Edward Norton has played characters named Worm and Smoochy. He’s been cast as Nelson Rockefeller and King Baldwin. He’s been a priest in one film and a psychotic altar boy who kills a priest in another. A testament to his risk taking and range? Perhaps. But it also hints at something else about Norton: He’s a chameleon. So it makes sense that he has the title role in The Illusionist.
Norton plays Eisenheim, a brilliant magician who dazzles upper-crust crowds in 1900 Vienna with his miraculous sleights of hand. However, the crown prince (Rufus Sewell) isn’t a fan. Maybe it’s because Eisenheim makes fun of him on stage. But more likely it’s because the prince’s fiancée (Jessica Biel) has fallen for him. So the prince orders the chief inspector (Paul Giamatti) to spy on Eisenheim and debunk his illusions. ”Ed’s got good hair in this movie,” says his old Yale Drama School friend Giamatti, who, it should be noted, is stuck with his signature hangdog beard. ”He’s got magician hair.”
Norton, Giamatti, Sewell…Biel? What’s Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive (and the star of last summer’s Stealth bomb) doing in this company? ”I had to fight for it,” says Biel, adding that she even got dolled up in 19th-century frippery for her audition. ”I just went for it. It was ballsy. I went in thinking, They’re either going to laugh at me or they’re going to love it.” Impressive. Now let’s see her tackle a character named Smoochy.