Macdonald's Universal drama swaps leads

Edward Norton is exiting “State of Play,” and talks are under way for Ben Affleck to replace him in the Kevin Macdonald-directed drama for Universal Pictures and Working Title.

Norton becomes the second high-profile cast member to disembark, following the exit of his “Fight Club” co-star Brad Pitt just before Thanksgiving.

While U threatened legal action against Pitt, Norton’s exit comes with no rancor. His problem: He had committed to follow “State of Play” by playing the dual leads in “Leaves of Grass,” an independent comedy written and to be directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Norton is producing that picture with his Class 5 Films partner Bill Migliore and Nelson. Barbarian Films is financing.

Pitt’s exit, and the courtship of Russell Crowe to replace him, moved the “State of Play” start date from mid-November into January. That created a clash, so the studio, working with Norton’s and Affleck’s reps at Endeavor, worked out an exit plan.

Now it will be Affleck who plays a fast-rising politician caught up in a murder conspiracy. Crowe will play a journalist who leads a newspaper’s investigation into the killing. He’s conflicted in that he once ran the pol’s campaigns and is now romancing the solon’s estranged wife.

Still in the cast are Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright Penn and Jason Bateman. Andrew Hauptman and Working Title partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner are producing. While Mirren had a stop date so she could star with Joe Pesci in the Taylor Hackford-directed “Love Ranch,” attempts are being made to work out the sked.

Affleck’s most recent credits include a starring role in last year’s “Hollywoodland” and his directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone.”

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