[Photos & interview: The Observer Magazine, 2021] Adrien Brody: ‘Actors are attention seekers. But I’m an introvert’
Adrien Brody could have been a magician, and now he’s rediscovering his passion for painting. But with a dizzying array of major roles and a new Wes Anderson film coming out, the Oscar-winner explains why this is very much ‘a special time’.
Roughly a year after Adrien Brody became the youngest recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, he sat for an interview and a “glammed-up” photo shoot for the August 2004 issue of Details magazine, the now-defunct men’s publication. The cover shows Brody wearing a white T-shirt, “the perfect all-American look”, leaning backwards with both hands behind his head and meeting the camera with a gaze both remote and charged. Also on the cover, in all caps: “ADRIEN BRODY LOVES BEING FAMOUS.” Brody never said he loved being famous. It was not something he’d ever expressed. Not only was the coverline incongruous to who he was, but as an actor who’d only recently climbed into the industry’s highest level of visibility, he was still digesting the ways his life would change as a public figure. “I was so shocked by it,” he says now, over breakfast at the Whitby Hotel in New York. “It was so flippant. It just…” He hesitates, as if debating whether to complete the thought, because he is otherwise unfailingly polite. “It made me look like a dick.”
Brody is once again sitting for a cover story. He’s come straight from Good Morning America, the popular breakfast TV show, and is still wearing “make-believe clothes” lent by a stylist: a white button-up and a smart black over-shirt. His appearance this morning had gone well: “Quick and painless. It was literally two minutes. I mean, it’s a whole to-do, and then you’re on, thinking ‘I hope I don’t blow it!’ And they’re, like, ‘Good morning!’ And I’m, like, ‘Hello!’ And then they’re like, ‘Goodbye’, and then I’m like, ‘I love you, thank you!’” Because the show had run smoothly, his publicist had texted me to say he’d be early for our appointment. I arrived early, too, and through the hotel window I could see him pacing the pavement in a leisurely manner with a phone pressed to his ear, enjoying a conversation. He was talking to his father. When he breezed in minutes later – 6ft tall, a spring in his step – he smiled in an avuncular sort of way, and told his dad he had to go, that he was headed into a meeting, and that he loved him.
Brody and I are here to discuss his latest film, The French Dispatch, which follows a group of expatriate journalists and the colourful subjects of their features and profiles. I tell him it must be difficult to sit for an interview without knowing how a reporter will paint you. “I believe that you’re listening, and you don’t have your point of view to pitch, and I really appreciate that,” he says, with a shrug. After close to three decades in the film industry, he accepts that speaking to the press is part of his job. Even so, it can be frustrating to “genuinely give your time and try to share, and then it somehow becomes contorted. It’s not that it’s been edited. It becomes shifted and filtered through all kinds of different points of view. And then, depicted as you. A rendition of you.”
In The French Dispatch, Brody’s character, an art dealer named Julian Cadazio, is the one doing the shifting and filtering. After discovering a transcendent abstract painting by twice-convicted murderer Moses Rosenthaler at a high-security prison’s arts-and-crafts showcase, Cadazio vows to transform the convict into an international art star, even though he is in prison himself, for tax evasion. Cadazio demands to buy the painting and asks the artist to share his life story: “Where did you learn? Who did you murder?” He wants the gory details so he can commission a biography, generate hype and boost his own profile. There’s only one problem: Rosenthaler doesn’t care about any of that. He just wants to continue painting his muse, Simone – who also happens to be the warden.
The French Dispatch, which is directed by Wes Anderson, is structured like a magazine issue, with six sections united by the fictional magazine’s journalists, who narrate each of the short films. Brody’s storyline, titled The Concrete Masterpiece, functions as a parable about the commodification of art and artists. “Adrien’s character says – and I’m paraphrasing – that the whole point of an artist making art is to show it,” Benicio del Toro , who plays Rosenthaler, told me. Brody and del Toro discussed that matter at length. “It’s the same for film people,” del Toro continued. “Being an actor in movies is very similar. There’s no movie without an audience. There’s no artwork without an audience.”
