Brody wears silvery sneakers with his black suit. He looks slightly weary, and
awaits his pancakes. Aside from time out for making a music video with Tori
Amos, for "A Sorta Fairytale" (in which he spends most of his onscreen
time as his head attached to a hand, only), Brody has been traveling during the
past year, promoting The Pianist.
on the 1946 memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew and composer-pianist who
hid in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, in and around the Jewish ghetto, Roman Polanski's
Palm d'Or-winning film also incorporates some of his own memories of the ghetto,
from which he escaped at age 7.
the 29-year-old New York native has worked on any number of rewarding and
difficult films in the recent past -- including Spike Lee's Summer of Sam
and Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights (both 1999), Ken Loach's Bread
and Roses and Elie Chouraqui's Harrison's Flowers (both 2000) -- few
had the effect on him of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), from
which most of his part was, now famously, cut. This after spending months
shooting in Australia.
The Pianist, Brody committed himself wholly, learning to play Chopin and
speak Polish, losing thirty pounds to shoot the final ghetto scenes, when
Szpilman was starving nearly to death, working for months in an abandoned Soviet
Army barracks in Jüterbog, a former East German town outside Berlin.
Remembering these months, he looks pensive, a little sad. Unlike most filmmaking
experiences, this one was grueling, wondrous, and life-changing.
spoke first about his opportunities.
had the chance to work with incredibly respected directors -- Steven Soderbergh
[on King of the Hill], Terrence Malick, Spike Lee, Ken Loach, Barry
Levinson, and now, Roman Polanski.
is unusual, I think, and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to
experience all of these interesting, creative people's styles. Not only in a
career sense has it been good for me, but I've been personally influenced by it.
People are "good" for a reason, and they all have wonderful qualities
that I've learned from. I also come in contact with these projects because I'm
looking for material that's somewhat inspirational. And I'm fortunate that I'm
able to hold off and not necessarily do things just for the sake of working.
Unfortunately, most actors don't have that luxury. Somehow, I've managed to do
have you managed?
parents have raised me with a sense of what's really important and have given me
decent values, and I'm comfortable, but I haven't lived an excessive lifestyle
in the least. And I've kept my expenses to a minimum so that I have the freedom
grew up in a house with an illustrator and photographer, and I'm wondering what
it was like to grow up in a house with your mother [photojournalist Sylvia
was surrounded with her pictures everywhere, negatives hanging in the bathroom,
prints drying on record racks in the hallway, film canisters being rinsed out in
the tub. And I went with her on assignments, or down to the Village Voice
offices. And my father [Elliot Brody] was a public school teacher in New York.
He's been a great father to me, really encouraging and patient. So all of those
things have shaped me, as well as the environment on the streets, which was
entirely different. It was difficult, and that too has shaped me. So, I had this
nurturing home life, but I know what's out there too, on a very real level.
unfortunately, my friends who didn't have that home life, it's been more
difficult for them. I have friends who went to art school with me, whom I knew
from Queens. We'd take the train in together to go to [High School for the]
Performing Arts, and they had to let a lot of it go. First of al, they weren't
encouraged, it's very competitive, and they had no money. We didn't have much,
but they had none, and so they had to step out into the world and just start
supporting themselves. And you lose track. Fortunately, I began acting before
supporting myself became an issue. You don't make much money from independent
films and theater that's off-off-off Broadway, and workshops at BAM (Brooklyn
Academy of Music], which I was doing when I was young. But I did manage to get
an occasional commercial that would supplement my income for a while. I didn't
have the pressure of being out on my own, studying for years and then arriving
in L.A. I was able to work toward something for a long time.
