In the thriller The Jacket, Adrien Brody plays Jack Starks, an amnesiac Gulf War veteran who comes back to the States, is framed for a murder he’s sure he didn’t commit–but can’t remember–and sent to a mental institution. He’s then subjected to a series of bizarre treatments that involve strapping him in a straitjacket and leaving him locked in a morgue drawer for hours–but it allows him to travel forward in time, where he encounters Jackie (Keira Knightley). Together, they try to solve Jack’s own impending murder.
We sat down with Brody, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays a more sympathetic doctor at the institution, and director John Maybury. This was Maybury‘s first Hollywood film, made under the wing of George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh‘s Section 8 production company. Better known–if he’s known at all–for his art house movies such as Love is the Devil, the British Maybury was shockingly candid about his contempt for the system but still hopeful to work within it.
“I bloody well hope so,” he said when asked if he would welcome the chance to do another Hollywood film. “I think within Hollywood, there is this framework you can work within that is very vital and full of energy. And I want to be part of that. And I hope The Jacket is. Even though it’s being sold as The Ring. Of course, I want to sell this movie and I want it to be really commercial and Keira Knightley gets her [breasts] out and it’s just great.”
How would you classify this film? It’s being marketed as a horror film, but it really isn’t.
Adrien Brody: “That’s up to you. It’s pretty amazing to go to a movie and not be spoon-fed everything. I like the ambiguity of it. Things are ambiguous. And people are ambiguous. And people’s interpretations of people are ambiguous.”
John Maybury: “Marketing has created a new world. They’re making this film a horror film, which is a lie. It’s going to be a disaster the first weekend, when all the kids think they’re going to see [a horror film] find out they’re watching some European drama. How would I market it? That’s not my job, unfortunately. I have to defer to the people here in particular because of the dollars they spent on the film. What can you do? I don’t think that ‘You have to go, it’s a really interesting film’ is going to come across as a very strong tagline. I described it from the get-go as a subversive, psychological thriller, which seems to be a kind of meaningless phrase. It plays with conventions. The film, I think, changes genre with each reel. In a way, it’s the ambiguity of the film that I find interesting. It’s the challenge I hope I’m offering to audiences. I want audiences to do the work and make decisions about what this film is.”
Jennifer Jason Leigh: “The thing about this film that I like is that you can’t pigeonhole it. As soon as you think it’s one kind of genre, it becomes something else entirely. And so it’s really what you’re left with individually. I was left with a very dark, twisted, It’s a Wonderful Life.”
What attracted you to this movie?
Brody: “The fact that the character is not really defined by ethnicity, his religious beliefs, where he’s from, on any level, that’s not described. Nor does he have any allegiance to his own past, which defines us, how we are raised and told who are and what we are. I think that’s a remarkable place to be as an actor. It’s liberating but at the same time, who are you? And that’s a very exciting concept to explore in depth. I have my own ideas of what the film is about, but I also have to suspend that too when I’m doing it. Not even in explaining to you, but my process is that I have to believe everything that my character is believing while he’s experiencing it. If my character’s going mad, whether I’m dead or my character’s dreaming, I’m going mad in that moment and I have to experience that as part of my reality.”
Leigh: “If I read something and I like it, I’ll take it, or if I like the director. I love John Maybury and I was very, very impressed with Love is the Devil. I try to do things that appeal to me. I’m not usually attracted to very mainstream things.”
Maybury: “I think The Jacket was a screenplay that started off in Hollywood about four years ago. It was going to be an Antoine Fuqua movie with Colin Farrell. It was just another one of that particular trend of that time of films like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I just came on last of all, at the tail-end of a really tired old formula. I don’t have contempt for Charlie Kaufman. He’s a brilliant screenwriter. I love those kind of films. But I knew if I got my hands on the screenplay, it wouldn’t be that [kind of film] anyway. I’ve made a romance that has a subtext about being about Guantanamo Bay. I think I’ve made a much more interesting, much more demanding film.”
What did you do to prepare for your role?
Brody: “To be locked in a morgue drawer? I grew up living in New York, in an apartment there. Pretty small! I actually found a sensory deprivation chamber where we were shooting in Glasgow. Are you familiar with those? It’s a tank you lay in with dead saline solution. It was a really interesting experience. I would do quadruple sessions and they were pretty amazed that I could do it. You become very aware of how your mind works and how typical thoughts are and how you can guide them, mediate in a way and separate yourself from your physical being. I don’t really remember the exact time, but hours on end.”
Leigh: “I know two people personally who pretty much have exactly this job, so I spent a lot of time talking to them. And then I watched the documentary Titicut Follies. It’s amazing. I showed it to John Maybury and the production designer too. As horrifying and creepy and grotesque as this movie is at times, it doesn’t come close to the real thing. There are images from that movie that will stay with me for a long time and I don’t even know that I want those images in my psyche at all. It’s so disturbing.”
How tough was filming this? Was that a real morgue drawer you were in?
