IT'S not by luck that Edward Norton's CV is immaculate. Not only has he chosen his movies well, he's immersed himself in the roles. He lost weight for Fight Club, gained 30lb of rippling muscles and became a vicious skinhead for American History X, and developed a stutter for his character in Primal Fear. He even told the director of Primal Fear that he came from eastern Kentucky, like his character Aaron Stampler, and spoke with the desired hillbilly twang (learned from watching Coal Miner's Daughter).

The only thing Norton has refused to do for cinema so far is smoke a cigarette. ''I don't smoke and I don't want to smoke. I am not a fan of gratuitous smoking in films.''

Norton is not the stereotypical actor. Away from the camera there is no sign of the movie idol. He is simply a smart, educated American. He was born in Boston in 1969. His father is an attorney who works for the National Trust for Historic Preservation; his mother, Robin, a former teacher, died four years ago.

As a child Norton was clever and precocious. By the age of eight, appearing in Annie Get Your Gun, he was asking the director ''What is my objective here?'' Two years earlier his babysitter had kindled his interest in the stage when she took Norton to see his first play, If I Were a Princess.

Later, while majoring in history at Yale, he joined every theatre and acting class possible. After graduating he moved to Japan to work for his grandfather's company, Enterprise Foundation, which creates decent, affordable housing for low-income families. He soon returned to New York and took a job as a waiter for two years while battling to get his foot in Hollywood's door.

Eventually playwright Edward Albee spotted Norton and gave him a role in Fragments with his Signature Theatre Company. It was while working on this production that his breakthrough came with the 1996 courtroom thriller Primal Fear. Leonardo DiCaprio had turned down the role opposite Richard Gere and Norton was chosen from 2000 young hopefuls for the part.

Since then there have been The People vs Larry Flynt (1996), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Rounders (1998), and American History X (1998), all praised by the critics. Even Fight Club, which took a beating at the box office, was acclaimed. For this Norton was teamed with Brad Pitt, and the pair hit it off. During filming they attended soap-making classes, and later Norton was invited to Pitt's wedding to Jennifer Aniston.

Red Dragon - the prequel to Silence of the Lambs - will be another creation to add to Norton's growing list of dark movies. Perhaps the role of Private Ryan, which he was offered but turned down, wasn't sinister enough for him. The part of comic Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon might have been more to his liking, but when director Milos Forman couldn't decide between Norton and Jim Carrey, he left the decision to the studio. Exit Norton.

Norton certainly seems to steer clear of the mainstream professionally, but whether this goes for his private life too only he (and maybe his cat, Maggie) can tell. He is extremely protective of his privacy. There have been rumours of romances with Drew Barrymore (they shared a flat), Courtney Love (he appeared as a guitarist for her band, Hole, at two gigs in 1998), and now Salma Hayek. But he's never going to reveal all. ''I just think there are higher-minded conversations to be had than talking about my fairly humdrum daily life.''

Such a humdrum daily life we all should have, already.

Edward Norton appears in American History X at 1.40am on Sky Premier.