Adrien Brody: Life after the Oscar

The Pianist put him on the map. Now even his dog gets chased by the paparazzi. Adrien Brody talks to Tiffany Rose about fame
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The first words from Adrien Brody's thin lips as he sinks into a cushioned armchair in a swish, New York lobby hotel, are "I'm not allowed to talk about the movie." Granted, this is a rather unusual statement, since this is the very reason for our meeting. But not in the least bit surprising, since the film, The Village, is the latest brainstorm from white-knuckle thriller film-maker M Night Shyamalan, who had audiences shaking in the aisles with Sixth Sense and Signs. Because of the nature of Shyamalan's movies - which are in the Hitchcockean vein, consisting of twists and sub-plots (and plenty of oohs and ahhs) - all scripts are sealed with a "Top Secret" stamp.

"It was interesting," laughs the tall, sinewy 31-year-old Brody, recalling his first telephone conversation with the writer/director, weeks after he'd won an Oscar for his portrayal of a Holocaust survivor in Roman Polanski's emotional epic The Pianist. "He asked me what kind of role I was interested in playing. So I told him I was looking for the iconic leading man. You know, the guy who gets the girl." Brody beams, revealing a crooked smile. "And he shot back: 'Well, this isn't that!'

"So, I told him, 'I don't know if that's something I can really play right now,'" continues Brody. "And Night responds: 'Well, I don't know if I can send you the script if you don't think you're going to play it!' Brody leans back in his chair and roars in hysterics. "It was like a comedy sketch!"

It turns out that the role in question was that of Noah Percy, a mentally retarded son living in an isolated late-19th-century village along with a close-knit community, who live in fear of the creatures lurking in the surrounding woods. Until one day, Percy's friend Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) plans to step into the unknown, threatening to forever change the future of the village. The movie also stars Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt (plus Ron Howard's daughter Bryce Dallas Howard, who shines in her screen debut).

The challenging part, which Brody welcomed with open arms, was the fact that his character did not have any dialogue, but plenty of grunts. He explains: "It makes it easier in the sense that you don't have to learn lines, but it's harder because you have to convey more, by saying less. But if you manage to do it well, then people connect to you even more because they are not processing what you are saying."

When Brody walks into the lobby, he seems a little restless. I ask what all the fidgeting is about, and he says that he suddenly awoke at 5.30am - he couldn't sleep at the thought of talking about himself for hours on end - and decided to grab a large mug of coffee and head for a stroll in Central Park. Perhaps suffering from the Java jitters, Brody's demeanour swings like a pendulum from playful to serious in a matter of a few questions.

Instead of being pretty boy pouty or cowboy rugged, Brody possesses an alluring mix of masculine and feminine. He has high, delicate cheekbones framing a large, strong nose, and his powerful green eyes peer out from under a pale brow. If you're not familiar with Brody the actor, you might recognise his quirky, asymmetrical features from his other day job as a fashion model for the Italian fashion designer, Ermenegildo Zegna.

I get the feeling Brody is also a bit miffed about his sudden surge to Fifth Avenue poster boy, when he says: "A fashion model; I know it certainly wasn't a dream of mine. It's usually models who turn into actors, right? My career has always taken a different path from most other people I know."

"You'll be releasing a pop single next!" I half-tease. It's then that the serious Brody takes over when he retorts in his croaky voice: "You just never know in this business. It wouldn't be pop, but I've been making music for a long time. It would be more along the lines of hip hop."

Best known for his character roles in films such as Spike Lee's Summer of Sam (in which he played a punk); Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and Barry Levinson's coming-of-age tale Liberty Heights, it's quite evident that directors have hired him for his almost childlike absence of ego. But of course, it was Brody's portrayal of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish musician who barely survives the Warsaw ghetto in The Pianist, which has become his signature role to date. Brody is the kind of performer who morphs into a role. "I felt the responsibility to connect with my character," he says.

He's been dubbed the De Niro of his generation. Brody smiles: "It's interesting when they make comparisons like that, but he's definitely one of my favourite actors. I get it. It's nice. It's always funny, how you're the next somebody else and somebody will be the next me. 'We want an Adrien Brody type.' I don't know what that is exactly." His comedic timing is turned on high, when he quips: "But hey, I could be compared to worse people!"

