MANY TALENTS, MANY MOVIES, MANY PASSIONS – ADRIEN BRODY IS AS MULTIFACETED AS HE IS FASCINATING.
THE EVER-STYLISH ACTOR/PRODUCER/COMPOSER TALKS TO MARIEL RITTENHOUSE ABOUT POST-OSCAR SCRUTINY, FILMING IN EUROPE, HIS LOVE OF MUSIC, AND "SAVING" GIRLFRIEND ELSA PATAKY ON THE SET OF HIS NEW HORROR FLICK, GIALLO
Adrien Brody glides into the lounge of Manhattan's swanky Bowery Hotel, greeting the host and a waiter with the warmth of an old friend. Dressed in a snug tan T-shirt and ripped jeans, he looks more Local Man than Oscar Winner. He catches my eye and erupts into a smile. "I was trying to figure out who looked like a Mariel," he says relievedly as he pulls me in with an earnest handshake. He is sans entourage – no manager, no publicist, no stylist, no hangers-on – which equates to naked in the constellation of stars like Brody. After some discussion we choose two black velvet armchairs and settle in. He asks me what I'd like to drink, whether I'm comfortable, if I'd like him to switch sides, if I can hear him well enough. Evidently, Adrien Brody is a gentleman – or a terrific actor. In truth, he's both, and much more.
For Adrien Brody, one night changed everything. Brody's surprise Best Actor win at the 2003 Academy Awards hurled the the 29-year-old dark horse into the international limelight. That and his sweeping embrace of Halle Berry. But his "meteoric rise" to fame wasn't quite as swift and romantic as the tabloids made it out to be. Before grasping Oscar for his breathtaking portrayal of Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist, Brody had toiled for 15 years in bit parts and supporting roles. As in any stirring success story, he worked his way up from the mailroom to the boardroom.
Born in 1973, Brody grew up in Queens, New York, the son of Sylvia Plachy, a photojournalist, and Elliot Brody, a retired history professor and painter. His flair for the dramatic was apparent even as a child – he performed magic tricks at birthday parties under the stage name "The Amazing Adrien." By age 13 Brody had acted in an off-Broadway play and a TV movie, and he later enrolled in New York's famed Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which boasts Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Eartha Kitt, Liza Minnelli, Jennifer Aniston and Ellen Barkin as alumni.
Brody slowly gained prominence in the late 1990s with roles such as Corporal Fife in Terrence Malick's stunning war epic, The Thin Red Line; Chris Calloway in Restaurant, which garnered him an Independent Spirit Award nomination; and the tortured Richie in Spike Lee's Summer of Sam. And then came Szpilman in Roman Polanski's The Pianist.
Brody committed himself to the character with a fervour that can only be described as Method: he became completely withdrawn, relinquished his apartment and car, and learned to play Chopin on the piano – an exercise that hit a personal note because he spends a good portion of his "time off" composing sequenced music. For the role, Brody also lost an astonishing 13.2kg on an already slender physique. But the pay-off was well worth the price. Following his spectacular Oscar win and his coronation as the youngest man to win Best Actor, Brody picked up a Best Actor César in France; to this day he remains the only American to win that award.
Adrien Brody was officially a marquee name, and the anticipation of a follow-up film reached full boil. But Brody, ever the independent, shirked advice to wait for the perfect leading-man role and instead signed onto M Night Shyamalan's The Village as Noah Percy, the "village idiot" – the consummate anti-hero.
From the beginning, Brody has made it his business to explore his talent by selecting a range of parts, and this modus operandi was only reinvigorated by his new VIP status. After The Village, Brody played an array of different character types, including war veteran Jack Starks in The Jacket, writer Jack Driscoll in the 2005 King Kong remake, Detective Louis Simo in Hollywoodland, dad-to-be Peter Whitman in The Darjeeling Limited and the title character in the yet-to-be-released Manolete, about the famous Spanish bullfighter, opposite Penélope Cruz.
So what's next for "The Amazing Adrien?" More of the same, which in his world means anything but. Director Rian Johnson's con-man caper The Brothers Bloom, with Brody, Rachel Weisz and Mark Ruffalo, premiered at last month's Toronto Film Festival and is set to hit cinemas around the end of the year; musical drama Cadillac Records with Beyoncé Knowles, sci-fi thriller Splice and horrormeister Dario Argento's Giallo, of which Brody is executive producer, are scheduled to follow. Including Manolete, that's five movies scheduled for release over the next year.
