From the Pianist to the Predator
Adrien Brody seeks roles that define truths for him as an actor and a human being
From the Print Edition:
Adrien Brody, September/October 2010
The question, perhaps impertinently, came at the end of the interview and it had to do with the most memorable adjective ever used to describe Adrien Brody's nose. Brody, who is a handsome man with a well-known nose, laughed, and said, "My nose? You're asking me to describe my nose? I'll leave that to you." Some suggestions are offered: Aquiline? Roman? Prominent? "Unique," Brody says and chuckles to himself.
It's late June and Brody, 37, is sitting at a terrace table in the garden of the Chateau Marmont, in West Hollywood. He is dressed casually—t-shirt, jeans—and looks unassuming. Despite being instantly recognizable because of his trademark profile, Brody has no trouble losing himself in the parts he plays.
Indeed, he is one of Hollywood's premier transformation artists. Give him a movie role and Brody buries himself in it, doing whatever it takes to infuse his mind and soul with the consciousness and the world of the character he's playing.
Consider his research and preparation for his Oscar-winning turn in the 2002 film The Pianist directed by Roman Polanski. Aside from spending hours learning to play Chopin on the piano, Brody methodically shed 30 pounds from his already wiry frame to convincingly portray Polish Jew Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist who spent the Holocaust hiding from the Nazis (and nearly starving in the process) in Warsaw, which had been systematically emptied of its Jewish population. At one point in his preparation, Brody temporarily gave up his apartment and car, shedding possessions to understand the sense of dispossession that Szpilman went through.
It's not an easy method-or Method-but it's the one that works for Brody.
"The reality is that, for me, acting is somewhat of a painful process," he says. "A beautiful process, but a painful one. The more I have to do battle to find truth, the more painful it is if I don't, because film is permanent. So it's important the work I choose is something I can have that confidence in. Otherwise, a movie becomes a permanent reminder of a mistake you made."
The role in The Pianist was a physical and emotional challenge-one in which he left Adrien Brody behind, even while drawing on the frustrations of his own career, which was already more than a decade old when he was suddenly "discovered" by world audiences in Polanski's film. Brody went from being a relative unknown to an Oscar-winner-but one whose past seemed mysterious to audiences and the film industry alike.
On March 23, 2003, the night he won the Oscar, Brody became not only the youngest Best Actor honoree but the only first-time nominee ever to triumph over a field composed of previous winners: Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt), Nicolas Cage (Adaptation), Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York) and Michael Caine (The Quiet American).
He went from relative anonymity to being incorrectly typecast as, among other things, sensitive, musical-and Polish. Most audience members (and even industry insiders) were unaware that Brody had been struggling and working for a dozen years. More than a few casting agents assumed that Brody was actually from Poland, or at a minimum, Europe.
That perception was so pervasive that, shortly after Brody won the Oscar (and planted that memorable kiss on presenter Halle Berry), Brody's father, a retired history professor, found himself engaged in conversation with a seatmate on an airplane. When talk somehow turned to the seatmate's thoughts about the newly anointed Oscar winner, the new acquaintance expressed his belief that Brody was, in fact, a Polish actor, not an American one. Brody's father disagreed and assured his seatmate that Brody was a New Yorker by birth. When the seatmate wondered how Brody's father could be so sure, Brody's father replied, "I follow the industry."
Most people in the industry hadn't been paying that kind of attention, however. Brody was being discovered, but the role itself limited perceptions of what kind of range he could achieve. So Brody has had to battle reductive impressions, though it's usually a mistake to limit your idea of what Brody can do.
"Adrien Brody is a great actor—period," says Nimrod Antal, who directed him in this summer's Predators. "Not only is Adrien talented but he's passionate. Nowadays, a lot of actors are spoiled. But Adrien is passionate to be there. You know he'd kill to do this film."
Brody's reputation is built around immersing himself in the world of his character in any way he can. In the course of a career, Brody has buried himself over and over in the rigors of learning skills and trying to emulate the lifestyle of the characters he is playing. Aside from studying both piano and Polish for The Pianist, Brody learned the physical rigors of such pursuits as being a matador, riding horses, fencing and the like for other films.
For The Pianist, he systematically lost weight. For Predators, Brody packed on 25 pounds of lean muscle mass to transform himself into the warrior he wanted to play.
"It's exciting when you physically change, when you change your body chemistry and you feel a transformation, it helps you feel a connection to the character," he says. "You feel different from yourself. It's another level of involvement."
The discipline involved with gaining that kind of weight was similar to the regimen he used to lose it for The Pianist: "Putting on weight obviously is more enjoyable, though I was trying to put on lean muscle. So they're both very strict diets. But one diet builds confidence and the other strips it away. The diets are similar, but with volumes more food when you're building muscle. I have a fast metabolism so I had to gain mass and then shred it. I started with heavy weights to put on size; then I did higher repetitions with smaller weights to give the muscles definition. No carbs and I did a work-out with more cardio."
