Raised in Columbia, Maryland, Norton was drawn to theatrical productions at local venues as a child. After graduating from Yale University in 1991, he worked for a few months in Japan before relocating to New York City to pursue an acting career. He gained immediate recognition for his debut in Primal Fear (1996), which earned him a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and an Academy Award nomination in the same category. His role as a reformed neo-Nazi in 1998's American History X earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He also starred in the film Fight Club (1999), which has garnered a cult following.
Norton has emerged as a filmmaker in the 2000s. He established Class 5 Films, a production company in 2003, and was director or producer of the films Keeping the Faith (2000), Down in the Valley (2005) and The Painted Veil (2006). He has continued to receive critical acclaim for his roles in various ventures, namely The Score (2001), 25th Hour (2002), The Illusionist (2006), Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). His greatest commercial successes have been Red Dragon (2002), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), The Incredible Hulk (2008) and The Bourne Legacy (2012). For his role in the 2014 black comedy Birdman, Norton earned another Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Despite critical plaudits, Norton has gained a notoriety for being hard to work with, including incidents of editing the final cuts and rewriting screenplays against other producers' will. He is discreet about his personal life and expresses disinterest in overt stardom. Alongside his work in cinema, Norton is an environmental activist and social entrepreneur. He is a trustee of non-profit organization for affordable housing Enterprise Community Partners. He serves as president of the American branch of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, and is the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity. Norton is married to Canadian film producer Shauna Robertson, with whom he has one child.