It's been a good few years for Adrien Brody -- years in which he's stretched his acting wings and flown high, with roles ranging from the edgy punk in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam to the soft-spoken organizer of a janitors' strike in Ken Loach's Bread and Roses.
Now he takes a major step up the acting ladder as the lead in Roman Polanski's based-on-fact The Pianist, in which he plays Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Polish musician who survived years of dodging the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. It's the kind of role Brody says he would have killed to audition for -- a character who goes through lots of physical and emotional change; someone who spends a great deal of time alone onscreen; a story of survival by will power, and a little dumb luck.
That he didn't audition, that he got the part by chatting with Polanski, by letting him see his co-starring part in Harrison's Flowers, and by playing some piano for him, doesn't faze Brody much now. That's all been overshadowed by the fact that the making of the film -- for which he recently picked up both Golden Globe and Oscar nominations -- changed him as a person.
"It wasn't much fun to make this film, but it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life," says Brody, 29, his eyes sparkling, his voice a little weary, as he sips some green tea. "It's made me grow tremendously. Not only from the difficulties, but also from a greater understanding of the sadness that exists in this world -- something that I was able to tap into. It made me more grateful for what I have than any other single experience in my life -- no matter all the good fortune, all the loss, all the potential loss that I've skirted in my life. This film and this experience of understanding the loss this individual faced."
The story follows the close-knit, well-to-do Szpilman family, from their last days of freedom in Warsaw through the dark times when they were torn from one another following the Nazi invasion. The film chronicles what turns into his character's solitary life, and Brody does indeed spend a lot of time with no other actors around him.
"I was alone in the experience of making the film, too," he says, and now his eyes lose some of their brightness. "Partially to get the right mood on camera, but partially because there was no time for social life or visitors. It was six days a week, and I was on every day for six months. In the beginning, I completely isolated myself on purpose to identify with it. I felt I needed to understand a level of isolation, and cultivate a sadness that I didn't necessarily experience."
But there was a lot more to getting into the part than just being alone. The story called for Brody to change from happy to worried to desperate. The film was shot in reverse, starting with the days in which Szpilman was living an animalistic existence. So Brody had to first grow a beard and drop in weight from 160 to 130.
"I had a couple boiled eggs in the morning, a small piece of chicken and a small piece of fish -- very small pieces -- and a couple steamed vegetables," he says of his diet. "That was it. No carbohydrates whatsoever. And not even an excessive amount of water. It was as extreme as I could've gotten.
"Before I left to do it, I gave up my apartment, I sold my car, I disconnected," he adds. "I went off to Europe, locked myself in, and learned to play piano, and worked on the dialect. I only went out for rehearsal. I couldn't go out to dinner with anyone because I wasn't eating. I couldn't go out for a drink with anyone because I wasn't drinking. So I couldn't do anything. I had no energy for anything else."
Brody might have gone through a lot of difficulty, but his experiences were, in general, quite rewarding. Since the character he was portraying was an expert at playing Chopin, he was able, through the help of four piano coaches, to sharpen up his musical skills.
"I make music, but I'm not a classical pianist, nor do I read music well," says Brody. "I knew Chopin's work, but not how to play it. I spent a lot of effort learning the portions of the pieces I needed to learn, and that's what I can play.
"It's definitely made me a better musician," he adds. "It's given a level of emotion and melancholiness to my own music, which I kind of had a sense of, but it encouraged it. My music is rooted in hip-hop structure, and it's a way for me to remain inspired when I'm not working. I compose it and store it and eventually will put a compilation together, or use it in a film score, which would further express the emotions I want to express as an actor."
The other reward Brody got was the experience of working with Polanski.
"Roman is very clear and very up front about his vision, and almost has the movie playing in his head in the process," he says. "As an actor, you know there's a consistency there that you know is going to remain on film. As opposed to experimenting and trying a scene this way and that way. With Roman, everything has a purpose, and there's this focus of bringing things in an ultra, succinct, subtle, honest way. No sentimentality, everything underplayed, everything very real, everything connected.
"It's what I strive for in my work and always try to deliver."
Publication date: 02/20/03