Brody was born in 1973 in Woodhaven, Queens, to the longtime Village Voice photographer Sylvia Plachy, whose photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art when she was in her 20s, and Elliot Brody, a professor and self-taught painter. Even as a boy, the young Brody loved to act. “I would often reenact things I saw that were interesting to me…” he says, “specific mannerisms, or retellings of conversations and experiences that struck me as unique.” For a while, he performed magic tricks at friends’ birthday parties, using the moniker the Amazing Adrien. When his mother learned about the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, through a photography project, she encouraged him to enrol in acting classes. At 12, he started performing in theatre productions around New York; a year later, he played the lead character in Home at Last, a historical film for public television about a city-dwelling orphan who gets adopted by a family in Nebraska.
As a child, Brody was also a prolific painter. He applied to study fine art at Fiorello H LaGuardia High School, which is best known as the performing arts high school in Fame. He was rejected. But in a fortuitous plot twist, he was accepted by the drama department. So while some of his friends became active in the street art movement of the 1990s, Brody was busy acting in films like Francis Ford Coppola’s New York Stories and Steven Soderbergh’s King of the Hill. He received rave reviews for his breakout role in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, in which he played a punk outcast. And then he landed the lead in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, which would earn him the Oscar.
Throughout the 2000s, Brody became one of the most in-demand actors on the planet. He appeared in M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, Peter Jackson’s blockbuster King Kong remake, and The Darjeeling Limited, his first Wes Anderson film. “I tried to respond to material without the same point of view I had before,” he remembers, “which was to take risks, to explore interesting, different characters and genres.”
But roughly a decade ago, he became frustrated by the fact that no matter how much work he put into a film, it would never fully match his vision for it. As an actor, he realised, he could only ever be one part of a director’s idea – a cog in the machine – and that his performance would be “enhanced or diminished by the collective work of the people around you”. Brody became downhearted by Hollywood, which necessitated him accepting parts in big-budget films he found less valuable. “If you do really interesting independent movies that don’t open, then you don’t have a lot of value, in the business sense,” he says. “With regards to your cachet and your ability to find yourself in meaningful roles in bigger movies that require a bigger investment, those are exclusive to those who are bringing in bigger numbers. And the only way to bring in bigger numbers is, you have to do a certain type of film.”
Eight years ago, the French artist Georges Moquay visited Brody’s house in upstate New York to work on some paintings. The pair had hit it off at Art Basel, where Moquay had shown his work years earlier. There was some leftover canvas laying around, so Moquay suggested Brody pick up a paintbrush and make something with it.
“I did,” Brody remembers, “and he freaked out on it. He was like, ‘Why aren’t you painting?’ I said, ‘I don’t know!’”
Brody realised painting could fully belong to him in a way acting couldn’t; it could be his medium for constructing tiny, private worlds. “I felt such creative freedom,” he says – in some ways, more creative freedom than he’d felt in Hollywood. Since then, he has rented studio space wherever his films are in production, and is now in the process of building “a massive studio in the countryside”. Lately, he’s been doing a lot of collages, partially inspired by the layers of paper and paint he would notice on the walls of New York as a kid. “There’d be something scratched off and written, partially legible, and some old advertisement that was torn away, and I would just love that.”
During the pandemic, Brody’s art practice served him well. While shooting See How They Run, a midcentury, London-set whodunit co-starring Sam Rockwell, Saorise Ronan and David Oyelowo, Brody stayed home and painted when he wasn’t on set during lockdown. “I’ll be broken from painting on the floor for a week straight, like, it’s hard to get out of bed. It’s crazy how immersive it is, at times.” He shows me a few studio photos on his phone, and I realise he’s not exaggerating; Brody paints 16ft canvases on the floor, like Jackson Pollock minus the splatters. It really does look like a workout.
