The Pianist: An Interview with Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody wears silvery sneakers with his black suit. He looks slightly weary, and awaits his pancakes. Aside from time out for making a music video with Tori Amos, for “A Sorta Fairytale” (in which he spends most of his onscreen time as his head attached to a hand, only), Brody has been traveling during the past year, promoting The Pianist.

Based on the 1946 memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew and composer-pianist who hid in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, in and around the Jewish ghetto, Roman Polanski’s Palm d’Or-winning film also incorporates some of his own memories of the ghetto, from which he escaped at age 7.

While the 29-year-old New York native has worked on any number of rewarding and difficult films in the recent past — including Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights (both 1999), Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses and Elie Chouraqui’s Harrison’s Flowers (both 2000) — few had the effect on him of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), from which most of his part was, now famously, cut. This after spending months shooting in Australia.

For The Pianist, Brody committed himself wholly, learning to play Chopin and speak Polish, losing thirty pounds to shoot the final ghetto scenes, when Szpilman was starving nearly to death, working for months in an abandoned Soviet Army barracks in Jüterbog, a former East German town outside Berlin. Remembering these months, he looks pensive, a little sad. Unlike most filmmaking experiences, this one was grueling, wondrous, and life-changing.

We spoke first about his opportunities.

PopMatters: You’ve had the chance to work with incredibly respected directors — Steven Soderbergh [on King of the Hill], Terrence Malick, Spike Lee, Ken Loach, Barry Levinson, and now, Roman Polanski.

Adrien Brody: It is unusual, I think, and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience all of these interesting, creative people’s styles. Not only in a career sense has it been good for me, but I’ve been personally influenced by it. People are “good” for a reason, and they all have wonderful qualities that I’ve learned from. I also come in contact with these projects because I’m looking for material that’s somewhat inspirational. And I’m fortunate that I’m able to hold off and not necessarily do things just for the sake of working. Unfortunately, most actors don’t have that luxury. Somehow, I’ve managed to do that.

PM: How have you managed?

AB: My parents have raised me with a sense of what’s really important and have given me decent values, and I’m comfortable, but I haven’t lived an excessive lifestyle in the least. And I’ve kept my expenses to a minimum so that I have the freedom to wait.

PM: I grew up in a house with an illustrator and photographer, and I’m wondering what it was like to grow up in a house with your mother [photojournalist Sylvia Plachy]?

AB: I was surrounded with her pictures everywhere, negatives hanging in the bathroom, prints drying on record racks in the hallway, film canisters being rinsed out in the tub. And I went with her on assignments, or down to the Village Voice offices. And my father [Elliot Brody] was a public school teacher in New York. He’s been a great father to me, really encouraging and patient. So all of those things have shaped me, as well as the environment on the streets, which was entirely different. It was difficult, and that too has shaped me. So, I had this nurturing home life, but I know what’s out there too, on a very real level.

And unfortunately, my friends who didn’t have that home life, it’s been more difficult for them. I have friends who went to art school with me, whom I knew from Queens. We’d take the train in together to go to [High School for the] Performing Arts, and they had to let a lot of it go. First of al, they weren’t encouraged, it’s very competitive, and they had no money. We didn’t have much, but they had none, and so they had to step out into the world and just start supporting themselves. And you lose track. Fortunately, I began acting before supporting myself became an issue. You don’t make much money from independent films and theater that’s off-off-off Broadway, and workshops at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music], which I was doing when I was young. But I did manage to get an occasional commercial that would supplement my income for a while. I didn’t have the pressure of being out on my own, studying for years and then arriving in L.A. I was able to work toward something for a long time.

And I’m still working towards it. None of those films with those great directors was presented to me. It was all a struggle to get them. Looking back on it, it’s interesting that I was able to get so many roles like that and be right for them. That’s another thing. There are the obstacles of your position as an actor, not being a commodity enough to be hired by the big directors for projects that have some kind of integrity, because the successful actors who’ve been in the game for a while want those roles. So there’s more competition, so you have to work harder and be right for it.