I'm still working towards it. None of those films with those great directors was
presented to me. It was all a struggle to get them. Looking back on it, it's
interesting that I was able to get so many roles like that and be right for
them. That's another thing. There are the obstacles of your position as an
actor, not being a commodity enough to be hired by the big directors for
projects that have some kind of integrity, because the successful actors who've
been in the game for a while want those roles. So there's more competition, so
you have to work harder and be right for it.
almost uncannily right for Wladyslaw Szpilman. On its face, it seems so
daunting, not just because it's so large, but also because it's about receding
over time, almost caving into yourself.
hard to describe it. For one thing, I had to shoot it in reverse chronology, and
it was hard to be completely involved with that end state of being that this man
ended up in, and not taking that journey, even as a character. And then I had to
eliminate all of those feelings that I had cultivated over time, to connect with
him, and then make it seem as though, not only had I never experienced them, but
they were infeasible for him and everyone around him.
remarkable is that the character is somewhat detached from everything, and isn't
typically heroic. There were extended periods of silence, where I was just
called to react. I'd never had that opportunity in a film, and that's a whole
different process. There's not another actor there who's either inspirational or
who picks up some of the slack. You have to stay on, and there's no moment to
escape being immersed in that state of mind. No moment whatsoever, on set and
off. Roman doesn't even like using a stand-in. I've never worked this hard in my
life. And it makes everything else that comes my way so much easier. Even
painful things in my own life, I'm like, "Ahh!"
had a premiere in L.A., and I'd done this movie like a year and a half ago, I'd
been all over the world, doing press for the film and it's been meaning so much
to me. Finally, there was an opportunity for an American audience to see the
film, and it was in Hollywood. I couldn't wait for people to see my work in
something extremely dramatic. And then, the sound broke! They cut the film and
couldn't fix it. And it was a benefit. And it was done. No L.A. premiere.
I swear to you, it occurred to me, you know what, considering what this man
endured, and really what this film stands for, this is so insignificant. And
that enabled me to see things in a way that I don't think I would have been able
to, had I not experienced this on a somewhat profound level. I appreciated it so
much in that moment. And I thought about it a lot. And I thought, I was
disappointed, even more for the people who were there and paid for this benefit.
And Jack Nicholson was there; I was dying for him to see my movie. But it didn't
mean that much. And that's a real gift to be able to see things in that way. I
don't know if I'll always be able to do that, but that's a perfect example of
how it changed me, in a way that I've noticed. It's changed me in other ways. I
feel bad, sort of, asking if I can get some syrup for my pancakes! [laughs] I
should just eat them and not complain.
is rare, for a movie to have that kind of effect.
yes. I strive to find material that I will grow from, that will inspire me or
educate me about some social issue that I don't know enough about, or that I do
know about, but I want to learn more, about struggles that I haven't had to
endure. And that gives you a greater understanding of the suffering that exists
in the world, and also the joy that exists in the world. How good we have it
here, also became very clear to me. On Ken Loach's film [Bread and Roses],
I learned a great deal, as well.
you do a lot of research for such roles?
do, often. Especially if it's encouraged by the director, when there's a place
for it. I'm not someone who needs to do it for the sake of doing it, to say that
I did it... later. It's a great story that I lost all this weight for this role
[30 pounds] and learned to play Chopin and all that stuff. I didn't know it was
a story when I was doing it. I was just thinking, "Oh shit, I've got to
lose all this weight in 6 weeks." And I didn't eat much. And I made it
through. It's kind of wonderful to see that physical transformation, but it made
me connect, too. Initially I did it for a technical reason. I did want to
understand the loss, this emptiness that real hunger does encourage. It creates
this whole thought process that kind of harps on emptiness. And it's something
that I didn't know, really, not to that extent. At the time, though, I did it
because it was a necessity.
