Adrien Brody: The quiet American.
Article Archive: July 08, 2012.
Since winning his Oscar at 29, Adrien Brody has refused to be typecast. He talks about his unexpectedly diverse career, the debt he owes his parents and how to run away from a gorilla
This is the most intimate interview I’ve ever done,” whispers Adrien Brody, which is exactly the kind of thing you want to hear when you’re inches away from an Oscar-winning Hollywood actor who’s interrupted his holiday to chat to you. And when the two of you are sitting on a baking-hot day in an upscale beach complex in Monaco that is part Stella Artois advert and part JG Ballard novel, without a PR person in sight to chivvy things along and prevent you from asking impertinent questions. So who are you to quibble if the sotto voce intimacy is down to your subject having lost his voice?
“I have laryngitis – did they tell you?” he’d mouthed when he first bounded down the steps wearing a trilby with a peacock-blue band and a huge smile.
Actually they did, but I assumed that was star-speak for a bit of a croaky voice and instantly wiped it from my mind. As it turns out, Brody really can’t talk; not in any significantly audible – and therefore tape recordable – way. I experience a moment of excruciating anxiety followed by certainty that I am now sweating so profusely I will shortly resemble Dirk Bogarde in the closing scene of Death in Venice. Later I realise that it’s unlikely that I’ve concealed this from the highly empathic Brody, who immediately cracks a joke. “It’s not me being a strange actor,” he promises. “‘Adrien would only do the interview in mime’… Me and Daniel Day-Lewis, we do this, you know.” I recover sufficiently to tell him that if I subsequently find out this is method-style research for a role as a mute, I will be really angry with him.
Though it’s hard to imagine being so. Brody is terribly engaging: by turns solemn and funny, wise-cracking and serious. He is confident and relaxed, but with an air of vulnerability that is exacerbated, although I don’t think created, by his slightly lugubrious looks; you feel that he’s hiding nothing, but that there’s a lot to get to.
Laryngitis or no laryngitis, we’d better crack on. “When I have something really great to say, I’ll put a little voice in it,” he reassures me. “Until then, I’ll just whisper.” I nod, and hold the tape recorder very close; at moments during our conversation, I realise I’m whispering, as well, and apologise. “You can whisper, too,” he smiles. “It’s nice.”
We begin by murmuring about Detachment, in which Brody plays Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who grapples with the shortcomings of the American public-school system by day and tries to turn round the life of a teenage prostitute by night. It is compellingly, harrowingly brilliant, but it is fair to say that it is also short on laughs; for those, one can go to another recently released Brody offering, High School, in which he plays Psycho Ed, a maniacal drug dealer whose weed gets a whole school stoned. It is hard to come up with two films more different; unless, perhaps, you think of The Pianist, for which Brody won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2002, and 2010’s Predators. He is not, as we will see, an actor who intends to be typecast.
In Detachment, Brody plays contained angst to enormous effect: Henry Barthes tames unruly hordes of disaffected kids through a kind of charismatic distance while privately flipping out, sitting weeping on buses as he remembers his dead alcoholic mother or giving in to explosive bouts of fury. It’s not that much of a surprise to discover that the film was directed by Tony Kaye, who also brought us American History X. Both films have at their heart men who maintain their stoicism in a sea of distress and dysfunction; they are, in a sense, explorations of tortured masculinity. On its surface, Detachment is a film about the failings of state schooling; but Brody insists that it is also about “aloneness as a human condition; as a greater, graver issue”.
“Tony would be the first one to tell you that his objective was not to make a movie critical of the education system, which obviously has flaws, we all know that,” says Brody. “But I think the education of us, and our soul, and our being, comes from a much earlier place, you know, and is the responsibility of the parents and the loved ones in our lives. A little bit of attention and kindness can totally change a whole life, and a lack of that can do the same… I think a lot of children are not given the respect they deserve, and it’s the one thing to which I can attribute my success as a person, my evolution, from my parents, from that upbringing – no other influence I think had that kind of profound effect on me.”
His family life also had a more direct influence on his portrayal of Henry Barthes, which he describes as “an homage to my father and the contribution he’s made, which is very generous and underappreciated by society”. A teacher throughout his career, Brody’s father even shot a scene for the film, in which he played Henry’s estranged father. “I swear, he was fucking brilliant; my mum and I were, like, jaws on the floor,” Brody grins. His dad didn’t make it into the final edit, but Brody hopes the scene might become a DVD extra. In the meantime, however, he’s just happy that he’s been able to give his father equal billing alongside his photographer mother, whose “tremendous inspiration” he’s often credited in the past.