While this frenzy of professional activity has aroused an onslaught of personal attention, Brody remains a relatively private man – as private as the ever-present paparazzi and ambush tabloid journalists allow. Speculation runs rampant whenever a celebrity hits the A-status stratosphere, but Brody is notoriously mum when it comes to commenting on his own life, particularly his love life. This past summer was abuzz with rumours of his engagement to his long-time love, Spanish actress Elsa Pataky, who's also in Giallo, but in our interview he declined to comment. Sometimes even the most public people need a little privacy.
You must be exhausted. You just returned from Milan, right?
From being in Italy for two months actually. Milan was the last stop.
We were also in Torino and we were in Rome, which was amazing.
Two months is a long time.
So you've finished shooting Giallo, in which you play Inspector Enzo Avolfi. This is more of a horror flick?
It is more of a horror flick, a horror thriller. It's pretty funny because when I went into the project – I love the genre, I think director Dario Argento is a master of creating that kind of hellish world – but I had reservations about the gore. But when I was there and in the moment it was such a fun environment, you kind of went with it. You have to embrace it and I realised it's Dario's world and I was along for the ride, and I liked that.
Did you know Dario before working with him? You're friends with Asia Argento right? So was it all in the family?
I'm friends with Asia, his daughter, but I wasn't friends with Dario. In that respect it's all in the family. Working with him was wonderful. He was a gem. He's amazingly collaborative and generous, more generous than most.
I just saw The Brothers Bloom. It was terrific. There was something kind of circus-like, almost a Tim Burton-ish feel to the film.
It definitely has this kind of adult fairy-tale feel.
The film shot a while ago, didn't it?
A year ago, I guess, not that much longer. You've been hearing about Manolete twice as long as The Brothers Bloom.
How was the experience filming The Brothers Bloom and travelling around Central and Eastern Europe?
I've been going on adventures for the past couple of years. India was an adventure when I shot The Darjeeling Limited with Wes Anderson. The characters were going on an adventure and we were going on a similar adventure.
The Brothers Bloom had a great deal of travel involved in the story and in our schedule. We shot in Belgrade, Prague, Montenegro, Romania. It was the first place I saw real bears in person. I was on a hike with Mark Ruffalo in the mountains near Transylvania – it was great – we were walking around and we got in a conversation about bears. He asked me if I had ever seen a bear, and I said no, not in a while. Within 10 minutes we came across five bears.
Unfortunately there was a dumpsite way in the middle of this amazing pristine land, it was sad. The bears love trash and they were being harassed by some dogs. Later, they came to our restaurant at the end of the night. The waiters would throw bread, which they probably shouldn't have done, so we were very close to some big bears. It was really exciting.
You've also recently finished shooting Cadillac Records. I know music is close to your heart. You're into hip hop?
I knew you'd say that. It's true to some degree, but it's not limited just to hip hop. I compose sequenced music and I grew up in New York, so my taste in music goes much further than my love for hip hop. But I do love hip hop and I do make
hip-hop tracks, but not only hip-hop tracks. I'm not a hip-hop artist; I do more. It's funny, I do try to clarify that.
Where'd that confusion come from?
It's the same way people become your best friend on the Internet. Because it's one person's process of elaborating things.
What's on your iPod right now?
It's on my BlackBerry actually – I've got my music on my BlackBerry. I'll play you some of my own music, it's not hip hop. I had the Red Hot Chili Peppers going last. I listen to a lot of reggae, classical music, I listen to Radiohead.
Are you secretly into pop music at all?