PM: You’re almost uncannily right for Wladyslaw Szpilman. On its face, it seems so daunting, not just because it’s so large, but also because it’s about receding over time, almost caving into yourself.

AB: It’s hard to describe it. For one thing, I had to shoot it in reverse chronology, and it was hard to be completely involved with that end state of being that this man ended up in, and not taking that journey, even as a character. And then I had to eliminate all of those feelings that I had cultivated over time, to connect with him, and then make it seem as though, not only had I never experienced them, but they were infeasible for him and everyone around him.

What’s remarkable is that the character is somewhat detached from everything, and isn’t typically heroic. There were extended periods of silence, where I was just called to react. I’d never had that opportunity in a film, and that’s a whole different process. There’s not another actor there who’s either inspirational or who picks up some of the slack. You have to stay on, and there’s no moment to escape being immersed in that state of mind. No moment whatsoever, on set and off. Roman doesn’t even like using a stand-in. I’ve never worked this hard in my life. And it makes everything else that comes my way so much easier. Even painful things in my own life, I’m like, “Ahh!”

We had a premiere in L.A., and I’d done this movie like a year and a half ago, I’d been all over the world, doing press for the film and it’s been meaning so much to me. Finally, there was an opportunity for an American audience to see the film, and it was in Hollywood. I couldn’t wait for people to see my work in something extremely dramatic. And then, the sound broke! They cut the film and couldn’t fix it. And it was a benefit. And it was done. No L.A. premiere.

And I swear to you, it occurred to me, you know what, considering what this man endured, and really what this film stands for, this is so insignificant. And that enabled me to see things in a way that I don’t think I would have been able to, had I not experienced this on a somewhat profound level. I appreciated it so much in that moment. And I thought about it a lot. And I thought, I was disappointed, even more for the people who were there and paid for this benefit. And Jack Nicholson was there; I was dying for him to see my movie. But it didn’t mean that much. And that’s a real gift to be able to see things in that way. I don’t know if I’ll always be able to do that, but that’s a perfect example of how it changed me, in a way that I’ve noticed. It’s changed me in other ways. I feel bad, sort of, asking if I can get some syrup for my pancakes! [laughs] I should just eat them and not complain.

PM: This is rare, for a movie to have that kind of effect.

AB: Oh yes. I strive to find material that I will grow from, that will inspire me or educate me about some social issue that I don’t know enough about, or that I do know about, but I want to learn more, about struggles that I haven’t had to endure. And that gives you a greater understanding of the suffering that exists in the world, and also the joy that exists in the world. How good we have it here, also became very clear to me. On Ken Loach’s film [Bread and Roses], I learned a great deal, as well.

PM: So you do a lot of research for such roles?

AB: I do, often. Especially if it’s encouraged by the director, when there’s a place for it. I’m not someone who needs to do it for the sake of doing it, to say that I did it… later. It’s a great story that I lost all this weight for this role [30 pounds] and learned to play Chopin and all that stuff. I didn’t know it was a story when I was doing it. I was just thinking, “Oh shit, I’ve got to lose all this weight in 6 weeks.” And I didn’t eat much. And I made it through. It’s kind of wonderful to see that physical transformation, but it made me connect, too. Initially I did it for a technical reason. I did want to understand the loss, this emptiness that real hunger does encourage. It creates this whole thought process that kind of harps on emptiness. And it’s something that I didn’t know, really, not to that extent. At the time, though, I did it because it was a necessity.

In Summer of Sam, I had to embrace punk rock music. I didn’t really grow up with punk, I didn’t appreciate it really, but I learned it, as I learned to learn the fingering on the guitar. It freed me, really, because the character was so uninhibited. That was necessary then, because I had felt very inhibited from Thin Red Line, for the role, cultivating all this fear. Fear is an emotion that’s terrible to live with; it’s something that we try to work away from since childhood. And for that film, I was forced to embrace it. And… I had something to be afraid of… but it wasn’t in the script! [laughs] You should be very afraid!