For The Pianist, he lost 30lbs from his already lean frame ("I practically starved myself"). He also learnt how to play intricate Chopin pieces (although in the film the music you hear is played by Janusz Olejniczak), and distanced himself from his family and took a break from his then girlfriend.

Leaning forward slightly, Brody reveals that the defining moment of realisation that he had landed on the Hollywood movie map. "It was the day after the Academy Awards," he nods, eyes opening wide. "I went out to dinner with my parents and as we walked into the restaurant, everyone stood up and applauded. It was the most surreal experience I've ever had in my life." Brody pauses for a moment: "Then it hit us. Everyone saw it. There was so much love, and it was really genuine. Those people were really happy for me, and I still find that, years on."

If you're one of the few who didn't catch the half Jewish/half Catholic actor ("double the guilt", he jokes) from Queens in the role of a lifetime, you might remember Brody for stealing what seemed like a timeless kiss from a startled Halle Berry, who presented him with the Academy Award. "Someone stops me on the street to ask me about that kiss everyday," he grins, resembling a naughty school-kid who has just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "A lot of people are really proud of me for doing that," he continues. "The brothers have this kind of pride and resentment, you know? They're feeling me, but at the same time, they're kind of like: 'Man! Why you?' They would just love to be in my position."

Despite what you might think, Brody's career does not read like an overnight Tinseltown success story. He's been in the business for 17 years, and has acted in some 20-odd movies. His success haspartly stemmed from being raised in an artistic household, by his mother, Sylvia Plachy, an acclaimed photographer, and father, Elliot Brody, a retired school teacher.

His parents enrolled their only son in acting lessons to keep him "out of trouble", which led to his attendance at the prestigious Fiorello H LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts in New York (immortalised in the 1980 film, Fame). In between auditions, Brody worked in the world of magic, putting on shows for children's parties.

"I guess it was my gateway into acting, because it was all about illusion and pulling the wool over the adults' eyes," he concedes. Although monetary success has come rather early on in his career, Brody will never forget the days when he could barely afford to buy himself a tin of beans for dinner.

"I remember when I made The Thin Red Line, I only owned one pair of Nikes. They shrunk, and I didn't even realise that they were killing me, but I wore them for the entire movie. Those were my sneakers. I would be in costume or I would be in my sneakers. One pair of sneakers! That's unbelievable to me now. Now, I have a few pairs of kicks, and the killer part of it is that I get a lot of stuff for free at a time when I can afford to buy my own. Isn't that backwards?"

No one would have expected (and least of all Brody himself) that this off-beat-looking, unconventionally handsome actor, would indeed one day become a leading man. "Getting the girl in a movie is the dream role for a guy," he says, showing his signature loopy grin.

In The Jacket, which was shot in Glasgow, the girl in question is Keira Knightley (who plays Guinevere in the new version of King Arthur), and after completing a press tour for The Village, Brody will be setting up home in New Zealand for five months, where he'll be filming King Kong opposite, well, the giant furry ape, and the Australian actress Naomi Watts. Guess which one he ends up with? "Hopefully not with King Kong. He's not my type," he smirks.

Brody barks at the notion that he and Knightley were romantically linked. Feeling like he has to set the record straight, so as not to upset any girlfriend du jour, he explains: "The paparazzi were waiting for us in the park directly across from our apartments, which were adjacent to one another. Obviously we spent time together, because we would run lines, but it was amazing how they would insinuate what we were doing, what we were eating and all these things that weren't going on." Brody shakes his head: "We weren't eating what they were saying we were eating, there were no candles lit in my place. The interesting thing I've learnt through all this is you can't believe what you read, even if it's about yourself!"

Before Brody excuses himself to take a bathroom break, reiterating how much coffee he has consumed that morning, he leaves me with this endearing anecdote:

"I was walking the dog yesterday and there was a guy there with a camera following me," he begins a little excitedly. "Like my dog's taking a shit, I'm looking up at his rear and this guy's getting a photograph of it!" Brody bursts out laughing. "What can you do? It'll be on the cover of People magazine next week: 'Celebs' dogs are just like yours!' Give my dog a break, man. He didn't choose to be in this business!"

And with that he scampers off to relieve himself of the Java.

'The Village' goes on general release on 20 August