Not at all. I've got some Tupac, some Mobb Deep, Al Bowlly [the 1930s British jazz singer] – do you know Al Bowlly? Al Bowlly's amazing. This is Al Bowlly [he plays a song on his BlackBerry]. I was turned on to him by John Maybury, who directed The Jacket and I actually asked him if I could sing one of the, not sing it, but hum kind of . . . See, the character was freaking out and being tortured, and Bowlly has a song called "Close Your Eyes" and he says, "We can pretend we're counting sheep, close your eyes," and I sing it a bit and it goes into a dream memory montage. That was my idea because he turned me on to Al Bowlly. So I gave him a little tribute in the film to show my appreciation of his music. This is a rare treat.[Brody holds up his BlackBerry and plays a track he composed.] I don't normally share this with people. This is me, my music. I'm not doing anything with it, I find it difficult to separate something like music from the way people associate and identify you and see you. So that's why I feel it's limiting that people constantly say I'm a hip-hop artist. It kind of gives the wrong impression of what my appreciation for music is and what inspires me about music and hip hop.Things are overly simplified and often my answers are too long-winded and not concise enough. And that's what happens, it just gets cut and it probably originated in a press junket in Europe where the journalist didn't even fully grasp what I was saying.
But, I don't know how to do it at this point. I want to maybe take time off and spend some time doing one cohesive album. I'm going to be working on the soundtrack of Giallo for the first time. I went to Rome to work with a composer who does all of Dario's music and downloaded a bunch of ideas I had with him. And we'll see when we have time to put it altogether. But it's something that I am very passionate about, and I have tons of compositions that I've made. I've been making music for at least 15 years.
Was it something you were into as a kid?
It's something I would've been into, but I didn't know about it. I realised I could compose music sequences at age 20. I met a friend who lives in the Bay Area, a hip-hop producer, a rapper, his name is Adrien, and I was hanging out with him and he makes beats, sequenced music, beat making. I started making hip-hop beats that were more melodic and ethereal. So, that was how it started.
I didn't have the friends to introduce me to that and I didn't have the understanding to pursue it in that sense when I was younger. Piano lessons were too boring to invest the energy into and I didn't know that I would really love to be able to play the piano in the future, when I was a kid, when those opportunities were present, so I didn't do the work.
But as far as sequencing music, you have an understanding of composition and you have basically – [Brody's phone rings with a Mister Softee ice-cream-truck ring tone] – what I was about to say is I take a collage of sounds, so funny, a collage of sounds that do something to me and I compose them and add drumbeats and baselines. And that's music, and that's something I like to create. It's like painting with sounds.
Was it difficult to learn the piano for The Pianist?
It was very difficult. I learned portions of very difficult pieces, Chopin is very, very complex; it was tough but at the same time it allowed me an escape from other things that were difficult about the preparation, like not eating very much, thinking about all this horrible stuff, it puts you in a very sad, dark place.
It's like acting, you find a lot of people who had troubled lives become great actors if they're able to let go of their own feelings of being self-conscious and channel emotions that they've experienced. I think it provides an outlet for it, some purpose or place, or usefulness for suffering. It's therapeutic. I don't say become an actor to exorcise your demons, but you're better off doing it in a film or play than in real life.
Were you ever self-conscious, or were you always a natural?
There are levels of being self-conscious and being self-aware that everyone has and that are more present at certain times. The good thing for me is that I started acting prior to my adolescence, and I think adolescence is an awkward time for people, obviously, and is where you start to experience self-doubt.
I think any professional experience an actor can get at any point in their life only makes them a better actor and doesn't detract from their learning experience. I think what schools do is they want you to learn as much as you can from them and then go out into the real world. But I think the real world is what provides the most education for the actor, and it's not like you're going to be away shooting for so long that you're going to miss major lessons.
My point is, I started young enough that I beat that a little bit. And I also attribute it to having very loving parents who didn't shut me down, which is also a blessing. Had my parents not been as patient as they were and as creative and as accepting of my creative energy, I would be a different person, and I probably would be less comfortable expressing myself.
I owe most of it to their support and them actually nurturing that side of me. It's not something that's nurtured in Queens and it's only out of a lack of understanding of it. Because there doesn't exist any sort of opportunity for people to have creative outlets, for an adolescent boy to cultivate or remain in touch with a sensitivity to certain things; it's the antithesis of any training you'll get in life, in a neighbourhood such as the one I grew up in. In most neighbourhoods.
Was it a rough area?
Yeah, I mean New York is New York. Taking the J train into the city was rough, and it was worse then than it is now.
Are you still really close to your parents?
Yeah, very close.
Do you ever come back to New York City and you don't tell your mom and your dad you're home, and you get "caught" by the paparazzi?