“They say actors really are attention-seekers, but I’m very introverted,” he explains.
In 2016, Brody stopped looking for work altogether. “I had some previous work that was still coming out, but I passed on most acting projects for several years,” he says. But recently something has shifted. We talk about the dizzying six projects he has shot over the past two years: The French Dispatch, Succession, the Stephen King adaptation Chapelwaite, the Netflix Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde (in which he plays an Arthur Miller-like character), See How They Run, and the as-yet-untitled Adam McKay HBO series about 1980s era LA Lakers, where Brody stars as legendary coach Pat Riley.
“I feel like there’s more, actually,” he says, sprinkling hot sauce on some scrambled eggs. There’s Clean, the Tribeca film he scored, starred in, and co-wrote, plus a script he’s currently writing, which began as a feverish brainstorm in the halls of the Prado Museum, in Madrid. He seems to have more creative energy now than ever. “It’s a special time,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. “I can’t really put my finger on what it is. Maybe it’s something within me, I’ve welcomed more in.” He expresses gratitude that “interesting filmmakers” are approaching him with “well-written characters.”
The French Dispatch marks Brody’s fourth collaboration with Anderson. (He recently signed up for a fifth, Asteroid City, which will be set in Spain.) Anderson sets are “unique environments” that extend beyond the film itself, Brody says. “Everyone comes home to the same hotel and we all have dinner together every night.” He makes the production sound like a roving summer festival, or a close-knit theatre troupe. (Del Toro, “the new kid,” says Brody was “very welcoming and generous, and he quickly made me feel like I was a part of the troupe. I’m very grateful for that.”)
“So often, when you’re away and you’re on location, everybody has their own lives, they’re all busily dealing with their own thing. It’s far less of a community than it could be,” Brody says. “Wes creates this sense of everyone joining the conversation.” He became hooked on the approach after their first movie together, The Darjeeling Limited, which co-starred Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman and was shot almost entirely on a hired train in India. “It was like a group of brothers – we were experiencing all these things as we were doing them.”
There is precise choreography to an Anderson scene, he explains, because a “rigorous” level of detail is required to hit each beat. “He hears the music,” Brody says of Anderson. As an actor, “you have to be able to hear that music and catch it.” Especially during a scene like the grand finale of his French Dispatch storyline, a long tracking shot where the cast fires off lines like dominoes, “you really don’t want to be the weak link” who flubs the line, he says, forcing the entire scene to reset. “You have such a responsibility to lift everyone else up.”
We pay the bill and leave the restaurant. He’s meeting his girlfriend of two years, Georgina Chapman, the Marchesa designer and ex-wife of Harvey Weinstein. (The pair confirmed their relationship earlier this year on the red carpet of the Tribeca Film Festival, and have since made appearances at Cannes and the Met Gala.) After lunch, he plans to visit his parents in Queens before boarding a flight to Los Angeles to resume shooting Adam McKay’s HBO show.
There are two cars waiting for him outside the hotel: a black Mercedes with a driver and a compact black sedan driven by Chapman. He’s getting into the car with Chapman, so he offers to let his driver take me to my next appointment downtown.
Though he’s been a fixture in American cinema for years, Brody still seems like a puzzle to many fans, which isn’t a bad thing in an era defined by its online self-mythologising. “I feel like it’s difficult for people to separate who you are from who they think you are, and the characters that you played. Now they just Google who you are, and get whatever someone else has thought or said about you,” he’d told me earlier. “If you look at my work, it’s very hard to say, ‘This is the kind of actor that he is.’ ‘This is the kind of person that I am.’”
And you feel that’s the way he likes it.
The French Dispatch is out now
Stylist Christian Stroble; stylist’s assistant Makaela Mendez; digital Maria Noble; lighting Kendall Connorpack, Sebastian Keefe and Tobey Lee; grooming Natalia Burschi using for hair R+Co, and Makeup, Tom Ford.