He grew up in Queens, New York: outside was a “relatively harsh environment, neighbourhood-wise”; inside “a home that had love and creativity and respect”. His mother used to take him with her on jobs, and was one day sent to photograph an acting school. “It’s random. She may not have got that assignment. I may not have gone to an acting school at a young age.” In fact he’d started performing even before that, doing magic tricks as a young child, and I ask him whether he thinks being an only child determined his career choice. He talks for a little about how his parents spoke to him as an adult, and how he was encouraged to develop his imagination, and then he says, very seriously: “I think it forced me to be mature, because I had to be accountable when I came home. I couldn’t run off and blame it on my brother or sister. I had to be accountable.”
Accountability is clearly a big thing for Brody, who rarely speaks of a role without using the word “responsibility”. It makes perfect sense, of course, when he’s talking about playing Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose fight for survival during the Second World War he depicted in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Brody became the youngest ever winner of the Oscar for best actor, fending off the claims of Michael Caine, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson and Nicholas Cage; it was a particularly sweet success following the low point of a few years earlier, when what had started out as a substantial part in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was virtually edited out of existence.
The Pianist, he says now, was “all consuming. For a good year after, I was probably seriously depressed”. A year? “Easily,” he replies. “There were severe transitions that I put myself through physically and emotionally… I shot it when I was 27, and that was my real awakening and entrance into adulthood, that responsibility, and awareness of my own good fortune that I had taken for granted.”
The responsibility of playing a Polish Jew during the Holocaust is obvious; and Brody also speaks powerfully about his regret that more roles of that calibre haven’t come his (or anyone else’s) way during the decade since The Pianist was made. So what attracted him to capering around in blockbusters such as Predators or King Kong? Well, he explains carefully, his dislike of repeating things extends even to individual scenes: “The key is to somehow get yourself to a place where it feels as real as it can feel, and you can’t repeat that… But it’s so precarious, that place, it’s so hard to find, and it takes all that work to get to it, and then it’s not something you just turn on and repeat, and so, yes, I like things that are very different for me and cause me to have to stretch.”
Hmm. Wasn’t King Kong also just… fun? He laughs: “It was pretty fun! It was harder than I anticipated. I wanted to do it because I thought it would be fun, and kind of a departure from all the weighty things that I’m attracted to, but in order to portray fear, for instance, which you have to experience in a jungle running from a 25ft gorilla, you have to find things that frighten you, and it’s much more challenging when there’s no gorilla there and there’s a tennis ball on a stick. You still have the same responsibility to feel. If I don’t feel it, why should I expect you to feel it? I can’t fake it.”
Brody’s immersion in roles is well-known – he lost vast amounts of weight for The Pianist (he was hardly chubby to start with), not to mention relinquishing his home and his relationship, he bulked up for Predators and took a part with virtually no words in M Night Shyamalan’s The Village. It is said that when he was filming The Jacket, in which he played a Gulf War veteran sent to an institution and subjected to radical therapy, he asked to be left in a straitjacket in a morgue drawer even when the cameras weren’t rolling. There is devotion to one’s art, and then there is obsession.
Which is why I’m somewhat taken aback to find that his holiday is an open-ended one, with no concrete plans to return to work. “You’re finding me at a very blessed time in my life,” he says. “I’m embracing hanging out.” His day job, he points out, requires material, and while he waits for something suitable to come along, he has a licence to relax; in his personal life, he says, he’s “a free man”. “I have a lot of discipline and I have a lot of self- control, and I think it’s important to relinquish some of that at times, to surrender to whatever will be.” Insofar as he has any plans, he thinks he might spend the summer in Europe, “then I’ll buckle down”. In any case, he laughs, “My level of irresponsibility is… not so bad.”
It certainly isn’t. I’m not sure very many other actors would have torn themselves away from the beach and lugged themselves, voiceless, to an interview to promote a small, relentlessly serious film. Of course there are some perks associated with being a film star – the bar where we’ve been sitting opened especially for us, and we’ve had the whole place to ourselves. “This has never happened to me before!” whispers Brody as we make our way out. “It’s like being Tom Cruise or something!”
Added from: theguardian