No, I've never done that to my parents. But I went out yesterday and got e-mails and texts that word is I'm here. I kind of can't hide. I don't try to hide from my parents but I can't call everybody when I'm back in town. I often don't go out. If I go
out for a second, it's because I have to do something, I'm with my girlfriend. It's strange but it's something you grow accustomed to.
Was there just a deluge of paparazzi attention after the 2003 Academy Awards? Has it been more or less non-stop?
Well, I've changed my . . . I go out less. Not that I went out all the time prior to that, it's just different. I don't even mean the scene, I mean go out less, I do less. It's something else than it used to be. But also I'm very grateful. Nothing in life is 100 percent ideal, even when you're given tremendous blessings – they come with complications. But it is a blessing and it's nothing I can complain about.
So whether it's odd or not that people comment or put on the Internet where I am or wait for me or take my picture or follow me, it comes with the territory and it comes with something that, whether I was aware of what the entire package was or not, it's not something I would change and it's not something I can change.
Did your Academy Award change the way you approached selecting roles? Was there more pressure?
There was more scrutiny, as you can probably imagine. Everybody has an opinion of what is best for you, but you have to trust your own instincts and listen to what feels helpful. It doesn't mean, just because someone has had an experience, that your journey is going to be the same as theirs. I'm an actor and I've basically always been an actor and I've tried to keep my motivation and inspiration consistent and true to what it was. I don't want to change my motives for doing things, or overly analyse something as a career decision.
Now you don't want to do something that's potentially really harmful if everybody says you really shouldn't do this, but I think variety and new experiences, no matter how challenging, always allow you to grow. I think doing films in different genres also gives people who aren't familiar with your work an opportunity to experience what you do, and for you to experience something that isn't repetitive or redundant. And the first time I experienced that was with King Kong. I became known for winning an Academy Award. That sort of overshadowed 15 years of work.
Prior to that people would recognise me, but it'd be very infrequent and it'd be from one thing, some film I'd done that they'd connected to, and it would be amazing.
It became that one moment at the Oscars, it made people much more aware of me. And I was associated with The Pianist.
But young kids hadn't seen that film really; some had, but not really. Anyway, it was such an amazing thing, when I was working with Jack Black, kids would just line up, they love Jack, they just love him. I really liked that and I found it interesting how it opened me up to having these kids connect with me. People would come up to me saying," My kids love you, they love King Kong, they love dinosaurs, they just wanted to meet you," and that's really wonderful.
You can show your kids someday.
Yeah that's right, and so I try and keep it fresh. Back to the initial time [post-Oscar], it was a complicated time because I knew what roles would be ideal, but they weren't being offered to me. What can happen is a sort of paralysis can ensue.
It can happen to someone under that kind of scrutiny. It didn't happen, I didn't allow it to happen, but I was told to wait and wait and wait to find that one leading role.
Actually that role in King Kong would've been ideal immediately following the Oscar. It was a leading man role, I was playing an intellectual in a studio movie, and it was a movie that was very different from the things I did. But it was also a leading man character – guy goes and tries to save the girl and all this stuff. Classic.
But at the time, that wasn't available, and the first film post-Oscar I did was The Village. M Night Shyamalan had submitted the script to me and had asked me not to disclose it to my representatives, so I had to make the decision on my own. I didn't have other people. I honoured his request and it was very much a character, a supporting character, the antithesis of the kind of role that everyone was telling me to take. And that partially motivated me to do it because I felt like it was a role that I would want to do, and he is a director that I admire, and I didn't want this new pressure that was now all of a sudden being imposed on me. I just wanted to find something that inspired me and I did it. And then King Kong came.
You're known for a variety of different roles, but you're also known as a man of many different styles.
I was saying today, I find it amusing because I was known as the Most Fashionable Man, but that was years ago. Like, how does it feel to have been the most fashionable man? It was in 2004? Esquire's Best Dressed Man – wow, that was a big honour but I guess that's old news.
Everyone definitely watches what you wear.
Really? That's cool. I don't pay as much attention to it as . . . I don't know.
I went to some of the menswear collections [in June]; I went to Giorgio Armani's.
What did you think of his show?
I liked it a lot, actually. It was different from his normal: a lot of colours, a lot of Eastern influences. I thought it was creative and daring..
You used to be the face of Zegna, which was a huge deal.
It was interesting, an honour to be asked to represent a clothing line.