"He's a badass," Antal says. "The physical transformation blew me away. It was a way for him to really get in character. When you see him stripped down, it's impressive. He turned himself into a monster-and I mean that in the best way."
Brody's research for the Predators role didn't end with his physical conditioning. To get a sense of what it's like to be lost on a distant jungle planet, Brody tried to approximate the situation on the film's Hawaiian locations.
"I was fortunate on Predators to be able to stay in the jungle, on the property where we were shooting," Brody says. "They let me stay in a bungalow in the back. It was thousands of acres of lush rainforest-it was practically prehistoric. It was gorgeous. I'd walk around at night in the jungle. That was wonderful in helping me get further outside myself and into a zone."
But the physical changes of playing a role can be short-lived: After finishing Predators, Brody went to India to shoot scenes for The Experiment, a drama released on DVD, and fell victim to a stomach parasite that cost him 10 pounds in a single week "and that was all muscle."
He'd barely recovered before he got back to North America to make Wrecked, about the victim of a car accident forced to survive in the wild: "The sickness kind of knocked me down and weakened me," he says. "But I still decided to spend a night in the woods, eating insects in February in Canada. As unpleasant as that transition was, it helped me make the shift as quickly as possible. I try to look on the bright side."
Anative of Queens, New York, Brody started acting because his mother, photographer Sylvia Plachy, happened to do a photo shoot at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She thought her adolescent son might have fun taking a teen acting class and hoped it would take him away from the streets, where he was on the verge of getting into the kind of thoughtless trouble that inevitably finds bored teens with too much time on their hands and too little supervision.
"The worst thing I ever did that my parents don't know about?" Brody says, thinking about days of youthful wildness and smiling mysteriously. "I'm not going to tell you so you can put it in a magazine for them to read.
"Trouble was always there in my environment. We were young guys. It was just a lot of that energy that kids in New York have, when being a troublemaker is an attractive thing. You want to rebel, to feel an element of danger. I've never tried to glorify it in discussions, though it's often been misconstrued."
Instead, as a young teen, Brody was enrolled in an acting class. And much to his surprise, he found that he was good at it. More important, his parents took his interest in acting seriously.
"Look, there are two key factors there: First, my parents didn't shut me down or shut me off, even though I was rambunctious," he says. "They had a lot of patience and treated me with respect. I was not made to shut up. And most of my friends I grew up with had a harsh environment to deal with-on the street and at home.
"My imagination wasn't stifled at a young age. And the fact that my mom stumbled across an opportunity for me to do something creative that suited me without having the pressure of a career, was the other thing. I was an actor and she could see it, even if I couldn't."
In fact, he had success quickly, finding an agent and landing a role at 14 in a PBS film, "Home at Last," playing a New York street kid sent to live with a Swedish farm family in Nebraska in the 1800s.
"I was in high school and I went off to Nebraska by myself and I loved it," he says. "I was playing an orphan from the 1800s and I went wild. I hung out with the wranglers' sons and was riding horses and chewing tobacco and having amazing experiences. I remember when it was over, the director kiddingly said that they were going to turn it into a series. I was ready, I didn't want the experience to end."
Instead, Brody came back to New York and went to LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts and studied, even while continuing to audition for roles.
"I took it very seriously," he says. "I didn't have a tremendous amount of success at first, but I had a lot of discipline."
He tried college at CUNY Queens, but realized that he only wanted to spend his time acting. So he moved to Los Angeles "and gave myself a window, although I didn't stick to it. I gave myself six months and I got work after seven. It was the right decision to stay. And I've been able to support myself since. But I was paying dues out here for many years.
"It can be stressful in a ways I didn't know how to process at the time," he says. "At one point, I considered giving up acting and being a fireman. I thought there was a more straightforward reward that occurred when you worked at the fire station in your neighborhood."
Brody began to find work in edgy, odd and funny mid-1990s independent films-movies with titles like Bullet and Ten Benny and Restaurant, before landing what was supposed to be the lead role in reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick's adaptation of James Jones' The Thin Red Line.
It was a life-changing role, or so Brody thought. He was playing a character based on Jones himself, and Malick spent a lot of time shooting pages of script that focused on Brody's character. As the movie's release approached, Vanity Fair ran a cover story about the relatively unknown Brody, predicting that the film would light the fuse on his career. Between boot-camp training for the film and shooting in Australia and the Solomon Islands, Brody went through "a six-month ordeal" for the role that was supposed to open all the doors.
But when the long-in-the-making Line reached theaters, Brody was barely in it, because much of his role had been cut out by Malick during editing. It wasn't because of Brody's performance, Malick later said. Rather, the writer-director had decided to change the structure and focus of the story he wanted to tell. And that didn't include much of Brody's character.
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