Alongside his work in cinema, Norton is an environmental and social activist, and is a member of the board of trustees of Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit organization for developing affordable housing founded by his grandfather James Rouse. Norton is president of the American branch of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. He ran in the 2009 New York City Marathon to raise money for the Trust. He also raises money for charity through Crowdrise, a social networking community for volunteers and a micro-donations fundraising platform. In July 2010, Norton was designated as the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. On July 2, 2014, Norton was elected chairman of the board of trustees to Signature Theatre, a not-for-profit theater company in New York. Norton has been on Signature's board since 1996 and served as the co-chair of the Capital Campaign during the building of the Pershing Square Signature Center.
Norton was born in Boston, Massachusetts and raised in Columbia, Maryland. His father, Edward Mower Norton Jr., served in Vietnam as a Marine lieutenant and was later an environmental lawyer and conservation advocate working in Asia, as well as a former federal prosecutor in the Carter administration. His mother, Lydia Robinson "Robin" (née Rouse), a teacher of English, died of a brain tumor in 1997. His maternal grandfather, James Rouse, was the founder of The Rouse Company, who developed the city of Columbia, Maryland (where Norton grew up), helped develop Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Norfolk's Waterside Festival Marketplace and Boston's Quincy Market, as well as co-founded Enterprise Community Partners with Norton's maternal step-grandmother, Patty Rouse. Norton has two younger siblings, Molly and Jim, with whom he has professionally collaborated.
From 1981 to 1985, along with his brother, Norton attended Camp Pasquaney on the shores of Newfound Lake in Bristol, New Hampshire, where he won the acting cup in 1984; he returned to the camp's council for two years by directing theater, and maintains close connections with the camp. Norton was raised Episcopalian. He graduated in 1987 from Columbia's Wilde Lake High School, where his classmates included New York City Council member Mark Levine and best-selling author Robert Kolker. He attended Yale University, where he was a competitive rower and acted in university productions alongside Ron Livingston and Paul Giamatti, graduating in 1991 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History. After graduation, Norton worked in Osaka, Japan, consulting for his grandfather's company, Enterprise Community Partners, and speaks some Japanese. He appeared in an EFL textbook, Only in America, used by Nova, a formerly major English language school in Japan. He moved to New York City to star in the Off-Broadway theater, breaking through with his 1993 involvement in Edward Albee's Fragments, at the Signature Theatre Company.
In his film debut Primal Fear (1996), Norton played Aaron Stampler, an altar boy who is charged with the murder of a Roman Catholic archbishop and is defended by Martin Vail (Richard Gere). The film is an adaptation of William Diehl's novel. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly wrote: "Norton gives a performance that's fully the equal of Gere's – he's as slyly self-effacing as Gere is slyly ostentatious." Alison Macor of The Austin Chronicle, in review of the film, wrote, "Norton's performance and the well-paced tension preceding the movie's climactic sequence provide an entertaining if slightly predictable thriller." Despite the mixed reviews, Norton won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. That same year, Norton played lawyer Alan Isaacman in The People vs. Larry Flynt. In 1998, he played Derek Vinyard, a reformed neo-Nazi, in the film American History X, David Denby of The New Yorker noted that he gives Derek "ambiguous erotic allure; he's almost appealing". The film received positive reviews and grossed over $23 million worldwide at the box office. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. Later, Norton starred with Matt Damon in Rounders, which follows two friends who urgently need to earn enough cash playing poker to pay off a huge debt. In David Fincher's 1999 film Fight Club, Norton played an unreliable narrator who feels trapped in his white-collar position. It is based on Chuck Palahniuk's novel of the same name. To prepare for the role, Norton took lessons in boxing, taekwondo and grappling. Fight Club premiered at the 1999 Venice International Film Festival. During promotion for the film, he said, "I feel that Fight Club really, in a way ... probed into the despair and paralysis that people feel in the face of having inherited this value system out of advertising." The film failed to meet expectations at the box office, and received polarized reactions from film critics. However, it became a cult classic after its DVD release.
In 2002, Norton starred in Brett Ratner's Red Dragon as FBI profiler Will Graham and in Spike Lee's 25th Hour. While Red Dragon received mixed reviews, it was commercially successful. 25th Hour was about post-9/11 New York City. In 2003, Paramount Studios forced Norton to star in The Italian Job (2003) by threatening to sue him under the terms of a three-film contract he had signed. Norton accordingly refused to promote the film's release. Norton won critical praise for his role as Baldwin IV, the leper king of Jerusalem, in Kingdom of Heaven. Norton portrayed Marvel Comics character Bruce Banner / The Hulk in the Marvel Studios film The Incredible Hulk, released in 2008. Norton's attempt to rewrite the film along lines of his own choosing was unsuccessful; consequently, Norton refused to promote the film. He was expected to reprise his role in the 2012 film The Avengers, but was replaced by Mark Ruffalo due Norton's disagreements with Marvel on salary issues and with the character, as well as their lack of collaboration and teamwork.