PM: You don’t feel fear regularly, as an actor?

AB: Sure you do. But that’s exciting. As an actor, I’m not afraid of putting myself out there. As a human being, you feel these things in any endeavor. I remember years ago, I did a film called Ten Benny, originally called Nothing to Lose. And I went to Sundance with it, the first time I went, nine years ago. It was a lead role, I was a young man, or I felt like a man, but I wasn’t, I was 20. And I remember Parker Posey was there, and she was doing all these interviews, and I was thinking, “Wow, that must be so difficult, putting herself out there.” I was so nervous about the prospect of doing serious interviews. And here I am, for the past few months, I’ve been traveling the world discussing a very serious subject matter, and having to represent the film, in a way, because Roman is not discussing it. And I’m sharing personal things about myself, and being able to convey these things without being inhibited, in a sense. If I had let that fear inhibit me, and say, “No, I’m not going to do any interviews,” it would hold me back. Not only from helping the film and increasing awareness of the film, which is part of the objective. But it’s more interesting to discuss things that have had a profound effect on you, even if you have to repeat certain things, some hundreds of times. There are questions that stimulate a thought process about serious things, and these discussions can be incredible. I’ve had to formulate serious opinions about some things. And that’s very helpful, I think, for a young man. There is value and purpose in this process, even though at times it’s difficult. And that’s what’s wonderful about it.

PM: What has the process revealed to you, as you see how people respond to the film?

AB: Everybody has an opinion. Basically, you hear all these different perspectives, and they mention things you may not have considered, or you mention things they may not have considered. Doing interviews is very different from working as an actor, because it’s up to the journalist not only to understand what I’m trying to convey, but to convey that understanding through their process. And often times it gets manipulated, sometimes intentionally, by pulling things out of context. And that’s frustrating. Some people may not appreciate your work and some may be incredibly moved by it. So that isn’t the concern. You have to do what you can do, and share what you feel is appropriate to share in the moment. And then, it’s out of your control. Hopefully, most of the time, it comes back in the right way.

PM: How does it feel to have this preserved record of your work and thinking, sort of “snapshots” of yourself, follow you around?

AB: It’s wonderful. That’s something that I really value. So I can show my kids, someday, that I was cool. Somebody asked me the other night on the street in Boston, “Do you know anybody who is looking for “rolls.” And I’m sure he was trying to sell me some drugs, but I could only think, “Am I that old that I don’t know the lingo?” What rolls? What is that? I really gave it some thought. You don’t want to be out of touch when you’re a young actor. And I get called on to play a junkie, that’s the first thing I’ll learn.

PM: Is it difficult to maintain contact with ordinary life, especially when you’re working on these lengthy projects, like the Malick or this one.

AB: In that moment of making the film, it’s fine. The problem is when you become so well known that everyone is watching you and you don’t have an opportunity to observe. That’s something that I’m concerned about, because it’s getting there. It’s something that I don’t want to lose. I like taking the train. I like being unnoticed when I don’t feel like being noticed. It’s not like I crave attention all the time. Something that I’ve always loved and appreciated is the chance to see something about someone’s character, observe and kind of retain it, and study it without feeling like I’m studying it. I have an intense curiosity. And it would be a shame if I lose the ability to do that.

PM: And I imagine that as the fame thing increases, people you don’t know well begin to perform for you.

AB: That’s the other thing, is that people have preconceived notions of who you are and are unable to be just themselves, some shift. Being just yourself means you’re unselfconscious in that moment. Or maybe we’re all self-conscious to an extent. You meet a pretty girl, you’re different from when you meet a tough kid on the street. So perhaps we always are acting, in a sense. But you meet someone you feel you admire or you “know,” and it’ll be different for that reason. So far, it’s an interesting ride, and I’m curious to see what I can find next.