I appreciate it, I appreciate aesthetics regardless of whether it's clothing or design, but I'm not consumed with it. But I do think it's nice to dress up sometimes. I have nice clothes.
If Armani came to you and asked you to be a spokesman, would you consider it?
It would depend what the proposal was. But you know, I think he's a great designer and he's a great person. He's been very kind to me. So if that were the case, I'd probably definitely consider it. It's Mr Armani.
I know this is for the Fashion Issue and I'm honoured to be included. So maybe I'm no longer Esquire's Best Dressed, but I'm still in the running. I'm still in there.
Definitely, shots of what you're wearing get blasted out. "Adrien Brody's in a mesh tank top."
I was in a mesh tank top last week, when I was shopping in Italy. The paparazzi got me.
Are the European paparazzi much worse? Did the cast get hounded when you were filming Giallo?
They were actually pretty good to us. They invented it there, but they were good to us. The paparazzi were there for a couple of weeks, but they weren't incredibly aggressive, and when they got their shot it was old news.
Do you get recognised everywhere you go?
I do. You know, for a long time, I really didn't get recognised in India shooting Darjeeling, but then King Kong played on TV and then I was just recognised everywhere, just masses of people. It was really funny because at first it was liberating to be completely unrecognised again, for a period of a month and a half. I had a motorcycle there and was cruising around and walking through bazaars, it was wonderful. It was really wonderful. But again, it comes with it and I don't mind being recognised. It's not a problem.
Other things come with it. It creates a tension both positive and negative. And sometimes, contrary to popular belief, not all actors want to be noticed all the time, and it's not a desire of mine; being appreciated for my work is, and there's a sense of appreciation but sometimes you just want to be low-key.
Tonight what'll you do?
We'll go out and get some sushi. New York is a particularly good city and I'm a New Yorker and from New Yorkers there's a lot of love. It's like, " The kid made good," especially going back to Queens. It's nice, in that sense, it's really nice. People are nicer to my parents in the neighbourhood.
Have you spent any time in Hong Kong?
Yeah, we did, I went with Elsa to Hong Kong and China. We went to this amazing restaurant on the top of that peak " The Lookout? " The Lookout [Brody high fives me]. I love it. That place is amazing, oh my God, what a neat place. That was a highlight of Hong Kong. We also went to that crazy district where I bought some electronics.
So are you planning any travel during your time off?
I'm gonna take it easy, I think. I'd like to just lay low for a month or so.I may be working in the fall, I'm not sure. If not, I'm happy to take a break. I'll spend time with my folks. I'm bicoastal, but I don't spend that much time in LA anymore. But I like it, it's cool. I travel so much that everything is just visiting. I'm a nomad, I'm a complete nomad. It's remarkable; I will have to eventually figure out some sort of base. Elsa has a place in LA.
You seem to have a lot of Spanish influence in your life.
I do. It all came right around the same time [as Elsa]. It's deeply influencing, amazing.
I don't speak Spanish, I understand quite a bit. It's cool, though, people in Spain are really cool, incredibly free and I really admire their freedom and laid-back quality. They're very passionate people, I like it. I'm very recognised in Spain. I'm more famous in Spain than probably anywhere. And that was prior to knowing Elsa, and she's incredibly famous there.
You guys have been together a while.
A long time, three years.
She travels with you?
Part of the reason I did Giallo was Elsa – it was the first time
we worked together. I actually became a producer of the movie and decided to do the movie partially in an effort to protect her from being tortured in a Dario Argento movie. And then my character's motivation was to save her, so it was a really interesting thing that my motivation really was, when I got involved, to protect her.
What were you protecting her from?
Well from being . . . It was a very rough role and from being in a not-so-good situation. Movies aren't necessarily always fun and the people you work with aren't necessarily always
kind or careful.
So did you save her?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Was it tense? Was there pressure working together?
It's tense and there's pressure anyway. It's tense and there's pressure when you're not together and it's tense and there's pressure on a set with a complete stranger. It didn't intimidate me, it wasn't anything about intimidation. It's interesting though that my motivation was really to watch out for her and my character was trying to rescue her.
It's cool. We got a kick out of that.
So she's here in New York?
Are you two . . . ?
Don't ask it. I'd appreciate it, don't ask it.
I want him to shove his nose inside me and sneeze