In 2006, Norton starred in three films: Down in the Valley, as a dangerous drifter purporting to be a cowpoke; The Illusionist, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and later became a sleeper hit when it went into general release; and The Painted Veil. Norton gave award-winning performances in each one. In 2010, Norton appeared in two films again: in Leaves of Grass, as estranged identical twins (one a small-time drug dealer and the other a Brown professor); and in Stone, which reunited Norton with his The Score castmate Robert De Niro, and in which Norton plays a convict trying to con his parole officer (De Niro) into an early release. In 2008, Norton starred in New Line Cinema's Pride and Glory, as an honest detective assigned to investigate the precinct run by his older brother. The film was neither well received by critics nor strongly supported by the studio, and, despite also starring Colin Farrell and Jon Voight, grossed a worldwide total of only $31.1 million against a production budget of $30 million. Norton played himself in a cameo role in the experimental comedy show Stella, and made another comedic television appearance on the Emmy award-winning ABC show Modern Family in 2010, playing a fictional member of real life '80s new wave band Spandau Ballet. In The Bourne Legacy, he played the antagonist, Eric Byer. Norton has also done uncredited script work on some of the films in which he has appeared, including The Score and Frida. In 2000, Norton made his directorial debut film Keeping the Faith. He gained a reputation for being a perfectionist and managed to receive the final cut of American History X. He clashed with director Brett Ratner while shooting Red Dragon, as well as with the studio during the shooting of The Incredible Hulk and subsequently refused to do promotion for the latter. In 2013, Norton starred in The Lonely Island's music video, "Spring Break Anthem," alongside Andy Samberg, Zach Galifinakis, James Franco, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. The video premiered on Funny or Die's Between Two Ferns during a segment between Galifinakis and Franco.
In 2014, Norton played Mike Shiner, a prickly Broadway actor in the black comedy film Birdman and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role. On February 20, 2014, it was announced that Norton was directing Motherless Brooklyn. In June 2014, Norton's Class 5 Films and RatPac Entertainment acquired the film rights to the non-fiction article American Hippopotamus, by Jon Mooallem, about the meat shortage in the U.S. in 1910 and the attempts made by Major Frederick Russell Burnham, Captain Fritz Joubert Duquesne and Congressman Robert Broussard to import hippopotami into the Louisiana bayous and persuade Americans to eat them. The film highlights the rivalry between Burnham and Duquesne, two famous spies who had been under orders to assassinate each other. Norton, William Migliore and Brett Ratner were to produce this feature film.
After six years of dating, Norton proposed to Canadian film producer Shauna Robertson in 2011 and they married in 2012. They have one son (born 2013).
Norton is generally known for his reluctance to embrace his celebrity status and says, "If I ever have to stop taking the subway, I'm gonna have a heart attack."
Norton is a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, and was involved in Cal Ripken Jr.'s retirement activities in 2001 when he was asked to be a part of Ripken's biography for Major League Baseball (MLB). He attended Ripken's ceremony at the Hall of Fame in July 2007.
Norton has a private pilot license and discussed his flight training when interviewed on episodes of the Late Show with David Letterman and Inside the Actor's Studio. One of his personal aircraft was a Cessna 206 substantially modified by the AOPA.
Norton was a supporter of former New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer. Norton is a member of the board of trustees of Enterprise Community Partners, a non-profit developer of affordable housing based in his hometown. He is also well known for his support for environmental causes and renewable energy projects, such as Enterprise's Green Communities Initiative and BP's Solar Neighbors program. He also put time and money toward social activist causes, including improving the quality of living in low-income communities.
Norton's work with the HBO documentary By the People: The Election of Barack Obama led to a soundtrack, with proceeds going to Enterprise Community Partners and United Way. Norton also participated in a 2008 Fast Company story about Enterprise's green affordable housing. Norton is the president of the American branch of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. To raise money for the trust, Norton fielded a team of thirty runners in the New York City Marathon on November 1, 2009. The team included Alanis Morissette and David Blaine. Norton finished the event first among celebrities with a time of 3 hours, 48 minutes. Norton and his team raised over $1 million for the Trust.
In addition to his involvement with the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, Norton supports African Wildlife Foundation, appearing in a public awareness ad about the dangers of buying elephant ivory as part of the "Say No" campaign. He is also a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, as well as a spokesperson for the Convention on Biological Diversity. In May 2010, Norton launched a website called Crowdrise, which uses a social networking platform to help raise funds for charity. In May 2012, Norton played football for an 'England vs. The Rest of the World' match the charity event Soccer Aid, along with James McAvoy and Woody Harrelson. The event eventually raised over £4,000,000 for UNICEF UK.2009: By the People: The Election of Barack Obama
2012: Thanks for Sharing