'Primal Fear' at 25: Edward Norton landed Oscar-nominated breakout role after Leonardo DiCaprio passed

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·3 min read

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Such is Hollywood and its long history of missed opportunities and alternate casting tales. And Edward Norton has a doozy of a tale to tell in this genre.

In the early ’90s, the Boston-born, Columbia, Md.-raised actor was working almost exclusively in New York theater when his friend Connie Britton dialed him up from a pay phone.

“She was auditioning for the part that Maura Tierney played in Primal Fear,” Norton told Yahoo Entertainment about the film — which turns 25 Monday — during a 2019 Role Recall interview. “[She] said, ‘They’re seeing people for this role and I have the spookiest feeling it’s made for you.’”

The role — a 19-year-old altar boy accused of killing a Catholic archbishop — wasn’t “fully formed” at the time, Norton said. Maybe it was even trash at that stage. It’s probably why one of the industry’s most in-demand actors didn’t want to take it.

Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s a really good pal of mine, he had passed on it,” Norton explained. “Weirdly that did a weird thing to me, because of course it’s like, a once-in-a-lifetime career shot. But I thought Leo was terrific, I really thought he was one of the better young actors around. I thought he was right. I was like, ‘This is a mess.’ It was a mess. [Director Greg Hoblit] thought it was a mess, [Richard Gere] kind of thought it was a mess. But then when I came into it, everybody really realized, ‘We really need to fix this.’”

In a 2017 Role Recall interview, Gere told Yahoo Entertainment he was ready to leave the movie until Norton came onboard.

Norton helped fix it from the moment he walked in the door. The young actor arrived at the audition in character as Aaron Stampler, and introduced the murder defendant’s famous stammering — ultimately revealed to be a put-on. The audition tape itself gained so much notoriety that Norton was already cast in projects by Woody Allen (Everyone Says I Love You) and Miloš Forman (The People vs. Larry. Flynt) before Primal Fear even opened on April 5, 1996. Norton’s stunning performance in Primal Fear won the young actor a Golden Globe and netted him an Oscar nomination, an incredibly rare feat for a first-time film star.

Today, though, Norton credits co-star Gere — who played the prototypical hero lawyer defending Stampler — for helping shape the role, the film and that satisfying twist.

“These movies teeter on the edge of being B-movies,” Gere told us. “And if they're badly done, they're a bad B-movie. And if they're well done, they transcend their genre. It was really important that we cast this right.”

“Ultimately, Richard, to his enormous credit, he was the one who was like, ‘Stop trying to game this so I don’t lose,'” Norton recounted. “He really was the one who in the end cleared the path for us to lean into the full commitment that this was a complete con.”

Primal Fear is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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