Summer of Sam, I had to embrace punk rock music. I didn't really grow up
with punk, I didn't appreciate it really, but I learned it, as I learned to
learn the fingering on the guitar. It freed me, really, because the character
was so uninhibited. That was necessary then, because I had felt very inhibited
from Thin Red Line, for the role, cultivating all this fear. Fear is an
emotion that's terrible to live with; it's something that we try to work away
from since childhood. And for that film, I was forced to embrace it. And... I
had something to be afraid of... but it wasn't in the script! [laughs] You
should be very afraid!
don't feel fear regularly, as an actor?
you do. But that's exciting. As an actor, I'm not afraid of putting myself out
there. As a human being, you feel these things in any endeavor. I remember years
ago, I did a film called Ten Benny, originally called Nothing to Lose.
And I went to Sundance with it, the first time I went, nine years ago. It was a
lead role, I was a young man, or I felt like a man, but I wasn't, I was 20. And
I remember Parker Posey was there, and she was doing all these interviews, and I
was thinking, "Wow, that must be so difficult, putting herself out
there." I was so nervous about the prospect of doing serious interviews.
And here I am, for the past few months, I've been traveling the world discussing
a very serious subject matter, and having to represent the film, in a way,
because Roman is not discussing it. And I'm sharing personal things about
myself, and being able to convey these things without being inhibited, in a
sense. If I had let that fear inhibit me, and say, "No, I'm not going to do
any interviews," it would hold me back. Not only from helping the film and
increasing awareness of the film, which is part of the objective. But it's more
interesting to discuss things that have had a profound effect on you, even if
you have to repeat certain things, some hundreds of times. There are questions
that stimulate a thought process about serious things, and these discussions can
be incredible. I've had to formulate serious opinions about some things. And
that's very helpful, I think, for a young man. There is value and purpose in
this process, even though at times it's difficult. And that's what's wonderful
has the process revealed to you, as you see how people respond to the film?
has an opinion. Basically, you hear all these different perspectives, and they
mention things you may not have considered, or you mention things they may not
have considered. Doing interviews is very different from working as an actor,
because it's up to the journalist not only to understand what I'm trying to
convey, but to convey that understanding through their process. And often times
it gets manipulated, sometimes intentionally, by pulling things out of context.
And that's frustrating. But, some people may not appreciate your work and some
may be incredibly moved by it. So that isn't the concern. You have to do what
you can do, and share what you feel is appropriate to share in the moment. And
then, it's out of your control. Hopefully, most of the time, it comes back in
the right way.
does it feel to have this preserved record of your work and thinking, sort of
"snapshots" of yourself, follow you around?
wonderful. That's something that I really value. So I can show my kids, someday,
that I was cool. Somebody asked me the other night on the street in Boston,
"Do you know anybody who is looking for "rolls." And I'm sure he
was trying to sell me some drugs, but I could only think, "Am I that old
that I don't know the lingo?" What rolls? What is that? I really gave it
some thought. You don't want to be out of touch when you're a young actor. And I
get called on to play a junkie, that's the first thing I'll learn.
it difficult to maintain contact with ordinary life, especially when you're
working on these lengthy projects, like the Malick or this one.
that moment of making the film, it's fine. The problem is when you become so
well known that everyone is watching you and you don't have an opportunity to
observe. That's something that I'm concerned about, because it's getting there.
It's something that I don't want to lose. I like taking the train. I like being
unnoticed when I don't feel like being noticed. It's not like I crave attention
all the time. Something that I've always loved and appreciated is the chance to
see something about someone's character, observe and kind of retain it, and
study it without feeling like I'm studying it. I have an intense curiosity. And
it would be a shame if I lose the ability to do that.
I imagine that as the fame thing increases, people you don’t know well begin
to perform for you.
the other thing, is that people have preconceived notions of who you are and are
unable to be just themselves, some shift. Being just yourself means you're
unselfconscious in that moment. Or maybe we're all self-conscious to an extent.
You meet a pretty girl, you're different from when you meet a tough kid on the
street. So perhaps we always are acting, in a sense. But you meet someone you
feel you admire or you "know," and it'll be different for that reason.
So far, it's an interesting ride, and I'm curious to see what I can find next.
Read Elias Savada's review.