Fifteen years have passed since Adrien Brody won best actor for his work in “The Pianist,” and he’s still fielding questions about that role more than anything else. That was certainly the case at a recent press conference with journalists at the Locarno Film Festival, where the actor is receiving a lifetime achievement award.
But you don’t get the feeling, at least not entirely, that he is reminding you of his triumph at the Oscars in order to bask again in residual traces of that glory. It’s more that his portrayal of the Jewish composer Władysław Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s epic film of the Holocaust exacted an emotional toll that, even with a decade and a half under the bright spotlight of Hollywood, he has found difficult to shrug off. “I had to sacrifice large parts of my personal life,” he said. In preparing for the film, he added, much of his time was spent on a starvation diet. And even after the film was over he spent his days largely “on friends’ couches trying to start a life again.”
How hard is it to turn the page on a role of that caliber and intensity?
“I was depressed for a year after ‘The Pianist,'” he said. “And I don’t suffer from that, generally. It wasn’t just a depression; it was a mourning. I was very disturbed by what I embraced [in making that film], and of the awareness that it opened up in me. But how much these things take from you changes project to project.”
Still, it can’t exactly be said that Brody is a miserabilist or is trapped in the past; speaking to journalists and admirers in Locarno, he couldn’t help being both movie star charming and cripplingly sensitive at once. Over the course of a half-hour session, Brody moved from expressing bland appreciation for Switzerland (“Switzerland… it’s one of the most special places I’ve been. Yeah, why not”) to fighting back tears when reminiscing about encountering the gnarled hands of a homeless man in deep, bitter winter as he was preparing for his part in “The Pianist.”
Just a few minutes before, he had been responding to a question about whether he regretted his infamous impromptu kiss with Halle Berry onstage at the Academy Awards. “There was a lot of love it that room, real love and recognition. It was just a good moment and…I took it,” he said.
Despite making very few big studio films in the last decade or so, Brody’s star hasn’t waned. The impact of “The Pianist” is, of course, indisputable in figuring out just how this man can stay in the public imagination while remaining largely off the radar. But another reason for his endurance in the minds of the mainstream moviegoers is the rich combination of wit and gravity he brings to every role, no matter how seemingly disposable. His playwright-turned-action star Jack Driscoll in Peter Jackson’s 2005 “King Kong” remake turned heads for the seriousness with which he approached the role. Another unusual casting decision found him as the lead in Nimród Antal’s underrated 2010 remake “Predators,” a proudly schlocky reinvention of the franchise in which Brody had to adapt to a new kind of lowbrow material as well as act as an anchor for the movie’s very old-school form of dread and terror.
Yet even as Brody seems to have tackled a range of bigger movies, he has yet to wind up in any of the superhero franchises that took off in his post-Oscar career.
“There have been discussions, but nothing was quite right,” he said. “Maybe I’m a bit superstitious, but I don’t like to talk about anything until I’ve done it. But I don’t have an aversion to those movies as long as there’s a great role there and as long as there is the chance for great storytelling. They are mining every kind of classic hero story and anything in animation and comic book lore and all of that. There’s a lot of great work that’s being done. I guess it simply would have to be something great.”
He was more enthusiastic about the possibilities of long-form television series, even while making it clear that he had turned down several big offers. His biggest hesitation? “The commitment is enormous,” he said. “The only reason to do a television series is to make it successful. And if it is successful that’s a six or seven year commitment. But I’m very open to it. Maybe the day will come when I’m lucky enough to be offered one that is really fantastic.”
But even as Brody continues to explore new opportunities, there’s one aspect of his early career that he knows he’ll never get back.”Being anonymous is a great luxury,” he said. “It’s a big loss to lose that. Mostly, the loss is the ability to observe others without being observed yourself. And as an actor, that is your key tool.”