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
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"I guess that's Hollywood lore at this point," Brody says. "All he said to me before it came out was, ‘Well, some of it has been reduced.' That experience taught me to lessen my expectations. Expectations are inevitable, but this taught me not to focus on that. It was a valuable lesson, especially in this business.
"It's in the past. Some of the understanding of loss of something so meaningful to me perhaps paved the way to my future understanding of loss which was necessary in working in The Pianist."
It was, in fact, four years between the release of Thin Red Line and The Pianist, and in the interim, Brody made eight films, working with a variety of directors, including Spike Lee (playing a bisexual Mohawk-haired punk rocker in Summer of Sam) and Barry Levinson (playing a would-be college guy in early 1960s Baltimore). Indeed, Brody literally played the roles back to back, finishing his final scene for Lee in New York on the morning of a day he shot his first scene with Levinson in Baltimore in the evening.
Inactivity is not an issue with Brody. Since winning the Oscar in 2003, he's acted in almost a score of projects-from smaller independent films such as Cadillac Records (where he played music mogul Leonard Chess) and Manolete (one of a couple films he made that were not released in the U.S.) to blockbusters like Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong, where Brody spent as much time in front of a green screen pretending to be chased by dinosaurs and a certain giant ape as he did on actual locations.
Brody could have as many as five movies released in the calendar year by the end of 2010: The Experiment, Predators the already released Splice and two more independent films that may yet land in theaters or on the festival circuit.
And his dance card is full into the foreseeable future: "I'm going to do a movie with Woody Allen this summer in Paris. Then I'm doing a film in New York, then I'm going to a festival in Shanghai. I do like to have space in between projects to settle in a little and reconnect with friends and see my family. It's a balancing act but it's also more interesting to have a lot of options. So I'm thankful for the opportunities. It's better than not having anything to do.
"It's difficult to say no to films when there are places you want to see and adventures you want to take. The time will come when I won't have the freedom-or I'll have less inclination to travel."
In other words, marriage, perhaps, or a family?
"It's not imminent, but you never know when it becomes imminent," he says. "But eventually, of course, I want kids. Most people do. Family is important. But I travel an awful lot and I spend an awful lot of time on the road."
Before sitting down to talk, Brody had been at a photo shoot in a studio in West Hollywood. After trying on several different looks, Brody came out of the dressing room in a gray Prada suit and arranged himself around a leather easy chair and a number of obviously vintage hardbound books.
He leaned against the chair, then leaned on an elbow near the books, now holding a book as though interrupted reading, now looking at the book itself. As the photographer shot and offered suggestions, Brody looked downward between flashes, as though composing himself for the next shot, then stared directly into the camera, each time with a different cast to his eyes: now dominant, now vulnerable, now guarded-the wisecracker, the anxious lover, the hoodlum. The tortured soul. The bon vivant. All in that many clicks of the shutter.
Before the photo session finished, he changed clothes three times, eventually stripping down to a Henley-neck white T-shirt and a pair of black jeans, even as the backdrop was stripped of chairs and books until Brody was a lone man in a taupe-colored corner, with a different expression seemingly for each click of the camera.
Is it an acting exercise? A kind of interior performance only for the still camera? "I don't look at that as acting," he says. "It's just something that comes with the territory. You're putting on clothes you've never tried on and trying to make that look good. You're trying to find a balance and give the photographer what he's looking for. My mother is a photographer so I'm accustomed to being photographed. I'm far more interested in playing a character than in being photographed."
One of the props during the photo shoot was a cigar. But it went unlit—for a reason.
"I like them—but if I have one, I'm afraid it would lead me to start smoking cigarettes again," he says. "I got hooked on cigarettes making a movie when I was 19. I'd played around with them before, but that movie hooked me, smoking Lucky Strikes and Camels. I quit 10 years ago. I smoke cigarettes in roles all the time and it's very challenging. I'll tell you, it's very comfortable to have a cigar in my hand. I was in St. Petersburg recently and everyone was smoking Cohibas. And I love that smell. I'm happy to hold a cigar for a picture, but it wouldn't be sincere for me to light it."
When an actor wins an Oscar, a couple of things happen. Most of them have to do with money: higher salaries, offers to appear in movies with bigger budgets, an increase in the number of people who want a piece of you. After winning his Oscar, Brody assiduously tried to avoid letting himself get caught in the undertow of this tsunami of attention.
