the projections of their own hopes. And then there's the long process of actually seeing who it is you are with, and embracing them not for who you wanted them to be. That's a process I'd call 'deeper love.' That was really compelling to me. I felt a lot of people might see their own experiences reflected in that."
To read our Q&A with Norton's The Painted Veil co-star Naomi Watts, go to citybeat.com.