April 2003 By Philip Berk
Who but Adrian Brody could have gotten away with taking Halle Berry in his arms and planting a passionate kiss on her lips?
Granted he was the dark horse in the Oscar race
But can you imagine the uproar if any of his competitors — Jack Nicholson, Daniel Day Lewis, Michael Caine, or Nicolas Cage — had done the same?
Adrien of course has been a minor player in the industry despite his work in such films as Steven Soderberg’s King of the Hill and Spike Lee’s Son of Sam.
When Roman Polanski chose him for the lead in The Pianist no one cared.
After all Polanski hadn’t made a decent film in twenty years and the prospect of yet another Holocaust film didn’t excite anyone.
But Sunday changed all that.
Adrien became the second youngest actor to win an Oscar (only Richard Dreyfus was younger) and certainly the most popular choice of the evening.
If his spirits were lifted and he was carried away by the moment not even Halle’s husband would object.
This was a moment in Oscar history to be savored.
So who is this Brody and how did he pull off the upset of the century?
By being himself, a modest, gentle, hard working actor.
At his press conference last October in Los Angeles, he talked about playing Wladyslaw Szpilman, a renowned Polish pianist, who spent five years hiding out from the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto.
“I felt I had a real responsibility not only because was I playing an actual historical figure but because of the personal nature of the film for Roman.”
Polanski himself is a Holocaust survivor. His entire family perished in the concentration camps. He avoided capture when his father pushed him through a gap in a wall as the Nazis approached.
To play the role of Szpilman, Adrien not only had to master the piano but lose thirty pounds in weight.
“It was very important to Roman that there was a very clear difference in my physical appearance. So I lost thirty pounds in six weeks.”
How difficult was it?
“It was very difficult. I had no energy for anything other than piano and dialect lessons, rehearsal, and thinking about food. At the time I never realized how profoundly it would affect me. It put me right into the character and it has made me aware of how much pain and suffering exists for so many people in the world. I really appreciate the simpler things now. I’m aware of my good fortune and having things like my sanity, food, shelter and family.”
By family he means his mother and father whom he tearfully acknowledged in his acceptance speech. His mother, a renowned photographer, sat with him at the awards ceremony.
How exactly did he get the part.
“It just kind of happened. I was shooting a movie in Paris and I received a call from Roman. He wanted to meet with me. I hadn’t seen the script, but I was thrilled at the opportunity of meeting him because I’ve known his work most of my life. I invited him to a screening of a film of mine, Harrison’s Flowers, to which he brought a producer. After that we had script discussions, and then he decided on hiring me.”
And the experience itself. What was it like working with him?
“I can’t say enough about him. I admire his strength; I admire his honesty and enthusiasm for things and his curiosity, in spite of all the suffering he has endured in his life. It hasn’t shut him off. I spent half a year with this man, six days a week, twelve to seventeen hours a day. No days off and at least a month when I was the only actor on the set. So it was a wonderful opportunity to learn. He guided me, he taught me a lot about subtlety, something I aspire to do in my work. With film, you don’t need too much because it can capture your most subtle expression. Sometimes you’re guided into doing something more grand than you need. Roman always tried to keep things very minimal, simple and succinct.”
How has this role changed his perspective about choosing parts?
“It’s very difficult to follow something like this. There was a deep sadness that existed in me me for a while after we finished filming, and even before, when I learned that I had the role, I did a lot of letting go of who I am, and of things that could hold me back from accurately portraying this man. So I gave up my apartment in New York, I sold my car. I dropped my cell phone service. I basically abandoned ship. I got rid of a lot of stuff. I stopped watching television. I just took my clothes and my keyboard, because I do make music, and I went to Europe and immersed myself in this character.”
How good a pianist was he?
“I was always a lousy piano player because I never practiced. I had taken lessons when I was younger and regret not listening to my parents and keeping up with it. So I had to work very hard to learn some of the pieces. I practiced up to four hours a day when I had the time. I started to know not only the notes but control the level of emotions and the subtlety within the music. But it wasn’t easy because I don’t read music. I play by memory.”
But he has a keyboard?
“I make music. I have a very good sense of music. I taught myself to use this electronic stuff which is basically a keyboard but it’s also a computer that allows me to play every instrument I want. I am not a singer but when I find the right people and can take a break from my acting career, I hope to put together an album in a relatively short time because I have a lot of songs and a lot of music which I’ve been doing for nine years regularly.”
To play the role, was it important that he be Jewish?
“I am only half Jewish. My father is Jewish; my mother is Catholic.”
Which according to Jewish law makes him a Gentile?
“Believe me, if Hitler was around today guess what I would be. But I have the benefit of both heritages.”
So what has this film taught him about the Holocaust?
“I have a better understanding than I had before. I lost family at Auschwitz. I do feel a connection, but it’s hard to grasp on the level of six million. One of the advantages of this story is it’s one man’s story. You get a real personal look at one individual’s suffering, which may be easier to grasp. By playing that one man, walking around with the Star of David on my arm, hungry and beaten, it gave me a greater connection but it goes beyond being Jewish or not being Jewish. It’s a connection to the all the suffering in the world.”
How has his professional life changed since?
“The volume of material that’s coming across my representative’s desk is mind boggling. And I can’t go more than two steps without saying hello to a complete stranger. The other day in an elevator George Lucas says he’s a fan. I’m like, ‘I’m the fan.”
Will he continue to do independent type movies or does he yearn to do a blockbuster?
“I would love to do really good studio films, and you have to make one of those to get established in this town. I’ve been fortunate enough in the past to find interesting projects which allowed me to avoid doing certain other projects. It’s luck and timing and also my dedication as an actor. I work very hard and have convinced people who need to be convinced that I’m right for a role. But in the end it’s a dance.”
How important is money?
“I’m sure making $10 million feels really good, but I want to continue doing interesting projects.”
Was it fun gaining the weight back?
“The truth is I was so consumed with thoughts of food for so long I had an insatiable appetite. But I was warned so I started out slowly but within a week I had to do a scene where I had to devour a sausage. Roman kept re-shooting it and with each take I had to eat a tremendous amount of sausage and I was literally sick because my body couldn’t metabolize it. Eventually after I gained weight I thought I had completely screwed up my metabolism because it re-set into a kind of storage mode, which worried me, but now I am okay. I weigh around 155 pounds, a little under what I normally weigh.”
For the record he’s had two long term relationships but at present he’s unattached.