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.
"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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