Brody: “We shot in a mental institution. They built this in the basement. And it had that vibe. It had the energy, somehow, of that. We were using real gurneys and they were all covered with medical instruments that were frightening. The crew was nice, but the state of mind I was in, I don’t even try to communicate with anyone. I was restrained in the jacket and I asked to be left alone on the gurney and wait while they set up the next shot instead of getting me out of it and sitting around and having a conversation, I think that’s not conducive to staying in that state of mind. I think it’s just important to stay centered and therefore it doesn’t matter where it is or what it is we’re shooting, I would still be in my own space. So I kind of am oblivious to what’s going on for the most part, while I’m filming. When I’m done, it’s cool, it’s like, ‘Good night, everyone.'”
How long were you left in the jacket?
Brody: “It depends. I’m sure there were days when we did lots of overtime. Nothing will be more difficult than The Pianist, because it had a six-week slot with no other actors. It was just a tremendous amount of pressure and it was all day with [The Pianist director] Roman [Polanski] and myself and the crew. It’s a whole movie in that time period you can shoot, basically. It was relentless and Roman didn’t even like to use a stand-in, so I was there from morning to night doing everything. I probably learned more from that than any filmmaking class from that experience, but it’s made everything else kind of easier, in a way. I’m not saying that this was not difficult, because it was. There were long days of being restrained laying on a metal gurney in a cold, damp, Scottish basement.”
What do you think of Adrien Brody?
Leigh: “He’s great. He’s a really, really good actor. For someone who is so extroverted, he has this incredible ability onscreen to project a kind of introverted presence, someone that is living all in the mind and not able to communicate verbally. I think he can convey so much depth and soul. In real life, he’s such a prankster and he’s so funny and incredibly extroverted. But onscreen, he’s able to completely switch it off and what comes out is something very, very internal and exciting to watch.”
Maybury: “I wanted Adrien because he looks like an Arab. He’s just a nice Jewish boy from Queens. He actually looks strangely Arabic, so I had a nice resonance with my Guantanamo Bay setting. To be really honest, he reminds me of Pierre Clémenti, who’s one of my favorite European actors.”
Adrien, are you a nice, Jewish boy from Queens who happens to look like an Arab?
Brody: “John is wrong. I don’t look like an Arab. And I’m both Jewish and Catholic. He’s wrong on all counts. And I’m not always nice either! I try to be, but …”
Apart from how he looks, do you also like Adrien’s acting?
Maybury: “Sometimes. He’s a bit labored. [Laughs] No, he’s superb. How could I not like him? What was very funny was we were very drunk in Montreal with these 19 producers who threw this incredibly extravagant dinner for us with about 15 bottles of Cristal and $500 bottles of red wine. And I was thinking, ‘That’s the budget!’ And I got really drunk and I said to Adrien, ‘Let’s face it, Adrien, this is the first film you’ve ever starred in because Polanski was the star of The Pianist.’ Fortunately it was at the end of the shoot so there was nothing he could do about it. But this was an amazing opportunity for Adrien. In this film he gets to show an amazing range. It’s not just angst and beating himself up. There’s a levity, you get to see a lightness in Adrien, and a humor. And with Keira, it’s like Rudolph Valentino and Lillian Gish or something. There’s a beauty in the pair of them that’s astonishing.”
What about Keira Knightley?
Leigh: “I really like Keira. Aside from just being beautiful, she’s obviously just so not jaded, unguarded. She knows who she is. She has incredible confidence without arrogance. There was a lot of heat on her at that time. Even in Glasgow, it was hard for her to walk around and she took it which such grace and generosity. I think she’s a really smart girl.”
She takes her top off in this film. Why was that necessary? And was this a first for her?
Maybury: “She’s a tramp! Not Keira, the character. It explains exactly who [Jackie] is, that she picks up a guy at a truck stop, then goes back to her house, and the first thing she does is get her kit off [strip] and have a bath and leave him alone in her apartment. That’s all you need to know about her character. She’s a dissolute drunk. I recognize that behavior. Actually, [Keira's] got her kit off in most films she’s done before. All the other Brit films you haven’t seen. She’s forever getting her charlies out.”
How does this compare to shooting King Kong?
Brody: “It’s very similar. [Laughs] King Kong is really wonderful because it’s a chance to not subject myself to the emotional torment. But now I am physically abused. I’m spending 11 hours in a harness shooting stunts and when you’re doing these things you can’t put somebody else in there. So I’m learning another aspect of filmmaking. It’s actually very exciting and physical pain is easier to deal with. The real challenge is (pretending to run from a giant ape.) There is, on one level, the challenge of having to experience things that don’t exist. But that’s also similar to what I’m experiencing having an out-of-body reaction in a drawer. I do have a very vivid imagination, it’s part of what drew me to being an actor. You take it seriously. It’s not a joke. It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, there’s the monkey again!’ What do you do when there’s a 25-foot creature that sees you and senses you and smells you and doesn’t like you from before? What do you do? Do you smile or do you run? And that’s your only choice and then you run for your life. Many times. On many different green and blue treadmills. And do the best you can.”
The Jacket opens in theaters Mar. 4.