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Adrien Brody on “The Pianist”

Now that The Pianist has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, including nods for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, The Pianist may change star Adrien Brody’s life even more than he anticipated.

The film chronicles accomplished pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s harrowing real-life tale of survival as a Polish Jew during WWII. Brody plays Szpilman, who, along with his family, was shuttled into the Warsaw ghettos and miraculously escaped being sent to the concentration camps. He then spent several years in hiding–starving and utterly alone–trying to stay alive until the war ended. Once it did, Szpilman never left his homeland and continued playing the piano until his death in 2000. Brody tells us what inspired him most about the film and its real-life hero.

The Pianist is a very hard film to watch at times.

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Adrien Brody: It’s impossible to talk about that level of brutality. In civilized Europe, it just seems so impossible, so unbelievable, that people could have gone to such lengths of evil, such calculated cruelty. I think [The Pianist] is very unique, with the fact it focuses on an individual. It allows a closer connection with pain and suffering, because it’s easier to relate to an individual’s suffering much more than trying to comprehend the loss of 6 million Jews.

Also, there’s the fact Szpilman actually survives.

Brody: True, there are definitely elements of hope in the film. And it’s not in the least bit sentimental or untruthful. It seems very real but you’re removed enough to give it a great deal of thought. What I also think is really wonderful about the film is [Polanski’s] use of the passage of time through the eyes of Szpilman, showing how the Nazis were able to gain their power and how they manipulated people. Without dialogue, without anything–little reactions of what’s happening which gives the audience a chance to really experience things and feel like they’re there.

I heard Polanski looked high and low for someone to play Szpilman. How did this role come to you?

Brody: I was in Paris shooting another film, The Affair of the Necklace, when I got a call one day saying Roman Polanski wanted to have a meeting with me.

Just like that, huh? How did you react?

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Brody: [laughs] About exactly how you’d think I’d react. “Oh really? Hmmm. Rosemary’s Baby? Chinatown? That Roman Polanski?” I was very excited. So, I took a meeting with him. Invited him to a screening of another film I had done called Harrison’s Flowers. He came, miraculously. I really didn’t expect him to come. You invite people to your premieres and they don’t come, let alone a little screening. But he came with [The Pianist] producer. Had a beer with me afterwards. He’s fantastic. Such a wonderful, unique person. Full of energy, full of passion and enthusiasm. And I would have jumped at any opportunity to work with him.

This film also really meant something to him. [Editor’s Note: As a 7-year-old child, Polanski escaped the Krakow ghetto during the war, and his story has many parallels with Szpilman’s.]

Brody: It meant a lot to him. I think he has had similar focus and specificity with his other work, but this was special. Everything meant a lot to him and he didn’t let anything slip by. He expected a lot and I delivered a lot. I think Roman is the kind of individual that doesn’t tread lightly and doesn’t treat you with kid gloves. Everything is very upfront with him but we have a level of respect for one another. Even though I’d complain about something, I would always do it. Always. “You really need me to do this, to jump out of this?” and he’d say, “Just do it.” And I would never say no. It was a perfect relationship–he’d let me piss and moan about it and then I would go do whatever the hell it was he wanted me to do.

Is that how you like to work?

Brody: I really appreciate working with people who are that focused, that disciplined, who force me to be extremely disciplined. Although I think of myself being very focused in regards to my acting. I mean, acting is the one thing I probably connect to the most consistently. It has been around, besides my family, the longest in my life. So it means a great deal to me, the process, and all the possibilities and all the things I learn from it. Acting has taught me so much–it’s brought me to locations all over the world. I don’t just mean experiencing other times and qualities of human nature but, for example, just being alone and hungry in Warsaw for a long time and being really isolated, I learned from that. I isolated myself from everyone else, and then I come to a place like this [indicating the Miami hotel room where this interview took place] and it’s unreal. I’m in heaven. I’m probably dreaming. I’m still in Warsaw shooting this movie and suffering and I’m having a dream I’m here, on the beach, talking about what a wonderful experience it was!


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There were a few scenes when you’d play a ghost piano, just to help bring some normalcy to the situation. Perhaps that was Szpilman’s only joy through all that time–his music.

Brody: It had to be. In the process of the rehearsal, I had to lose 30 pounds for the role. I encouraged loneliness and the one thing that helped me out of that, that helped me escape was the piano playing. I had to learn it and it helped to transport me elsewhere. And that was wonderful because both of those things [losing weight and learning to play the piano] were technical things I had to do. And yet they enhanced a greater emotional connection to the role. So when I was locked in the room [as Szpilman] with a piano and I couldn’t play it, it was like I was with a lover I couldn’t touch. That’s how it felt to me. I felt she was the one for me and I wanted to be with her.

What was it like being the lone American on the set?

Brody: It was tricky, but I learned a lot. I felt very much part of the world. I also thought I represented the American actor well. Roman certainly had a perception about Hollywood actors. He wanted someone to really struggle and not care about the size of the trailer or whether there was fresh fruit…. It was not something I demanded. In fact, there was very little food. Just small amounts of protein just to make it through. I’d lock myself in the trailer when the rest were having lunch. When they came around with a piece of bread and sausage for the crew, I would run and hide. I didn’t even want to watch people eating…. There was a month and half when there wasn’t another actor on the set. The entire day, six days a week, I was playing a character at his most lonely, deprived state. And in between those scenes, I’d go back to my trailer and practice the piano and stay alone. There was no time to escape. I was exhausted, with my mind still holding on to this and my heart still connected to this sadness. It was very difficult, but I really appreciate more and more these days.

What do you think audiences will take away with them after seeing The Pianist?

Brody: There’s a lot you can learn if you’re open and perceptive. First of all, it reminds us of how much suffering comes along with war. And from that, I think we have to strive for peaceful resolutions, if possible. And war should be the last resort. Also, once again, it allows us to connect to one man’s journey, one man’s suffering. Hopefully, we are able to universalize that suffering. The experience for me made me very aware of the current suffering in the world today. To give a lot more consideration to people who are experiencing hunger, do not have shelter, are being persecuted.

Does the experience make you want to join up with a cause of some kind?

Brody: It’s interesting. It’s definitely inspiring me to do something. I’ve been on this whirlwind, worldwide press tour and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. And I’m sure things will be presented to me more [after doing The Pianist] and I’ll have more of a place, some impact, in spreading the word. That’s pretty exciting. Why not be helpful?

Do you think there’s a responsibility to help, if you can?

Brody: It’s your own prerogative. I don’t think just because you are in a position to do something, you should do something. But you’d think that if you are in the position to do something, and you’re capable and concerned about things in the world, then you should make some effort. I think you have a responsibility of what you put out in the universe, period. You spew out a lot of negativity, then you’re not helping anything. But if you try and bring goodness in the world, kindness, even on an individual level, like helping a complete stranger, than that is better than nothing. Not like this makes me the most wonderful guy for doing this, but the other day, I was running errands and I saw a guy with his hood up on the side of the road. I asked if he needed a jump and he did. It took all of five minutes on my part. He was so appreciative. But I’ve been in that position, so many times, asking for help because I’ve had piece-of-s**t cars breaking down on me my whole life. Just do it. Just be aware.

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