He's tried to find the balance between seizing the moment for its commercial potential and taking bigger artistic gambles. The pressure he feels is potentially mind-numbing.
"I was fearful initially, when I received such a tremendous level of recognition for The Pianist and the Academy Award," he says. "It's very difficult to understand. It was important to me to not change for the worse, but I wasn't sure how something that powerful would affect me as a person. I was very careful for a long time. I stayed in a lot. Or rather, let's say I didn't fall into temptation. And believe me, there were more opportunities, in all aspects of life. But I was old enough and had worked hard and long enough to know what was important.
"What I've tried to do is be consistent and honest with myself about what is inspirational and challenging and has a degree of risk to it. I don't want to change that as a result of having this perceived pressure, this commercial viability. The risk is that you have the opportunity to do things that make sense for their own reasons. But you've got to be honest with yourself, to keep exploring and trying different things."
Which is how Brody wound up in this past summer's Predators, a continuation of a sci-fi-thriller series that started with a 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Given his background—an Oscar-winning habitué of independent films—Predators seems like an unusual choice for Brody. And Brody in some ways is an unexpected choice for Predators. Still, Brody is mildly offended that people assume that he's slumming in some way.
"I'm surprised when people ask me why I'd do a movie like Predators, as if it were beneath me," he says.
If Brody was ready for Predators, the studio behind the film wasn't necessarily ready for him, because Brody had to battle to be considered for the part.
"Perhaps the studio needed a little bit of persuasion," he says. "I guess that's understandable. I'm not going to be the first person on the list you'd pick—viscerally, physically—as someone to fight the Predator. Look, you can't replace Schwarzenegger. He's iconic. He has that image. I loved the original Predator; I'm protective of the brand. I would never push myself into something for the wrong reasons. I also believe I can be more true to what soldiers are like. They're not superhuman but they're fit enough to endure the challenges in combat. That's why I put on weight and went through a large physical transformation.
"I've been looking for many years, trying to find a great, flawed, contemporary lead—to be a heroic lead in a studio film. I wanted to play a character who was just a man, not a period piece, not from a special place. It's given to a select few to have that as a type, to fit the mold that the studio feels is a safe bet. I've always tried to do something different with my work because I love the challenge of that. But it's hard for people not to associate me with a certain type.
"I think I established myself as someone who is serious about work. I care about being truthful. That doesn't mean I'm that serious about everything. I don't live in a constant state of everything being dead serious. But there was a while where I couldn't get comedic roles. I'm just thankful that directors like Wes and Rian believed in me."
Brody brought an energetic thoughtfulness to the drollery of Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited and Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom, playing two very different but very funny characters. And he appreciated the chance to explore his own comic instincts.
"When we got to the work of the comedic scenes, it felt as though I fit right in," he says. "That seemed to surprise other people but there shouldn't be anything surprising about it. Or maybe it's that you should always be surprised at what actors do."
Though he did some off-Broadway theater as a teen, Brody has no particular desire to work in theater. He had discussions this year about a possible Broadway run ("A two-hander with an actor I admire"), but the idea fell apart because Brody had a schedule conflict: "It's a difficult challenge because of the time commitment," the peripatetic actor says.
"It didn't work this time around. I am more drawn to film. I'm very comfortable working there."
Brody could make films nonstop for several years in a row, if he let himself. He's unsure about giving up the pace of an in-demand movie actor anytime soon. Sure, he says, he'd like to direct-except that a director generally commits an entire year or more to make a movie, from pre-production to post. Brody could play a handful of acting roles in the same interval.
"I aspire to direct-it's a matter of zoning in on the right material," he says. "As far as me being comfortable, that's not the question anymore. It's more a time-commitment issue. It takes an enormous amount of time to do well. If I found something that really spoke to me, I would take a break and cultivate it and pursue it and try to make something special."
Brody claims never to have done an acting role simply for the money, because he knows how slippery that slope can be.
"Everybody has a price, I'm sure," he says. "Often times, the jobs you'll be well-compensated for are that way for a reason. The roles that speak to you usually don't have resounding success, or even compensate you fairly. There is a balance you try to strike.
"Really, if I wasn't an actor, I don't know what the alternative would be. I'm glad I don't have to face that."
Contributing editor Marshall Fine writes about film and entertainment at www.hollywoodandfine.com.
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